Right Delight is the Basis of Right Action – Robert Saler reflects on contemplation and action.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Amos 8:1-12 (semicontinuous reading)
Psalm 52 (semicontinuous reading)
The story of Mary and Martha has, throughout history, served as a kind of paradigmatic biblical intervention into a philosophical conversation that predates the Gospels by centuries, but yet was very current in Jesus’ time: the relative merits of action vs. contemplation (praxis vs. theoria, in Aristotelian terms).
When we think of theory, we often have an attenuated sense of it as a kind of disembodied, less-than-practical intellectual activity; hence our tendency to ask, “It may work in theory, but will it work in practice?” However, in important strands of the Greek philosophical tradition, “theory” (and its Latin cognate of “contemplation”) had a much richer valence, one having to do with gazing in delight and unperturbed peace upon the true, the good, and the beautiful. To be engaged in theory is to be delighting in the good as such.
Unfortunately, while much Greek philosophy did make connections between theory and ethics, the class structures in place in most ancient societies led to fairly stark class-based divisions between those few elites with the leisure time to “theorize” and the majority whose labor (including slave labor) supported the social infrastructure. Aristotle, for instance, did not disguise his views that the life of philosophical contemplation was superior to a life of labor, and that true statements about beauty and the good could only come from the mouths of those with enough leisure, riches, and education to contemplate the good in unhurried fashion.
To the extent that the Christian tradition’s thinking has taken on such Greek philosophical assumptions, then Luke’s account of the Mary/Martha story has served to reinforce such a sense among Christians. Much exegetical tradition has emphasized that it is Mary, who sits in contemplation of “the good, the true, the beautiful” (that is, the person and teachings of Jesus) who is engaged in the properly “Christian” activity, while Martha, whose labor provides the space in which such contemplation can happen, is given short shrift. Sermons stemming from this tradition tend to unwittingly reinforce the divide between theory and action/ethics, with the latter losing out.
However, such a divide is disastrous for a Christian faith that takes creation care seriously. This is not so only because it is clear that a great deal of ethical action is necessary if the deleterious effects of environmental degradation are to be addressed (and further degradation halted). It is also because care for creation is clearly an area where action must stem from a more fundamental delight in what God’s hand has fashioned in our environment.
The Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler saw this. In his celebrated sermon “The Care of the Earth,” Sittler points to the deep interconnection between fundamental “joy” in creation (joy which the Christian tradition from Augustine to Aquinas defined as “resting in something for its own sake”) and right care for—or “use of”—creation. In his sermon (available at www.josephsittler.org), he writes,
“It is of the heart of sin that man uses what he ought to enjoy. It is also, says Thomas, of the heart of sin that man is content to enjoy what he ought to use. Charity, for instance. Charity is the comprehensive term to designate how God regards man [sic]. That regard is to be used by man for man [sic]. That is why our Lord moves always in his speech from the source of joy, that man is loved by the holy, to the theater of joy, that man must serve the need of the neighbor. ‘Lord, where did we behold thee? I was in prison, hungry, cold, naked’ – you enjoyed a charity that God gives for use.
If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment. This has a cleansing and orderly meaning for everything in the world of nature, from the sewage we dump into our streams to the cosmic sewage we dump into the fallout.
Abuse is use without grace; it is always a failure in the counterpoint of use and enjoyment. When things are not used in ways determined by joy in the things themselves, this violated potentiality of joy (timid as all things holy, but relentless and blunt in its reprisals) withdraws and leaves us, not perhaps with immediate positive damnations but with something much worse—the wan, ghastly, negative damnations of use without joy, stuff without grace, a busy, fabricating world with the shine gone off, personal relations for the nature of which we have invented the eloquent term, contact, staring without beholding, even fornication without finding.”
When “use” is informed by joy, use (action) itself becomes a kind of expression of that joy. Theoria and praxis merge.
When approached in this light, the story of Mary and Martha offers an intriguing opportunity for the preacher to meditate on how ethical action in the world stems from deep theoria, deep contemplative joy in gazing upon the beauty and goodness of creation. Those already involved in creation care know that acts of care for creation—and those who inhabit it, including humans—have a unifying tendency in that they unite joy and service in an embodied, concrete sense. It is to “take refuge in God,” as the psalm says, by letting delight for what God has made inform peaceful action on behalf of its health and flourishing.
One final note: stemming from the above discussion of the class-based distinctions that have historically facilitated separation between theory and practice, and elevation of the former over the latter, this week’s gospel might also be a time for churches to ruminate on those structures in our world that allow a certain small percentage of our populations to “enjoy” nature in leisurely fashion (e.g. a trip to the Grand Canyon) while others whose labor helps sustain our societies are cut off from such opportunities for unhurried enjoyment. Likewise, discussions of environmental racism might benefit from seeing them through this same lens (that is, what sort of communities are denied chances to enjoy the beauty of nature based on socioeconomic factors?). Here too, discussion of the beautiful might energize practices of justice.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2013.