While on vacation I saw on my brother’s bookshelf a book by Gene Edward Veith entitled Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Intrigued, I read the introduction to see what it would cover and how exactly it would guide Christians into contemporary thought and culture. Toward the end of the introduction Veith makes this statement:
“The specific contributions of major figures of postmordern thought such as Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and others, I am skipping. Nor am I plunging into the technical details of critical theory, hermeneutics, or other highly specialized kinds of discourse postmodernists generally use to thrash out their ideas.”
I was quite shocked to read that a guide to contemporary thought would skip the very foundations of contemporary thought and culture. Veith announces that he will not be meeting the postmoderns on their terms, the terms that contemporary culture and thought are all based on, and thus ends engagement with real postmodernism and instead writes about the typical puffy popular version of postmodernism that is so welcoming to cheap shots from conservative critics.
Engagement is crucial not just to scholarship but to spiritual practices as well, because only in engagement can we grow in meaningful and powerful ways. In educational terms, engagement creates disequilibrium, when ideas seem not to make sense next to each other, and the student must then construct further knowledge in order to regain equilibrium. In this sense, refusing to engage with ideas, theology, and worship that are different from ours is a refusal to create disequilibrium and to create further knowledge about God.
Engagement as a spritual practice views difference as a moment of welcome instead of a moment of danger. For some conservative or fundamentalist critics, engagement is seen as dangerous interactions—fraternizing with the enemy, so to speak. Throughout the Judeo-Christian traditon though there is instead a strong ethic of welcoming: welcoming people into their camp, into their homes, to the table, etc. This ethic, in all its fullness, relates to thought and culture as well, because how can one eat and live with another and not have cultural interaction? Yet, within this Judeo-Christian tradition is also the constant reminder that the people of God should never compromise with the world or other cultures but instead always be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In this way engagement is a spiritual practice that allows us to interact with other ideas, to shape our minds, to renew ourselves through heady processes of faith and doubt, questioning and discernment, contemplation and fellowship. We grow spiritually when we have disequilibrium, which can be humble times of thought or eye opening engagements with thought and theology like Paul’s participation in Athenian philosophy or the visions Peter receives concerning food. These engagements are high moments of disequilibrium for both saints, and their wrestling with ideas makes them better Christians and influenced the spiritual lives of millions of Christians who would follow their teachings.
Engagement is not just a spiritual practice, but is in fact the essence of all spiritual practices, for in our engagement with God, with ourselves, with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and with others we are constantly being shaped through prayer, Scripture reading, worship, liturgy, theology, sacraments, and fellowship. Engagement is what makes things sacred, because engagement is constantly calling us away from our status quo and into spiritual growth.
We just need to begin to notice how we engage: are our engagements healthy? amiable? disruptive? rude? envious? angry? hate-filled? loving? compassionate? understanding? And do we ever stop, be silent, and recognize we are constantly in spiritual engagement throughout the day?