What's Meditation Got to Do with the Church?
Published by Ben Smitthimedhin (Admin Account) on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 18:57
You don’t have to walk far around Bangkok and its surrounding areas to spot a couple Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Even today, if I am jet-lagged and wake early enough, I can hear the chanting of monks from a nearby temple.
Still, even as these monks surround me, I was told very early on in my Christian life that anything associated with Buddhism should be sharply distinguished from the church. This included, of course, the practice of meditation itself. After asking one of my mentors if I should consider meditation as a bridging conversation between me and my Buddhist friends, I was told, “No, you don’t want to confirm the ideas in their minds that all religions are the same.”
And in a sense, I can understand where my mentor was coming from. After all, many from the low-church Protestant tradition do subscribe to the separatist idea of what the famous Richard Niebuhr calls, “Christ against culture.” From this view, the prevailing culture of our time has “lost its way” and should be kept apart from the Church. The day the Church decides to accommodate the prevailing culture is the day she betrays her heritage.
Some have even began lamenting the onslaught of culture and its corrosive effects on the church. Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity is a good example of this, which argues that our church practices have diverged from what the apostles taught because they have accumulated tradition atop of God’s Scripture.
However, this view of Christianity fails to recognize that since its earliest days, Christians have been intentionally “baptizing” pagan practices for their own use. Origen of Alexandria and St. Augustine call this “plundering the Egyptians,” harkening back to Ex. 12 when the Israelites took gold and silver from the Egyptians before they embarked on their journey towards the Promised Land. In short, ever since the church's inception, Christians have been steaing their surrounding culture's practices and transforming them into markers of Christ's revelation.
Moreover, meditation is not even a “stolen” practice that’s been transformed and legitimized. The contemplative tradition emerged organically by way of the earliest monastics known as the Desert Fathers, and there are a host of differences (as well as similarities) between Buddhist and Christian meditation. This tradition also continued throughout the Middle Ages and endured many changes which included its expansion during the Reformation.
But what is the point of Christian meditation anyway, and how is it relevant today? Early monastics in the Christian tradition used meditation as a way to desecrate sin in their lives and to achieve union with God. In the same way, Martin Laird argues that the practice of Christian meditation should be an attempt for us to recognize God’s presence as the Holy Spirit within us. Laird correctly assesses how distracting modern life can be with notifications buzzing all around us. These distractions can make us feel alienated from God; we feel His "absence" because the noise around us is too loud.
Thus, meditation becomes all the more crucial in our distracted age—it is not that God is absent from us; rather, we allow our emotions to deceive us from the truth that God is ever present with us. During quarantine, we search for endless ways to numb ourselves through hours of Netflix and social media. I’m not here to say that entertainment is bad in and of itself (that's another conversation), but I think it’s time for us to recognize that, within reason, there might be a correlation between those who distract themselves from God and those who feel that He is distant.
Perhaps it is time for us to revive the Christian contemplative tradition in our church, to say that we are not afraid to use meditation as a path to recognize God’s presence within us. When we do so, we may recognize that God has never been away at all, that He has always been speaking to us, but that we have been too distracted to listen.
 Niebuhr, Richard. Christ and Culture.
 More on this in Peter Thomas Elliott’s “Plundering Egyptian Gold: Christianity and Culture.
 See more in Walter Simmons’ “New Forms of Religious Life in Medieval Western Europe” and Edward Howells’ “Early Modern Reformations” in the Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism
 Laird, Martin, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation.