Which is greater: action or contemplation? Which is more excellent and therefore more central and determinative in human flourishing? A life of action—focused outward in service of humanity and exterior, public, practiced love? Or a life of contemplation—focused inward in reflection and meditation and communion with God, a private, interior castle of wisdom?
You might be quick to point out that it's a false dilemma and of course we need both. But this is quite an old conundrum in both the history of philosophy and the history of Christianity and it continues to find expression in contemporary life as we struggle with the idea of personal morality and social justice.
The world today is as broken a place as ever; individual people are as broken as ever—and what will heal us? Meditation and mindfulness and prayer? Or doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly?
If the answer is in fact both, what unites the contemplative life with active life in your life?
Today on the show, Sameer Yadav joins us for a conversation on mysticism, activism, and wonder. He explains the history of thinking about these jointly necessary elements of human flourishing, understanding the terms in relation to spirituality and contemporary activism, and drawing together two thinkers from different cultures and times: the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa and the spiritual father of the American Civil Rights movement, Howard Thurman. They share fascinating perspectives on what it means to be human, the need for cooperative caretaking as a reflection of God's relation to the world, and an attentiveness to wonder as a hinge between the contemplative and active life, with lasting implications for everything from interpersonal relationships, to democracy, to ecological care.
- This podcast featured Sameer Yadav
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Martin Chan & Nathan Jowers
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
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Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Sameer Yadav: The mystic's concern with the imperative of social action is not merely to improve the condition of society. It's not merely to feed the hungry, not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If that were all, in and of itself that would be important, surely. But that's not all. The basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the individual. Anything that prevents God from coming to himself within, in the life of the individual, whatever there is that blocks this, that's what calls for action. So the central concern of the mystic is to seek to remove anything that prevents the individual from free and easy access to what Thurman calls his own altar, the altar in his own heart, that altar in her own heart. And therefore, from his point of view, social action is never an end in and of itself. It is for the sake of God's life manifest in oneself.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Question, which is greater, action or contemplation? That is, which is more excellent and therefore more central and determinative in human flourishing? A life of action, focused, outward in service of humanity and exterior, public, practiced love, or the life of contemplation, focused, inward in reflection and meditation, communion with God, a private interior castle of wisdom?
You might be quick to point out that it's a false dilemma. And of course we need both, but this is quite an old conundrum in both the history of philosophy and the history of Christianity. And it continues to find expression in contemporary life as we struggle with the idea of personal morality and social justice. The world today is as broken a place as ever. Individual people are as broken as ever. What will heal us? Meditation and mindfulness and prayer, or doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly? And if the answer is in fact both, what unites contemplative life with active life in your life?
Today in the show, Sameer Yadav joins me for a conversation on mysticism, activism, and wonder. Sameer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College, and specializes in systematic and philosophical theology, theology and race, mysticism and religious experience.
Sameer explains the history of thinking about these jointly necessary elements of human flourishing, understanding the terms in relation to spirituality and contemporary activism, and draws together two thinkers from different cultures and times, the Capadocian father, Gregory of Nyssa, and the spiritual father of the American civil rights movement, Howard Thurman. Each shares fascinating perspectives with the other on what it means to be human, the need for cooperative caretaking as a reflection of God's relation to the world and an attentiveness to wonder as a hinge between contemplative and active life, with lasting implications for everything from interpersonal relationships, to democracy, to ecological care.
Sameer, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.
Sameer Yadav: Thanks Evan, glad to be here.
Evan Rosa: So when you look at the Christian tradition historically, two ways that Christian theologians have described the Christian life is contemplative and active, and mystical life, um, mystics are thought to be reclusive sometimes. They sort of pull away from society, even if it's for society's spiritual benefit, right? It's through prayer and through direct experience with God that those mystics are doing what they're doing. And then contrast that with the more active side, you've got prophets who engage society. They seek out public life. They're operating in it, like, this different mode of speech, not prayer but prophecy and truth-telling.
So, I wonder if we could start just by trying to talk about those mutual elements of the Christian life and try to dispel some of the, the idea that they're at odds.
