It's hard to believe now, but Eugene Peterson says he used to feel like the uncontemplative pastor, caught up in the moment, fixated on the mission statement. The Sixties were a hard time for anyone to gain a footing, but starting out as a pastor near Baltimore, Peterson says he was consumed by distractions and at odds with advisors who spoke urgently of demographics, strategies, goals, and other words that don't appear in Scripture.
Peterson's inspiration to pursue a less-traveled path came in a lecture by Swedish surgeon and author Paul Tournier at John Hopkins Hospital. Reading Tournier's books, Peterson was struck by his words; seeing him speak, he was struck by the continuity. "I had the feeling that what he was saying and who he was were absolutely congruent," Peterson said, in a lecture hosted by Christian Century magazine in downtown Chicago. "He was the same man as he was in his books … There was no pretense."
Some 40 years and 20 books (including The Contemplative Pastor) later, Peterson is the antithesis of a frantic, insecure shepherd, and his address may well have given listeners a similar epiphany about integrity and wisdom. Few are as fit as Peterson to give an address called "The Contemplative Christian in America." It is not just a title; it is appositional to his name.
Do not let the word "contemplative" throw you off, Peterson admonished. He is not interested in an isolated life spent pondering high-minded concepts. Instead, the contemplative Christian life can be described by what he saw in Tournier—a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance." One word that comes to mind is authenticity, but the one Peterson used over and over was congruence—the alignment of who you are and what you do, the harmony of the ends you seek and the means you use to achieve them.
Peterson invoked the classic Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," which was also the first half of his lecture's title, to bear this out. The vivid sonnet says that living beings were created to have Christ come alive in them. Note the source of this action, Peterson said. "Hopkins doesn't talk about achieving this congruence, but how it is achieved in us, when Christ lives in us."
This is not the triumphal self-motivated march toward sanctification in which many American Christians are caught up. "It's easier to talk about what Christians do—life as performance," Peterson said. But the three pieces of Jesus' fundamental declaration that he is the way, the truth, and the life, must be in perfect correspondence. "Only when we live Jesus' truth in Jesus' way do we get Jesus' life," Peterson said. Not his truth in our way for the sake of our life. Peterson speculated that America's current hunger for "spirituality"—which he earlier told the Century often "degenerates into a sloppy subjectivism"—may have been brought on by Christian leaders who say the right things but lack this coherent identity—"a life lived whole, with integrity, the inside and outside organic to one another."
The deeper problem, Peterson said, is that two things that are basic to the Christian life run counter to the American ethos. First, the Christian life is not about us, but about God. It is not like giving ourselves a makeover. "We're in on it, but we're not the subject or the action," Peterson said. Ever notice how in the Bible, we always come in after a preposition? God with us, in us, for us. In an individualistic, commercial culture, where the self is the center of everything, an autonomous agent of transformation, we have lost this grammar of shalom—what Peterson called "prepositional participation."
The second principle of the Christian life that runs against the grain of American culture, Peterson said, is that the ways and means must be appropriate to the ends. "We can't participate in God's work if we insist on doing it our own way." He cited two examples of "doing the right thing the wrong way": congregation and Scripture. We consider both to be our matters, not God's. Instead of forming communities that embody self-denial, sacrifice, and patience for God to become present in them, we form "consumer churches," using commercial methods to attract people and cater to their wants. And rather than reading Scripture as a way of "listening to God revealing God," we treat it as information for us to process to become more successful and enlightened people. In both cases, the ways and means—bowing to the gods of salesmanship and efficiency—are out of sync with the ends—forming a community of believers submitting to God's work within them.
These are familiar themes that bear tedious repeating in an impulsive culture. Coming from Peterson, they are anything but tedious. In The Message, his plainspoken translation of the Bible, Peterson captured the essence of Scripture with neither sanctimony nor glibness. This lucidity marked his address as well, though it was not without nuance. He introduced this baffling paradox of the Christian life. "This is slow work; it cannot be hurried. This is urgent work; it cannot be procrastinated." In American culture, in which "fast" is equated with "good," this is a contradiction. What's worse about the contemplative life, he told me afterwards, is that "most of the time you're unconscious of it. … The minute you start thinking about it, you mess it up; there's a sense of always having dissonance."
The most helpful metaphor for this tension, Peterson said at the end of his address, comes from a neighbor of his who developed a fascination with glaciers. They possess unstoppable force but move so slowly as to be imperceptible. They don't move an inch until they are 64 feet thick. Peterson didn't say this, but he suggested we could use more thickness in our lives and actions. Before long, he said, "the ice will begin to slide," and, as Hopkins envisioned in his sonnet, "we will see Christ in ten thousand places."
Nathan Bierma is Book & Culture's editorial assistant. He writes a weekly weblog for the B&C site.
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Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)