Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction
Having written on topics ranging from ethics to systematic theology to science, theologian John Jefferson Davis could quite appropriately be described as an integrationist. His previous work has addressed questions such as the following: Does Scripture say anything about the ethics of free-market economics (Your Wealth in God's World, 1984)? How do science and faith converge, and does Gödel's Proof relate to theology (The Frontiers of Science and Faith, 2002)? How should Christians think about the medical, ethical, and legislative aspects of abortion (Abortion and the Christian, 1984)? Davis is both eminently interdisciplinary and eminently Christian. In his 2012 book Meditation and Communion with God, Davis again explores life in God's world in light of God's Word—specifically, regarding the topic of biblical meditation. This review will trace the contours of the book's argument and evaluate his focus, organization, and success at integration.
Davis summarizes his goal in writing the book in the following way:
Meditation and Communion with God seeks, from an explicitly biblical and Christian point of view, to promote a form of Christian meditation based on a robust biblical and Christian theology and informed by insights from recent scientific research and interreligious studies, where such insights are consistent with the core teachings of the Christian faith. (18)
Davis divides the work into three parts. The first draws on a diverse pool of non-theological evidence to provide a warrant for his project. The second is primarily theological, using biblical themes to argue for the theological claims of his thesis, and secondarily philosophical, using analogies from technology to illuminate the points he makes about ontology. The third part provides practical guidance on how to meditate biblically. The author's interdisciplinary approach aids him in the first section, where he identifies six scientific, interreligious, and social factors that are prompting US Christians to re-examine meditation. Interest in spiritual disciplines has increased as many seek a way out of widespread shallow Christianity; ignorance of Scripture runs rampant, meaning Christians must devote more time to reading the Word; information overload in our technological age has weakened mental focus, prompting a desire for correction; religious syncretism and popular cross-religious "borrowing" call for clarity regarding what distinguishes biblical meditation from other kinds; new medical research on Buddhist meditation points to potential similar health benefits of Christian meditation; and trending theological emphases, such as inaugurated eschatology and the believer's union with Christ, beg to be integrated into our understanding of meditation. Citing these six factors, Davis argues that the theology and practice of Christian meditation that he presents will address or solve each point. While Davis's book clearly arises from his North American context, the theology and historic Christian practices that he describes are true and relevant for all believers across the globe.
Most of Davis's book is ontological-theological: it argues for a certain understanding of the natures of God, the Christian, the Christian's relationship with God, and Scripture in light of fundamental theological truths. Within this ontological-theological worldview he frames a proper understanding of meditation as "a believing, prayerful, and receptive reading of Scripture [that] is an act of communion with the Triune God, who is really present to the reader through and with the biblical text" (34). Davis grounds this worldview in the theological reality of inaugurated eschatology: the kingdom of God has arrived with Christ's advent, and we are already living with one foot in the age to come. This doctrine entails our real union with Christ and, therefore, our true presence with the Son, before the Father, by the Spirit—a uniquely Christian view of "how personal agents are located in space" (55). Davis explains this reality by introducing the concepts of "extended" and "complex" selves and using analogies from wireless digital communication technology to describe the Christian's intimate and real connection with the Triune God via the Holy Spirit.
Inaugurated eschatology demands an "inaugurated ontology." Davis identifies seven aspects of our place in the kingdom of God which should inform our understanding of Christian meditation. First, "persons in loving relationships are metaphysically ultimate" (70); the essence of reality is not impersonal "Being" but the personal Trinity, from whom all creatures receive their being. Second, "we are really present to heaven, and heaven is really present to us" (75). Third, we are now "Trinitarian-ecclesial selves" (80)—defined by our relationship to God and the family of believers—so there is real communion in meditation. Fourth and fifth, we exist and are now saved to delight in the Trinity with the community of the saints, this delight being both the present context and goal of meditation. Sixth, we know true reality by the Spirit's illumination of our minds through Scripture, which enables our meditation on the things of God. Seventh, the Scripture on which we meditate is a living, authoritative word that belongs to and in the church (not solely the academy) and shapes the Christian imagination (not merely the reason), so that we should read "believingly, prayerfully, and receptively" (34). Our place in Christ's inaugurated kingdom also implies that we should approach Scripture according to a "fourfold sense": historical-grammatical, moral (or ethical), Christological (or Christocentric), and anagogical (or heaven-focused and devotional). Acknowledging multiple ways to rightly think about a text supports the creative and "connective" approach to meditation Davis suggests in the final section.
In the final third of the book, Davis outlines his suggestions for a uniquely biblical form of meditation. He describes three "levels" of meditation: a beginning "slow, prayerful, meditative reading of [one passage of] Scripture" (123), an intermediate "whole-brain" meditation that studies the relationship between two or more texts (122), and an advanced "worldview meditation" he calls "The Five Practices of Right Comprehension" (122), which systematically reviews a series of texts that together shape some aspect of the Christian worldview. This section is strong in providing detailed practical advice for beginners and demonstrating how, precisely, Davis's prior theological points should shape the Christian's thinking as he or she meditates. The book concludes with testimonies from Christians, all former students of his, who have begun to meditate using these methods.
Overall, Meditation and Communion with God provides a useful introduction to Christian meditation and theological concepts trending in the academy, even for readers without formal theological training. Davis excels at communicating abstract theology in accessible ways, and the book rewards close reading. Devoting most of the book to meticulously developing a conceptual framework for Christian meditation equips the reader for navigating the cultural issues that necessitated the book in the first place. Davis has well considered the religious syncretism, scientific research on meditation, shallow North American Christian spirituality, and other cultural issues that make this topic and his approach to it so helpful.
Unfortunately, readers may find his organization less approachable. The thesis does not appear until the beginning of the third chapter, many pages after Davis's roadmap introduces the—potentially bewildering—array of subjects that his book will cover. Given his interdisciplinary approach, clearly stating his thesis sooner and pointing out how each part of the book relates to the whole would have better served his readers. Though chapters typically begin by referencing their relation to the preceding and following sections, Davis does not explicitly relate each chapter to the thesis.
However, the brilliance of the book's integrative approach and use of analogies well compensates for this lack of a clearer structure. Davis shines in integrating various topics and disciplines. In particular, using social networking analogies to explain how personal agents may be present in an "extended," "non-molecular" manner is as unusual as it is helpful. The doctrine itself is not new; Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion present essentially the same ontology in its treatment of the Lord's Supper and the believer's union with Christ through the Spirit (Davis at times cites Calvin and other Reformed theologians). However, grasping the sense of such an ontology proves difficult, and Davis has found an analogy that holds explanatory power for the layperson immersed in technology. The modern realities of "media presence," cyberbullying-prompted suicides, long-distance video calls, and Facebook friends signify a transition in the modern understanding of material presence. Functionally, material and immaterial presence have moved closer together in our minds. Davis's notion of an "extended" self—a self that may be truly, though non-materially, present—helpfully retrieves a cultural concept for theological use. Davis plunders Egyptian gold as the best of the Christian tradition has always done.
In all, Meditation and Communion with God provides a timely and helpful orientation to Christian meditation, especially for the lay reader. Davis has presented a rationale, an ontological-theological framework, and practical guidelines for a supremely biblical practice of meditation. I hope that his goal of introducing meditation as "an invaluable source of growth and renewal for any Christian" (8) will meet with wide success.