Sameer Yadav: You know, it's a difficult and complicated thing precisely because, as you mentioned, there are so many ways of tracking down and understanding the kind of more active, prophetic, and activist dimension of Christian spirituality, and then on the other hand, the contemplative, the inner. I think there are ways of thinking about each one of these dimensions that has its own ecology of practices, you might say, or paradigms for thinking. And some of them are genuinely incompatible. So there are aspects that you can find in Christian tradition in which you see, like, you know, a kind of contemplation that rejects the active life in a way that makes it difficult to see how activism becomes possible. So, a kind of, you know, Christian taking on of the platonic tradition of the flight of the alone to the alone, and the idea of a kind of almost, you know, elitist way of thinking about the inner life of the self in a way of thinking about spiritual relations with God.
And I guess I would say on the other hand, you might say the same thing about the activist kind of notion, one that prioritizes so much a form of prophetic critique that it doesn't have a vision for the inner life, or the place of the inner life gets lost.
But among those kind of splintering and diverging paths, there are also converging paths for thinking about these two things. And so, we can think about the ways in which they feed into each other in terms of a kind of coordination of the inner life and the outer life, such that one's relationship to God in the world, and God's own manifestations in the world, requires a kind of responsiveness that takes a form of reflectiveness, or contemplation, or a way of resting in God and reflecting on one's life in God in a way that works itself out through the active life.
Evan Rosa: I wonder if you would maybe offer some basic definitions for how you would conceive of the active versus the contemplative. Cause that's... I mean, because of the distinction and understanding its mutual interdependence, what falls under activism or action, and what falls under contemplation or mysticism for you?
Sameer Yadav: The distinction between an active life and a contemplative life goes back, fairly far back in the tradition. So, you know, Origen of Alexandria, the second century, framed the idea of active versus contemplative in relationship to Mary and Martha, that story about Mary and Martha, and the distinction between, you know, sitting at the feet of Jesus in silent listening and in adoration, versus the active work of service. And then some people think about the way in which they grow, sort of, into separate branches, so that each one takes on a bit of a life of its own. So by the time you get to the high medieval period, for example, you've got theoretical and reflective theology that grows into this Scholastic tradition, university theology you might say, versus the spirituality that is about the active life and works of charity and things like that, being something different.
But all throughout their tradition, these are seen as necessary, two necessary components to a whole Christian life, such that, for example, there are certain things you can't properly understand, no experience, apart from a certain kind of formation that comes out of action and activities. So, you know, our response to the world around us is in some sense governed by our conception of what it's like. And so the relationship between the imagination, this sort of capacity for a picture of things, in relationship to the world is one side, but then the other side is responding to it. And then the ways that we respond to our conception of the way things are changes the way we respond in action. So they feed into each other.
Evan Rosa: Who do you look to in the Christian tradition as influential or formative for your perspectives on the nexus of Christian mysticism and Christian activism?
Sameer Yadav: For me, there are a lot of different figures whose framing of these questions have been really important for me. Gregory of Nyssa is probably the most formative for my own thinking about these things, but then also Howard Thurman has been really important for me. And they both... I see continuity between actually these two figures.
Gregory of Nyssa is a fourth century church father who's a Bishop of Nyssa in Capadocia, so modern-day Turkey. He along with his elder brother, Basil of Cesarea, and then their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were commonly regarded as Capadocian fathers. And Gregory was someone whose thinking about the Christian life is very eclectic. He draws from a lot of different philosophical traditions, Aristotelian and Stoic and Platonic and so on. And he learned philosophy informally from his brother, his older brother, from Basil of Cesarea, but for him...
So he takes a kind of Greek philosophical way of thinking about reflection, contemplation on the good and the true and the beautiful. But for him, he has a distinctively Christian way of understanding how that works. And for him, it's very closely tied to formation in virtue. So for him, there is no real separation between responding to and contemplating God as the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty, and God's pouring out of Godself, God's manifestation in the world.
So the goodness, truth, and beauty that we find in the world is a kind of a reflection of the work of God that is a self manifestation or expression of God that we respond to, such that when we respond to one another, we are formed internally by our responding to one another and to the world. We're actually thereby forming in ourselves a kind of connection to God and God's self-expression. So for Gregory, the formation of virtue, the inner life, is something that's cultivated precisely by way of engagement with the world understood as it exists in God. So that's Gregory.
