Advent watchfulness and Evangelical Inattentiveness…
Advent is a season of waiting and watchfulness. It is also an opportunity to examine what we are inattentive to as Christians. ‘Evangelical Inattentiveness’ is a phrase coined by Christopher Hall talking about our lack of engagement with ancient Christian voices.(1) I think we can find Evangelical inattentiveness in other areas as well, and the interesting question is why? In asking that question I am not looking to be judgemental, but to invite Evangelicals as a community to self-examination, a biblical concept for community not just individuals. The early contemplatives sought to replace judgemental attitudes with a clear seeing they called dioraris.(2) This is what I am looking to apply in this area of Evangelical inattentiveness.
I am aware that Evangelicals have been inattentive toward mental health and wellbeing. In my research into mindfulness of God and contemplation I also argue that Evangelicals are generally inattentive to attention and awareness and contemplative practices. This inattentiveness to formational practices has led to what Richard Lovelace calls a sanctification gap in the modern Protestant church.(3) Many contemplative practices are preserved within intentional Christian community, and again with a few notable exceptions in places like Lee Abbey and Scargill House, Evangelicals have often been inattentive to the power and witness of intentional Christian community. In all of the areas mentioned above there is a turn toward healthy engagement(4) but it is worth asking what is the inattentiveness about?
Ellen Langer who is a pioneer of research into mindfulness as a natural capacity separate from any meditative practices or religious roots started out by researching what she called ‘mindlessness.’ She defines mindlessness as, ‘characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behaviour that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.’(5) My experience suggests that at times some Evangelicals find it difficult to be open to new ways of thinking. Often suspicion towards mindfulness or contemplative practices or meditation seems to be an automatic reaction rather than a considered response. I have also met Evangelicals who think there is only one point of view on some of these issues, it is their point of view and it must, therefore, be right!
For Ellen Langer, the primary mindful awareness practice is the ordinary capacity of noticing. She uses her concept of mindlessness to help her define her version of mindfulness: ‘A mindful approach to any activity has three categories; the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.’(6) This seems to me to be an approach that should resonate with an Evangelical approach to engaging with culture whilst being rooted in scriptural wisdom and practice as we seek to recontextualise the Gospel afresh in each new generation and in every culture.
Why else might we be inattentive? Hall says we are inattentive when we perceive something to be irrelevant and unimportant.(7) Certainly I have had conversations about attention and awareness, intentional Christian community, mental health where my arguments for the importance of engaging with these areas is dismissed, because the person I am talking to cannot see the relevance or importance these ideas. They are automatically dismissed. As human beings we make judgements all the time, and Hall says that if we think something is wrong, we dismiss it and stop listening.(8) Again I think Evangelicals are not only often seen as judgmental, they often are judgemental – and not listening goes with that attitude.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was on body image. There is a lot of helpful information out there addressing this issue. Again my research would suggest that Evangelicals have been inattentive to the body. The Gnostic heresy that the spirit is good and the body bad is still alive and well in the church. Many people have been taught a disembodied spirituality and struggle with accessing the fullness of spiritual life which is embodied. The activist spirituality that dominates Evangelicalism also means we don’t pay attention to the messages our body sends us and we risk burnout and breakdown, often running on empty. James K. A. Smith critiques the church from a philosophical perspective and says that Christians have over-emphasized information and the cognitive, ‘In other words, we imagine human beings as giant bubble-headed dolls; with humungous heads and itty-bitty, unimportant bodies.’(9) He argues for a more holistic, integrated anthropology that incorporates body and desires, not just our minds. If we can address this theologically then we can create a healthier relationship with our bodies and desires.
It is not just the church our culture also must carry responsibility for how we relate to our bodies. From a mindfulness perspective which advocates working with our bodies and emotions, Professor Mark Williams, one of the pioneers in Oxford of the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for recurrent depression says that we have taken on a cultural perspective of ignoring our bodies, ‘This tendency to ignore the body can be reinforced by a sense that many of us have; that we do not like ours very much – they might not be as tall, or as thin or as attractive as we’d like.’(10) Our culture’s narrow emphasis on what our bodies should look like is to blame here.
The gospel is an embodied gospel. A biblical anthropology in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament tells us that we are to live embodied, emotionally healthy integrated lives in community.(11) We need to teach people to live in their bodies in the way Jesus lived in his incarnated body. Our body is part of our self and is part of what is to be loved, when Jesus says, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – both are to be embodied expressions of love (Mark 12:31).
Finally, I want to turn to Evangelical spirituality as activist spirituality. If this defines us it can help explain why we are inattentive to contemplation and contemplative practices. From this perspective mental ill-health is threatening to our ability to be an activist. There is perhaps a deep fear that if we are not always doing, or unable to always be doing we are somehow a failure. One of the unkindest judgments that gets made about people with mental ill-health is that they are somehow not resilient. This is simply not true – many of those I know with mental health distress are incredibly resilient – it is more that mental health conditions can overwhelm anybody. This activism explains why we are also inattentive to the Sabbath and Sabbath rest to the detriment of our physical and spiritual wellbeing.(12)
Evangelicalism at its best is about deep attention not inattentiveness. It is about paying deep attention to Christ and his life and teachings, the cross and resurrection (Colossians 3:1-2). We are made to have the same attitude as Christ, considering others above ourselves, being servant-hearted (Philippians 2:1-11). It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing about our life together who said, ‘The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.’(13) But perhaps we are most weak when we do not acknowledge our vulnerability, our frailty, our dependence on God and others. Someone else we should be attentive to, who speaks to our attitude toward vulnerability is Jean Vanier, who died earlier this year. I give the last word to him, ‘In the end, the most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts.’(14) Enter into relationship with those struggling with their mental health, and listen with deep attention, for deep attention is experienced as love. And if we are watchful to and for Christ then Christ will redirect our attention to our own self and its transformation, to others, and to creation; our inattentiveness will be transformed into Christlike attentiveness.
