One of my spiritual teachers is Richard Rohr (not personally, alas, but through his writings), a Franciscan priest. The term, “full-access knowing” is his definition of contemplation. In his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Rohr talks about the importance of developing a contemplative way of knowing and engaging the world. He talks about the tendency, particularly in the West, for people to use almost exclusively what he calls “all-or-nothing thinking”. He notes that “this pattern of dualistic or polarity thinking is deeply entrenched in most Western people, despite its severe limitations. Binary thinking is not wrong or bad in itself – in fact, it is necessary in many if not most situations. But it is completely inadequate for the major questions and dilemmas of life.”
When this dualistic, all-or-nothing thinking enters into the religious or spiritual sphere, as Rohr believes it has profoundly in the case of Christianity today, he notes that the results are tragic. Ultimately, it leads to “rationalism, secularism, and atheism on the Left and fundamentalism, tribal thinking, and cognitive rigidity on the Right.” And, he observes, “neither is serving us well.”
A contemplative vision allows us to move beyond dualistic thinking (though, given its practical usefulness for a good many things, we cannot and should not ever abandon it). Rohr says,
Contemplation. . . keeps the whole field open; it remains vulnerable before the moment, the event, or the person – before it divides and tries to conquer or control it. I would like to call contemplation “full-access knowing” – not irrational, but pre rational, nonrational, rational, and transrational all at once. Contemplation refuses to be reductionistic. Contemplation is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind space open long enough for the mind to see other hidden material. It is content with the naked now and waits for futures given by God and grace.
We live in a time and culture where reductionism is the order of the day. We are always trying to reduce complexities to something small enough for us to grab onto with as much certainty as we can muster. And we are always trying to reduce other human beings to either a caricature that allows us to ridicule and disregard or to a single perceived greatness that we can parade about triumphantly. Our political discourse in this very political year is massively reductionist, dwelling largely in a make-believe land of simplicity where all problems and challenges are reduced to some trite turn of phrase. As one commentator recently observed, the very nature of our political system means that most of what politicians on either side promise cannot be actually delivered. They know that, and most of us know that, too, and yet we persist in our reductionist game.
Our world desperately needs a new way of knowing, a more contemplative vision. We need to be able to see, as Rohr puts it, the entire field that is before us and rather than passing judgment or composing a narrative that defines and reduces, allow ourselves to take in the whole. Because, as the lives of countless mystics and saints demonstrate, when one spends enough time taking in or contemplating that whole field, one is able to touch true compassion. The edges soften, and one is able to truly see the value of every human being, the ways in which we are all connected, and the truth that our “us versus them” mentality is but an illusion, an emanation of a self-justifying ego that is not truly interested in the welfare of humanity or our planet, but simply in grabbing whatever glory it can for itself.
The contemplative vision is the vision of Jesus. And it should be the vision we strive for, too, as his followers.