And I think Howard Thurman has a very similar kind of picture. Well, Howard Thurman is an early 20th century black theologian, and churchman. He's a minister who was really deeply influential on Martin Luther King, Jr. When Thurman was a chaplain at Boston University, MLK was a doctoral student. So he was formative in his thinking, and he is sometimes referred to as kind of the spiritual father of the Civil Rights Movement, because so much of his thinking undergirded a way of thinking about the inner and the outer in protest movements, and activism.
Evan Rosa: And resistance. Yeah.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah, yeah. So, Thurman actually, in '78 I think it was, gave a lecture called mysticism and social action. And so he tries to make explicit this connection between the inner and the outer in exactly the kind of way that I'm describing in Nyssa.
The idiom for Thurman, he says, "The mystic's concern with the imperative of social action is not merely to improve the condition of society. It's not merely to feed the hungry, not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If that were all, in and of itself that would be important, surely. But that's not all. The basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the individual. Anything that prevents God from coming to himself within, in the life of the individual, whatever there is that blocks this, that's what calls for action."
So the central concern of the mystic is to seek to remove anything that prevents the individual from free and easy access to what Thurman calls his own altar, the altar in his own heart, or her own heart. And therefore, from his point of view, social action is never an end in and of itself. It is for the sake of that God's life manifest in oneself.
Evan Rosa: In the individual. But you can imagine how so many things, even outside of oneself, social structures, environments, social contexts, other people, can regularly act as an obstacle for, in Thurman's words, right, for God to find Godself in the individual.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. And cause the flip side of this for Thurman is the idea that there's a kind of coordination between the altar of God in the individual, and what he calls the beloved community. So the language of beloved community that you find in Christian Civil Rights thinkers like King, and so on, actually, has a source in Thurman's way of thinking about the social body that's projected by the life of God in the coordination of individual lives with one another.
One of the other continuities that I see in Nyssa and Thurman is about really what humans are, like, what is a human being? The interesting thing about Gregory is he has this, what we would probably regard as a strange metaphysics of the human person. That is to say a strange way of thinking how to define what humans really are. He thinks of humanity as one substance. So to be human is to be a participant in one substance that's stretched throughout time, kinda like, you know, in evolutionary biology, how you can give what is sometimes called a phylogenetic... it's a replication definition or a reproduction definition of a thing.
Well, that's how Nyssa thinks about what a human is. And because of that, he thinks that really humanity is literally one. And so Thurman actually wants to think as well in terms of human oneness, and this deep metaphysical way that he finds from the mystical tradition, so that the altar of the heart of the individual is actually inexplicably connected to the altar of every other individual's heart, so that we, so that they are connected.
Evan Rosa: How would you describe the importance of anthropology for the question of contemplation and action? What is the importance of understanding human nature for coming up with an answer to the relation between contemplation and action?
Sameer Yadav: I think that, at least in a Christian vision, anthropology is the necessary correlate for thinking about God's relationship to the world.
So we don't have God's, you know... both in Nyssa and in Thurman, I emphasized this idea that God is present in, with, and through the world. And so our... you might talk about direct experience with God, but there's a difference between talking about a direct experience with God, just without qualification, and a direct experience with God as God is mediated through things.
So that's kind of like what some philosophers would call a mediated immediacy. You know? So there's a difference, for example, between, say, if you see a airplane flying through the sky, and it's got a contrail, you know, like it's a little fuel trail, and you don't see the airplane, but you see the trail of fuel, you might say that there's a kind of mediacy going on. You're only aware of the airplane indirectly because you're aware of the trail it leaves behind, right? That's different than the mediation that comes... the kind of immediate mediacy, where the thing itself is actually what's coming through it's medium.
And so that is... that would be something much more like what I'm trying to describe, where God is actually manifest in and through the world. So the powers and the goodness, the properties of goodness and beauty and so on in the world, are actually divine, from God, because the world, you know, as Paul, Saint Paul puts it, lives and moves and has it's being in God.
