Meditation is viewed with suspicion within many wings of modern Protestantism today. Begin to mention the spiritual discipline of contemplation and immediately accusations or apprehensions that one has imported or smuggled in foreign notions from Eastern philosophies, Buddhism, or less-than-Evangelical mystical pieties start to be leveled. Indeed, at times this isn’t too far off the mark. In our pluralistic culture there is much that passes for Christian spirituality is little more than cleverly-disguised syncretism. And yet, it would be a mistake to miss the need to recover the contemplative dimension to Christian spirituality in our stressed-out, surface-level, consumeristic North American Christianity.
This is why I have been so blessed as I read John Jefferson Davis’ recent work Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction. In this short, but rich essay, Davis argues and provides a theological foundation for a robust practice of contemplating scripture within an orthodox Evangelical framework. Instead of the mind-emptying techniques rooted in Advaita Hinduism, or Zen Buddhism, Davis wants to present a vision of the soul-expanding practice of deeply contemplating the riches of biblical truth in such a way that actually mediates the life of God himself in union with the Son by the power of the Spirit of the Age to Come.
Aside from the fact that the Reformed tradition, especially Puritanism, has long had a rich tradition of scriptural contemplation including such lights as John Owen, Thomas Watson, William G.T. Shedd, and others, Davis notes six current factors which make recovering a practice scriptural contemplation urgent and beneficial:
- Renewal of interest in spiritual disciplines within Evangelicalism. (pg. 10)
- Growing interest in Eastern practices of meditation within a pluralistic context. (pg. 13)
- Widespread biblical illiteracy in North American churches. (pg. 18)
- Our growing awareness of the effects of the digital age on attention spans and reading habits. (pg. 21)
- New research on the effects of meditation on the brain and personal health. (pg. 25)
- Trend in biblical and systematic theology which have yet to be integrated into a theology of contemplating Scripture. (pg. 28)
As I read Davis outline his case, I found myself vigorously nodding in agreement, particularly as I thought of my own ability to simply sit down and read the book without compulsively checking my social media. If there is one thing our “distracted” age needs, it is something that forces them to sit down, breath, and think. I don’t think anybody would dispute that. The question becomes then, what are these theological foundations?
Davis devotes most of the rest of the essay to developing a theology of contemplation in light of three key theological developments:
- Inaugurated Eschatology (pp. 34-41)- NT scholars for the past couple of generations have highlighted eschatology as the warp and woof of the theology of the NT. Jesus preached the inbreaking kingdom of God which was “now” here and “not yet” fully consummated. Paul taught that through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the powers of the New Age had broken into the Old Age of sin and darkness and were available to us in the Spirit. The Old Covenant having been fulfilled, judgment rendered, victory accomplished, the Spirit is now poured out on all flesh drawing us near into a new access to the Father by grace.
- Union with Christ (pp. 41-51)- Connected to this is a renewed emphasis on the reality of our union with Christ. The idea that salvation ought to be thought of in terms of our current union with Christ saves us from a purely-future notion of redemption. Even now we are united to the risen Christ and all of his saving benefits, even though we are not yet fully like him. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ in faith and makes us present to him, even though we are separated in space and time because of the inbreaking of the New Age.
- Trinitarian Theology (pp. 51-55) – Finally, the 20th Century renaissance of trinitiarian theology has reminded us of a few key realities: knowing God as he truly is–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–can only help remind us of the fact that we can have personal relations with this personal God (1); having been made in the image of the Triune God, we are inherently relational beings which has implications for our ideas of personal existence and knowing (2); salvation is inherently trinitarian in nature as we are being brought into the life of the Triune God (3).
Building on these Davis develops them into a re-hauled “inaugurated ontology” that generates insights into our theology of God, cosmos, humanity, salvation, epistemology, and scripture that sets up a new way of understanding what is going one when we read the Bible. We are actually being brought into the presence of and communion with the Triune God through the power of the Spirit who unites us to the Risen Christ. This brief theological outline forms the basis of his rehabilitation of the Medieval Church’s practice of the four-fold interpretation of Scripture, which he believes ought to play an important role in the life of the church, especially in spiritual contemplation of scripture, even while we hang on to the real insights gained by the Reformers’ renewed emphasis on the “literal” sense of the text. Finally, after all of this, he includes a section outlining an actual approach towards a scriptural meditation which includes exercises in “whole-brain” reading and prayer.
A Couple of Final Words
While I’ve enjoyed this book immensely, I’d just add a few words of caveat and warning: this isn’t the easiest book. It’s not the hardest, either. Just realize that it isn’t just a nice little handbook on contemplation. Some background in theology and biblical studies will be helpful in reading it. Also, he has some interesting little philosophical sections on the idea of the self and its location in space; they’re fine as far as they go, but don’t worry about skipping them.
I tell you this now because overall this is an excellent little book. Davis has done the church a real service in working through some of the real theological issues involved in contemplation. Davis’ work assures us that we can be confident that Christ is really present to us, by the power of the Spirit of the New Age, in the reading of Scripture. Slow, prayerful meditation on the Biblical text can be a real means of communion with the Triune God.
Soli Deo Gloria