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Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Necessity of Reflection

By Father J. Guy Winfrey

Father Winfrey
As a culture, we have become a people who values instinctive responses. We seem no longer to value reflection and this is a tragic loss. This is true on every aspect of our lives these days and it is especially true when it comes to our faith.

I remember a conversation with one of my employers while I was in college. He knew that I was devout and that I was an active member of my parish, so he brought up the subject of religion. (In Texas, this is not a strange topic for conversation.) He was a Baptist, and the son of a Baptist minister. I remember trying to explain some point—I can’t recall what the actual topic was—and he was struck dumb. Finally he said to me, “I think you think too much about these things. We should have faith, and all of this analysis stops it.” It was my turn to be gob-stopped. I have not forgotten this exchange and it is emblematic of a certain sort of religious fervor that eschews the reasoning faculty of the human being.

Of course, religiously, this comes from the spirit of the camp fire revivals in the Great Awakening from which the sort of Baptists in the South generally come. It was a movement that emphasized the emotion and called that religious fervor. My formation made me very suspicious of feelings and emotions because they are so fickle and are terribly subject to manipulation. I visited a “mega-church” one time to tour the facilities and was shown a video control room they had set up for the services. It looked as complex and modern as the Monday Night Football truck. Then I was told that they had everything—the lighting, the sound, the backgrounds on the stage, etc.—programmed and calculated to evoke in the congregants particular emotions. Hmm… a scientifically designed program to effect a chosen religious spirit. It seems quite a dark thing to me: the emotion is the religion.

But this is also a symptom of a larger problem culturally. I have an intuition (something that is quite distinct from instinct) that modern reality programs, which are filled with drama and emotive dysfunction, are little more than the secularization of the remnants of the Great Awakening. They are the deliberate stirring up of emotions, but in the secular age there is no teleological purpose, no end in sight, so they stir up only to evoke the emotion itself. The emotions are the subject. One could say that reality programs are the product of secular Protestantism.

In our age, we do not take time to reflect, and because we don’t we sometimes try to force decisions and actions that are not fully formed. A lack of thought and reflection (for my English friends, reflexion) has been a typical charge directed toward Americans, but this was an exaggeration… perhaps until now.

The word itself is now thought of in mechanical, geometric or mathematic contexts usually. Reflection, coming from the Latin to bend back (reflexio), is a withholding from action. It is a pause in which one looks at things in the broadest possible manner and considers well. For centuries this has been one of the most salient characteristics of Western Christianity, especially from the scholastic period forward (not to say that the earlier Fathers of the Church were not reflective). It was not essentially instinctive, but meditative.

The one time bastion of thought, the university, has become little different than a middle-class secular tent revival. Students are natural protesters because of their immaturity and naïveté, but this has been distorted by many in academia to become the raison d’être of a university education. One wonders if they have ever read Newman’s, The Idea of a University? I doubt it. More’s the pity.

I am reminded of Newman’s period of reflection as he was leaving Anglicanism. He was one of the principle leaders of the Oxford Movement at the time, but he seemed to be drawn elsewhere because of many years of study and deep thought. He didn’t become a Roman Catholic quickly; rather, it was a process that extended over many years. For any who would like to peek into his process, they may read his Apologia pro Vita Sua.

Reflection must be recovered by us all—regardless of our religion. It must be recovered in politics, the university, our faith and our personal lives. To think and reflect is part of what distinguishes us from the animals; and this to me is one of the greatest damnations of purely instinctive processing.

Intincts are not at infallible. All animals have them and we know from Pavlav that they can be conditioned. A large part of military training is pointed directly at developing a specific set of desired intincts in the warrior. This is necessary for his survival and success as a combatant. But instinct is surely a baser aspect of humanity. Even military commanders don’t rely upon it for making tactical decisions.

There are certain Christian instincts that must be trained in the neophyte, like the natural repugnance to immorality, but reflection must be tutored and developed. It is an imperative. This is done through reading thoughtful and intelligent writers (especially the Fathers of the Church), and especially through meditating on these writings prayerfully.

If there is to be any hope for our civilization—religiously, politically, or intellectually, then we must restore the importance of reflection in our lives. We must not allow ourselves to be bullied into quick responses when these things require sober meditation and thought. Sometimes we cannot give an answer when one desires it. Sometimes the time required for reflection and thought may take quite a while—as I have already said, it took Newman several years before he could make a decision.

The last word on this is simply to point out the foundational necessity of silence for reflection. Before one can truly meditate, think, contemplate, and reflect, one must carve out a space of quiet. We must learn how to turn off our televisions, radios, and iPods. We must learn to enter into silence once more if we would be wise. How counter-cultural!


V. Rev. Fr. J. Guy Winfrey is an Archpriest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese and the pastor of St George Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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