Evan Rosa: That way of describing it in terms of the world living and moving and having it's being in God, you've... I think, I take it... you've described the imaginative or contemplative side. How would you frame this conversation from the active side?
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. The way that I think about the relationship between a certain picture of God's being in the world, God's self-manifestation in the world, and our activity in relationship to it, has to do with a way of thinking about our imaging of God, our reflection of the way God relates to the world. So what it is to be human, this oneness of humanity, what it is to be human in relationship to the world, is to be a reflection or a mirror of God's own relationship to creatures, to all creatures. And that relationship is best described as a kind of caretaking. And so, there's a form of cooperative care-taking that humanity as one sort of manifests when it comes to itself in the... when God's life comes to itself in the life of the human, it's manifested as a form of cooperative care for one another and for God's creatures.
So this idea that when we're... the way that we respond to God isn't just any kind of response, that it's a kind of imitation, an imitation of God's care for creatures in our own care for creatures and to do... so therefore, attentiveness is really important. To attend to the way in which God cares for creation is to take our cues for how we are to care for one another and all creatures.
Evan Rosa: Yea, that caretaking metaphor, it sounds like there's a kind of stewardship model of understanding the world that we're placed in, in the world that we're a part of. So I can see, again, the sense in which understanding humanity as one, deeply connected, is going to motivate the way you think about caring for...
So it seems like, on the contemplative side, there is understanding our nature. And then on the active side, there is responding to that, responding to the implications of that.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. And I think that there is this kind of call and response, call and response kind of structure to the way that we think about active and contemplative in both of these thinkers, and in the way, at least, in the way I appropriate them.
And in between, what kind of mediates between call and response is attention. So you can't properly respond without attention, without the kind of attention of the sort that, you know, Simone Weil talks about, the kind of attention that the Christian mystical tradition, is just described as contemplation.
Contemplation isn't, or at least needn't be, thought of as attention as a kind of meditative trance-like state, or something like that, that removes us from things. Or, even the kind of, the kind of self-indulgent picture of the mystic that we kind of get, that seems to be sometimes more privatistic and the flight of the alone to the alone. You know, that's not, I don't think that's what you find in these figures when they think about what contemplation is or how it works.
Evan Rosa: You know, I don't know if you've noticed this, but I seem to see that in a lot of the self-help literature these days, attention is getting a lot more attention. So everyone from Sam Harris in, you know, his waking up platform, to productivity, gurus who are trying to, you know, help people just work better and be more productive, there's a lot more discussion of the economy of our attention, how what we pay attention to is driving a lot of our experience of the world, our experience of our own work and our experience of improving it, trying to make it better. Say a little bit more about how you understand spiritual attention and maybe social attention to come at it from, again, the mystical side and the active.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. Yeah. I think that this does direct us towards affect and the emotions, and towards a certain kind of moral formation as well.
So you might think of it like this. Sometimes when we think of the perceptual faculties of attention, we tend to think of... in narrowly perceptual terms, like what we see, you know, the five senses and that kind of thing. And then we bracket that from other kinds of things that are actually relevant, like not just emotional structure, which is something that colors the way that things come into us through our five senses, so not just emotion, but also virtue or moral formation. The way that we perceive things, even in the narrow sense of perception, is shaped by the kind of person we are. So what shows up to us has a lot of different complicated inputs.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Yeah. The same event to a virtuous person is going to come off quite a bit different to a vicious person.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. I mean, to take an example, if you take a vicious person and a compassionate person, `and they're both viewing the event of somebody kicking a dog, it's not just that one is going to have a different sort of reflective evaluation to stand back and go, "I believe that is incorrect or wrong or whatever." It's actually going to have a different qualitative, or phenomenological, or characteristic, from one person to the next.
Yeah. And some of that is emotional, but it's not just emotional. What you're able to see about the suffering of the dog, what you're able to hear about ... you know, those things might actually have a difference in salience, or clarity, or... what shows up, what comes through, is going to be different for those two different people, and in all of the registers.
