So, I have been pressing into a more “contemplative” spirituality over the last few years. This has been difficult as my temperament tends towards being an “activist.” I have made progress; even if it has been from ‘abysmal’ to merely ‘awful,’ that is still progress.
As part of my contemplative retreat process, I do some devotional reading. For years, people have been encouraging me to read The Imitation Of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis. It is an interesting work which can be positively challenging or negatively terrible – all in the space of a page.
A recent reading was one of those terrible sections – let me explain. Book Three, chapter 51 bemoans the horrible realization that we cannot be in a state of rapturous spiritual bliss all the time. OK, right off the bat, this strikes me as a Captain Obvious moment.
Our friend, Thomas, moves on: ‘… but you must need to, sometimes, because of original corruption lower yourself to inferior things’ (I paraphrased that because the translation I use has lots of “thees,” “thous,” and the like). Now our friend clarifies this: ‘As long as you carry a mortal body, you shall feel weariness and heaviness of heart.’ So, let me summarize: You should be always in a state of ecstatic spiritual bliss – but the world is awful because we are flesh and all physical existence is terrible and because of that, we sometimes have to accommodate our wonderful spiritual selves to the horrible world around us because we are stuck in a body.’ This is not an unfair reading of A’Kempis, here.
It seems to me that this reflects a “Platonic” or “Dualistic” view of life (popular among Greek and Persian philosophers and mystics). That is, that everything “spiritual” is good, perfect, and holy; but anything “material” is bad, corrupted, and evil. That notion is contrary to my understanding of the Bible.
God said, after he created the material world (Genesis 1:31), that all of it was “very good.” So, right off the bat, the ball of God’s material world was very good, not bad. Let that roll around your brain-pan for a while. The physical world was declared to be Very Good by holy, perfect, and good God. There is nothing INTRISIC or ‘of itself’ to the nature of the physical world that makes it bad, corrupted, or evil.
Then, in Genesis chapter three, we see that the spiritual world is broken by sin; specifically, in the relationships between humanity and God, humanity with each other, and humanity with the natural world. There seem to be concrete and physical effects, as well; but those are not (according to the Bible) the most devastating effects of sin. The apostle Paul, much later, comments that “… the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).
If, according to A’Kempis, we are to imitate Jesus; then what was Jesus’ attitude towards this (apparently awful, no-good, horrible) place?
First, holy God became human (John 1:14) – there was nothing incompatible with holy God becoming human flesh.
Next, Jesus liked being a human being (Hebrews 2:11b) and had a whole host of experiences that showed he enjoyed his life as a flesh-and-blood human being and did not spend his time mopping around because he was ‘stuck in a body,’ as our friend Thomas would have us believe.
Ultimately, it seems that A’Kempis was a product of his times (as are we all, of course) who was highly influenced by the Roman church. The Roman church, at that time, was very influenced by Plato and (again, very simplistically) tended to view the Bible through the lens of Plato’s dualism.
But here's The Thing: to imitate Christ is to embrace the physical world and the flesh of humanness, not to denounce or reject it. Christ came and redeemed the world, not to abandon it.