What is Real in this Life?: Christian Realism and Christian Mysticism

The observant reader of this blog will notice its strapline: “a realistic take on Christianity and politics”. It’s no doubt a tagline that I fail to live up to perfectly and it would be unrealistic to expect to be realistic one hundred percent of the time.

Nevertheless, what this strapline is getting at, is my desire to pursue the unvarnished truth of the Christian faith and the cultures in which it resides. Or to define the goal negatively, I wish to move away from idealistic and utopian—that is unrealistic or not-true-to-life—analyses of the Christian tradition and its engagement with cultural issues.

It’s why I tackle issues that are messy and complex—vaccines, war, sex, freedom, tribalism, the role of the state and so on. These are all issues that are in the headlines and which reverberate throughout the corridors of power. 

What could be more real than that? 

For Advent this year, I’ve been reading the Archbishop of York’s book for the season, The Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. It features reflections appropriate for the season from Anglican mystic and spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill. I first came across Underhill via Jane Williams who quoted her in an episode of Godpod: “God is the interesting thing about religion”. And I find myself turning to Underhill’s reflections each day for the same reason: her unrelenting attempt to get herself, and to get her reader, out of the way, and place God at the centre of human existence, of human reality.  

Augustine, whom Underhill quotes, makes this point with maximal brevity: “God is the only Reality and we are only real insofar as we are in him and he in us”. 

How do we relate the work of mystics like Evelyn Underhill to the cultural analysis of Christian Realists? 

On first glance, these two ways of seeing the world seem poles apart. But scratching a bit deeper, they both share a desire to get at what is real.

The Christian Realism of the kind I aim to espouse, seeks an analysis of cultural issues that does not surrender to utopian, sugary or idealistic ideas. It seeks to make sense of the world in all of its messiness. It confronts various attempts to avoid the realities of human life, of human nature, in the public sphere.

The Christian mysticism of Evelyn Underhill seeks an analysis of the human soul that does not surrender to utopian, sugary or idealistic notions. It seeks to make sense of the human soul in all of its messiness. It confronts various attempts to avoid the realities of human life within. 

Yes, there’s probably a good bit on which I would disagree with Underhill on—I favour more precise language to describe God and human experience, even if I do sometimes find myself struck by a vague yet poetic turn of phrase. 

But what Underhill challenges me to do is to return to the scriptures and the Christian tradition and see the absolute priority of God. God is the ground all that is real, of all that is seen and unseen. Human life is utterly dependent on him. The Psalmist makes this point repeatedly in his heartfelt cries of dependency on God’s presence: “as the hart panteth for the water, so my soul pants for thee”; “answer me quickly, my spirit faints with longing”; “one thing I ask, this one thing I seek, that I may dwell in your house, O Lord, my king; all the days of my life, I want to gaze upon your beauty, and seek you in that holy place”.

Not only is God prioritised, in the sense of being given one’s absolute attention. Underhill also encourages us to see that God is prior or, as she puts it, prevenient (from pre-, ‘before’ and ven-, ‘to come’). God is the prime mover, the initiator who acts well before we do. 

The challenge for the Realist is to remember that contemplation precedes action, as in the great monastic maxim ora et labora (prayer and work). The order of these two verbs is rather important here. For, as Underhill reminds us, we can often lose ourselves, and lose God, in the contemplation of obscure recent events. “The Christian turns again from the bewildered contemplation of history where God is so easily lost, to the prayer of filial trust where He is always found”. Where human events vex us, we are called to turn first and foremost to God in prayerful trust. From that vantage point, the events around and within us find their true perspective.

This is not a call to quietism where events mean nothing, as one retreats from the world. Rather, it is a call to quietness, to stillness, an attitude of dependence on God which means that the events going around—and within us—mean differently

The claim of the Christian faith is that nothing is more real in this life than God, and knowing him. And yet, we find that in knowing him, everything else matters as it should and, in many ways, matters perhaps even more than it might have otherwise done. What seems to be a great paradox is really no paradox at all; for if God is Real, and the Creator of all matter, then we should expect all of it to matter as it should.

Photo by the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.