Evan Rosa: Right. And you can be trained, then, to see realities, and it turns out how you're formed will influence the way that you perceive reality.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. Yeah. That's absolutely, that's what my whole first book is about, is about that idea and how uncontroversial it ought to be. So I think that attention, then, is about a lot of inputs of formation.
And I think the emotion of wonder is particularly important. As part of our formation of attentiveness. Because wonder is a kind of interest in something that is directed on the final value of that thing, not it's usefulness, not so much its usefulness or instrumental value, but rather its final value, its goodness of itself. In wonder the final value of the thing that we wonder at, the object, the wondrous thing, appears to us as mysterious, something that challenges our fixed frameworks for understanding the thing that we're looking at or thinking about or wondering at, and also... So it's not just that it's mysterious. It's also attractive. That is to say we're drawn towards the mystery of this thing. So when you wonder it's something you're interested in finding out about it. You are cognizant, highly cognizant of your ignorance about it, and you recognize it to be of import, of significant, importance. So that is what makes something wonderous.
The feelings, the feelings that come from wonder, are principally those of exaltation and humility at once. Exalted, you feel a exaltation and a humility. So that kind of complex, that emotional complex of responding to things, of wondering at something, represents it as outside of your instrumental control, as placing you in a position of something coming from beyond your sphere of concern, it's outside of your normal sphere of concern, but one that demands a certain kind of respect.
Evan Rosa: Hmm. So there's a sense in which the way you describe the emotion of wonder, that it acts kind of like a hinge between contemplation and action, kind of like a mediator between them. Is that right?
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. So, there are a lot of interesting ways in which wonder mediates between the kind of contemplation that we might have on God, God's relationship to the world, and on the other hand, our responsiveness towards it. So, one way to think about this is to say that wonder is different than awe in that oftentimes awe can shade into terror, and the kind of terror that comes from awe is one that is repulsive rather than attractive. It makes you want to get away from it.
Whereas wonder has an attractive dimension. And so, there's a sense in which the kinds of responsiveness that wonder motivates is not servile. It's not the kind that cowers, the kind of wonder that tinges towards awe can actually have an authoritarian dimension to it. That is to say, it's one that responds out of fear, but the way wonder is different, distinctively different, it's what differentiates fear from respect. So the way this relates to God, one another, creatures, I think has even some empirically interesting responses.
So there's a... Mary Douglas is a sociologist, sort of well known sociologist, who actually hypothesizes a kind of relationship between God and groups. So that is to say, the way that we relate to God actually does have an empirically significant correlation to the way we respond to one another. And so, if our relationship to God is regarded as more authoritarian and servile, and our awe or fear or wonder at God is like that, then it tends to correlate to a certain way of responding to one another in motivations that are similar to that.
So we tend to impose a certain kind of order. We tend to have a certain kind of respect for authority that's dominated by fear and a servile perspective. And that tends towards a certain kind of in-group out-group dynamics in our relationships to one another, that is motivated by that paradigm, that affective paradigm.
Well, wonder is actually different, exactly different in this way. So that the kind of wonder that I've been describing here, if we think about our relationship to God in this kind of wonder, then it also motivates correspondingly a kind of relationship to one another, and to human difference, in a kind of God-group relationship that similarly maintains a kind of attraction, and respects a sense of exaltation and humility, including epistemic humility, humility about what we can know or control about another, that is still a form of attraction. So one that seeks interest, union, to move toward rather than away from, but without attempting to control or change.
Evan Rosa: So how do you see the... with that characterization of wonder, how do you see that having an impact on trying to make social change, where you are both recognizing a kind of love for, or attraction to, appreciating the deep value in the other, and also aware of the limited nature of our control in that situation as you describe it?
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. Yeah. So, there have been philosophers who have noticed this kind of moral significance, that wonder is a moral emotion, and the significance of it, and the uniqueness of it as a moral emotion. Martha Nussbaum is one. In her Upheavals of Thought, she talks about wonder as precisely important because of this idea of something... being able to recognize something outside of our sphere of concern, that might be of value, that we must respect and take account of, that can have significance for the way we think about democracy, for example, democratic virtue.