- Christopher A. Hall, ‘Evangelical Inattentiveness to Ancient Voices: An Overview, Explanation, and Proposal,’ in Evangelicals and the Early Church: Recovery, Reform, Renewal, edited by George Kalantzis & Andrew Tooley, 27-51. Cascade Books, 2012.
2. Irenee Haussher, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Cistercian Publications, 1990), 91.
3. See Lovelace, Richard. “The sanctification gap.” Theology today 29, no. 4 (1973): 363-369.
4. See the work in the area of mental health and wellbeing by Mind and Soul Foundation https://www.mindandsoulfoundation.org/.
5. Ellen Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning, Addison-Wesley Publishing (1997), 4.
6. See Langer, 4.
7. Hall, 27.
8. Hall, 28.
9. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press: 2016), 3.
10. Mark Williams & Danny Penman, Mindfulness a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Piatkus, 2011):93-94.
11. Joel B. Green, “Embodying the Gospel: Two Examplary Practices.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 7, no.1 (2014):12.
12. Ashley Cocksworth, ‘Sabbatical Contemplation? Retrieving a Strand in Reformed Theology,’ in Embracing Contemplation, edited by John H. Coe & Kyle C. Strobel. 74.94. IVP Academic, 2019.
13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (SCM Press, 2015), 72.
14. Sourced online, https://www.azquotes.com/quote/85176.
Once upon a time this was my boat of anxiety with the light of mindfulness (and of God) shining on it. In fact the boat was me.
The boat was swamped with anxiety, beached with worry. The hull of my boat, which is as strong and as fragile as wood was collapsing, barely holding its shape.
I had no rudder, no sail, even if the wind was blowing and the currents flowing.
Anxious thoughts, like crows pecked at the rotting frame, as shame like worms ate away at the wood. Anxious feelings soaked into the hull, and weighed it down, stealing its strength.
Those of you who have experienced anxiety will recognise this, it doesn’t always help to have the condition explained in cold, logical, propositional language.
But in the corner of the boat I built a mindful nest, my breath, a prayer word, the practice of awareness. And then the swallows came, swooping in, and stayed making new thoughts that could fly free.
And then there came a desire for spring-cleaning, for restoration, for changing the structure and activity of the boat for better, as it was created to be. And one day the boat was drained, restored, painted, floating, able to catch the wind and the currents.
I did not just want to move from anxiety to inner freedom, although that is a good intention, a necessary intention. I wanted to become mindful of God, waiting for the wind and the currents of God’s Holy Spirit, that I do not control, but as a graced response I can be receptive and open too.
I know mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone. I’m grateful it worked for me. It might be for you – a boat yard of restoration.
I am writing this on the Camino Ingles, in Pontedeume, by the estuary of the river Eume. There are little rivulets, and wide open spaces, we can inhabit both. But first I had to step from the edge of hope, just one step into hope.
I have just spent a few days leading a retreat on mindfulness of God at Scargill House. Based in the Yorkshire Dales it is a Christian community that leads holidays, conferences and retreats with hospitality at its heart.
It reminds me at a spiritual level of the Bishop’s Garden in Wells Cathedral where springs bubble up, a metaphor for the welling up of the Holy Spirit. The wells here are community, creation, hospitality, silence and solitude.
It has been a joy working with the community on the retreat as they lead worship, provide a rhythm of prayer, a pastoral care and prayer team as well as a hospitality team. They also offer walks, and workshops and conversation as well as of course lots of food!
There are gardens to sit in, including a beautiful walled garden and 90 acres of estates. As you sit in a lounge area you overlook the dales.
And pheasants, and woodpeckers come to the bird feeders in front of the window, along with many other birds.
At communion in the chapel on the last night there were deer outside feeding as we took the bread and the wine. The estate is run with a deep ecological understanding and desire to care for creation. The community is all ages, different nationalities and with many young people.
Community and contemplation is at the heart of the gospel and the kingdom and the leading edge of mission if only we had the courage to grasp it. My prayer is that many other intentional communities will spring up.
Of course community is not easy. At the Warden’s suggestion I have been reading some Jean Vanier, a famous founder of communities. I was particularly struck with a phrase of his: ‘Many want community and a feeling of being together, but they refuse the demands of community life.’ This is true in the local church as well.
I was also struck by another simple truth of Vanier’s: ‘People enter community to be happy. They stay when they find happiness comes in making others happy.’
My prayer is that there will be a renewal of Christian community life in the UK, for I believe it is the right (kairos) moment for it.
Do check out the Scargill website:
I walked down to Lee Bay this morning as the sun shone, part of the Lee Abbey Estate where I am running a retreat on mindfulness of God. To be mindful of God I need to inhabit my body, my emotions, my mind and my soul.
The stream became symbolic for me, and I thought about the streams of awareness in us, in me, our senses. Not just the traditional five, wonderful though they are but also the sense of our own body, sensing our thoughts and feelings, other people’s feelings (see Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist for his 8 senses). But also the ability to sense the presence of God with all our senses.
I then thought what if I allow these streams of awareness in me to become living water, inhabited by God’s Holy Spirit – able to see and sense through God’s eyes.
Coming here to Lee Abbey gives me a taste of what that might be like and also the desire to seek it first above my other desires.