The Demon of the Practical

In our last post we discussed the first “lens” of enlightenment pagan thought; that of “critical thinking.” There is, of course, a “bright side” to critical thinking in that the questioning of ideas, systems of thought, and authority structures is a good and healthy use of our God-given reason. We need to do this prayerfully so as to grow out of our own little “boxes” and grow into the vast territories of spiritual realities that God invites us to. However, critical thinking can so easily be tinged with a non-believing spirit, an incredulity, that can keep us in our own little boxes of though and experience. It is very subtle, and can even pass for right Christian thinking. For instance, we can so easily block out the study of the great mystical literature of Christian thought, such as St. John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila, purely on the basis of our critical mindset biased against even the term “mysticism.” Our critical thinking keeps us from expanding out of our modes of thought conditioned by our culture.

This introduces us to the second lens of enlightenment thinking, that of “practicality.” The 18th century enlightenment philosophers tended to be deists, agnostics, or atheists. Whatever they were, they were materialists who rejected all the energy of previous centuries that was devoted to theological reflection on the basis that it was all impractical. They were enamored by all the scientific discoveries of the time, and valued only those things that had immediate practical results. This attitude seems so innocent, but it is dangerous, for it undermines deep spiritual development. It has thoroughly made its way into contemporary Christian mindset, and even exulted as a virtue. We hear it in the saying “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.” Our demand for immediate results is non biblical and pagan in origin. It is, in fact, a demon that drives us into frenzy and promotes superficiality.

Of course, there is a bright side to the practical as there is to critical thinking. A spirituality that does not produce fruit is condemned by the Bible. However, the fruit of the spirit most often comes from long periods of contemplation, prayer, reading, and meditating over what has been read. Sometimes, this process takes years before anything seems to come of it. It is deemed totally impractical by our western mindset. We have become too impatient for these spiritual disciples, and throw ourselves into programs, corporation models for success, and whatever else to yield assured and quick results. The truth of the matter is that if we become truly heavenly minded, it is only then that we are of any earthly good. We have to take the long journey inside before we can go outside and change the world.

It is a curious fact of the spiritual life that those who have gone off into the desert or have sought prayerful isolation so as to come to a deep understanding of themselves and to meet God, that people come to seek them out for both practical and spiritual advice. (Take a look at Peter France’s “Hermits: The Insights of Solitude” [St. Martin’s Press, 1996] for examples of this phenomenon.)

Any thoughts on this? Do you agree that practicality is promoted as a virtue in a way that it undermines deep Christian spirituality? Yes, no, maybe?

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