But also in terms of ecology. So, you know, another philosopher, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, talks about the way in which our ecological responsibility is unlikely to be met purely out of a sense of duty. That is, when we think about our duties to one another and to the natural order that we inhabit primarily in terms of like survival, and this is what we gotta do, or else we're all screwed, this kind of thing, then it actually doesn't... we don't find it motivating much in the way of the kinds of personal and social transformation needed to engage that work. Whereas what we do find is that the first and most important kind of transformation required for one to recognize oneself as responsible in this way, is actually to wonder at the natural order and our place in it.
Yeah. I mean, it's one way in which we can recognize the need to preserve rather than destroy, or contaminate the final value of the thing, this mysterious final value of things that we can come to recognize or attend to. That is to say, there's a sort of sacredness that comes through in our recognition of wonder, and that gives rise to the need for preservation and care, to slow down, to question ourselves.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, to just continually ask the question, or really, to cultivate the emotional affective response of, you know, "what is the appropriate response to this sacred thing before me?" Whether it's, you know, the natural environment, another creature, the neighbor, stranger, enemy in front of me, and just wonder and be drawn to it, before rushing to cognitive judgment or blind reaction.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. That's exactly right. And that is, and that's a great sort of segue into recognizing how wonder as an emotion fits into some, as we were talking about, for some metaphysical pictures, some wider framework, imagination for thinking about reality, because wonder is not a magic emotion. That is to say, it's not something that in and of itself, separated from some picture of the final ends of all things and our relationship to the world, apart from some imagination, some specifiable imagination, like that, wonder can also be dangerous.
So, Alex Nava is a religious studies scholar who has got, I think it's a 2013 University of Pennsylvania Press book. It's a great book called, I think it's called Wonder and Exile. And it's about the way in which the colonial imagination, say Columbus, it was driven by wonder, by the wonder of discovery, the wonder of new places and new people.
And there's also a lot of work on sort of the historical conceptions of wonder. I think Daston and Park has a, multi-volume sort of his history of wonder. And these works attempt to talk about the ways in which wonder goes wrong, you might say, and the ways in which it goes wrong have to do with the ways in which a form of attention is turned in and towards an imagination, a wider imagination, for one's being in the world, in relationship to the world, in which that personal formation becomes part of the creation of the virtues of a certain kind of person, a certain kind of person who belongs in the world in a certain kind of way. Which is why I think that this picture of cooperative caretakers, and a particular Christian image of one's place in the world, that one gets from a Christian story about humans and the way they image God's own relationship to the world, is so important to fill out and to make sense of, so that we can recognize the ways in which certain sort of emotions understood, or virtues, or whatever, all understood in an atomized way, actually have, when they're put together, unless they're put together according to a proper schema, they can look very scary. They can become not the kind of person that we would think we ought to hope to be, to be kind of the formation that we pursue or opt to pursue.
Evan Rosa: What does it look like to see the world of injustice through the attentiveness of the mystic?
Sameer Yadav: Yeah. Um, that's a profound question and, uh, there's a sense in which, you know, I can give a, um, a kind of answer to that that is resonant with a lot of the way mistakes. Think about. The way that we perceive, uh, God in and through the world.
So I can talk about, for example, you know, the way King, what motivates King's perspective on non-violence that he draws from the Gandhian kind of ahimsa principle of nonviolence, which has to do with this idea of seeing God manifest in and through the oppressor as well as oppressed. Even if that manifestation comes... looks differently, demands different response, we have to recognize the way that God is manifest in the oppressor and the way that the oppressor's own humanity is distorted and disfigured by way of their oppression. And then in a sense in which we can regard the oppressor as victimized by their participation in and being caught up in systems of oppression.
Evan Rosa: Morally injured by it.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah, exactly. And so the notion of moral injury is kind of parasitic upon some prior understanding of health. And so if we understand God's being manifested through this oneness of humanity, and oppression as a way of injuring precisely that, a failure of allowing God to be manifest in the unity of human being by way of their oppression, then we can... that changes our stance and so on.
But I say that I can, you know, we can give examples of the Gandhian and King's way of thinking about this, but there's a sense in which this is dependent upon one's own virtue. And so what I mean by that is, my perspective is colored by the fact that I'm... that I'm no King, and I'm no Gandhi. And what that means is that a certain perspective on our ability to see the world according to this paradigm, or this picture of contemplation, is one that requires our own transformation. So what kind of person you are and what kind of person you have become through the practice of seeing and responding, of call and response to the world, it gives you a greater capacity to see greater capacity for vision and for understanding and for response. And so, there's a sense in which, you know, you would get a better response from somebody who's better at this than I am.
Evan Rosa: Fair enough. And we're all, I mean, in that sense, we all pale in comparison perhaps.
Sameer Yadav: It's like something Hauerwas says, right? He says the reason he's a pacifist is because he's such a violent SOB. The reason I'm a mystic, the reason I'm a mystic, a mystic activist is because I have dispositions that I'm painfully aware of, fall far short of the ideals that that commitment entails
Evan Rosa: That's right. But let us also admit that we have to fake it until we make it. And so, I mean that, this is a really a nice segue to talk about what some of those practices are. Right? Because there are recommendations from the Gandhian tradition, from the civil rights activist tradition of the mid 20th century, of which King is a part and Thurman was a predecessor to.
There are practices recommended to the activists who are participating, for instance, in the early civil rights movement, that though they are not Gandhi or King, they are invited into those practices as a mode of their activism that allows them to see the oppressor in a particular way, that allows them to see the events in a particular way. What can you say about some of those practices?
Sameer Yadav: What we're really talking about when we talk about practices is about the formation of dispositions. I mean, this is one way in which I think, one of the reasons thinking in these kinds of terms about the cultivation of a capacity for wonder, I find to be a more helpful way of understanding mystical experience, than the way it's sometimes understood, which is sort of like to think about mystical experiences as a flash of light, you know, or a kind of event-based kind of experience.
Evan Rosa: We're being caught up in a kind of a cloud of spiritual experience.
Sameer Yadav: Yeah, exactly. Rather than to think about it as a disposition that is formed through long and steady practices of a life of contemplation. And therefore, what happens in certain moments or circumstances is those dispositions are squeezed out of you by.... in response.
So, you know, what sort of practices of body and mind are required? One very simple kind of way of thinking about this is to think about the cultivation of wonder as requiring certain forms of engagement with one another and with the natural world. I think of those who work on ecological ethics, for example, and ecological justice, and the attempt to work on policy matters, in that respect. And what some working on this have discovered is that it's really through positive engagements with the natural world that produced a sense of wonder through exposure, through context, putting oneself in circumstances in which one is faced with the natural world for the sake of attending to it, rather than getting something done by way of it, that produces a certain kind of wonder.
And that that motivates, you know, the desire for conservation and things like this, more than kind of the negative enforcements of existential threat, you know, from ecological decline, the decimation or whatever, such that the human species will be eradicated, and out of a fear of that one works towards policy. And it's I think a corollary thing we can say about wonder and putting oneself in circumstances in which one has opportunity to attend to the sort of wondrousness of the human, of human persons and circumstances that allow one to confront other people for the purposes of attending to them, rather than getting something done.
Experiences of that sort, of mutual understanding of that sort, can actually create conditions for viewing one another, dispositions for viewing one another, with primary focus on attention to one person's sort of intrinsic human dignity, as something that conditions whatever instrumental desires one has an engaging one another. Right. So, how does this happen? Well, that depends. That depends on your social location. So there's some justice and injustice questions bound up in our very opportunities that are afforded us in this regard.
And so it's one way that activism and contemplation are tied, and sometimes activism is an activism that's geared towards creating the conditions for the possibility that afford people the opportunity for the attention and engagement that makes contemplation possible.
Evan Rosa: Sameer, I feel like that is a really wonderful place to wrap up. We need more of this kind of thinking about exploring the holistic nature between contemplation and activism in a way that draws people into it, that places it within the broader context of what it means to live a flourishing human life, and appreciate both the historical elements of the Christian tradition, as well as situate it and contextualize it in the real problems that we have today.
So, thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts on how to connect these things together.
Sameer Yadav: Well, thank you, Evan.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologians, Sameer Yadav. Production assistance by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.Yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek.
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