Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Ten propositions on spirituality

by Kim Fabricius

1. “Spirituality” is a word suffering from runaway inflation. Let’s try to stabilise the currency. Historical amnesia, false dichotomies, and fashionable therapies bedevil the subject.

2. Philip Sheldrake observes that the noun spiritualitas “only became established in reference to ‘the spiritual life’ in 17th century France – and not always in a positive sense,” principally due to its clerical associations (in the Middles Ages the clergy were “the spirituality”). “It then disappeared from theological circles until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when it again appeared in French in reference to the ‘spiritual life’…. [B]ut it was only by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s that it began to dominate and replace older terms such as ascetical theology or mystical theology.” Then in the 1970s the term took off, and now, set to the key of the so-called New Age, spirituality has become the mood-muzak of postmodernity.

3. I’ve got nothing against psychology as such – to the contrary, I minored in the subject at university – but on spirituality circuits that revolve around the gurus Myers-Briggs and James Fowler I often sense an approach to spirituality that lacks both a proper Christian concept of the spirit and an orthodox understanding of faith as not just fides qua but fides quae creditur. At the very least it takes a semantic sleight of hand to reduce the “soul” to the “self” to the “personality,” and to equate human potential and growth with sanctification, let alone to assume that in exploring ourselves we are exploring God the Holy Trinity. By the way, for the life of me I do not understand how Christians can prefer Jung to Freud as a theological resource (though it’s probably due to our preference for naivety to suspicion).

4. Theology without spirituality is empty, spirituality without theology is blind. When theology is “thin,” it is often because it is not steeped in prayer; when spirituality is “lite,” it is usually because it is theologically vacuous. Only in the West, and only during the 12th century, when the theological enterprise moved from the monasteries to the new universities, did Christian thinking begin to become an activity distinct from askesis, while contemplation, in turn, tended to become separate from both eucharist and ethics. Since the High Middle Ages, Roman Catholics and then Protestants (Puritan, Anglican, and radical Reformed) have been working in different ways to stitch together what should be a seamless garment of the affective, the intellectual, and the active – to reunite the speculative theologian and the practical saint.

5. Spirituality is theology with attitude, theology with soul – but not a soul without a body. A truly Christian spirituality will be incarnational – but it will not idolise health. And it will be cruciform – but it will not glorify pain. Fasting has been called praying with your body, but feasting should be praying with your body too. Biblically speaking, the opposite of πνευμα is not σωμα but σαρξ. Nor, needless to say, are the “sins of the flesh” essentially sensual (cf. Galatians 5:19ff.). Notwithstanding insidious Neo-Platonic, even Gnostic influence, a couple’s bedroom as well as the monk’s cell can be a place where heaven and earth get it on (the Song of Songs’ X-rated eroticism is often lost through censored translation). In fact, the material as such is (forgive the pun) a spiritual matter.

6. Spirituality has been called theology on its knees, but it is also theology on its feet, in labora as well as ora. “Bread for myself is a physical matter,” said Nocolas Berdyaev, “but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual matter.” Any authentic Christian spirituality will have shalom – peace-and-justice – at its heart. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that “Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognise it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed” – but is not the reverse equally and emphatically true (Matthew 25:40, 45)? Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” It is no coincidence that liberation theologies are deeply committed to combining experience, reflection, action, and prayer/worship/eucharist.

7. So what is “spirituality”? Perhaps spirituality is one of those things that is easier to show than to say. If so, Rowan Williams, who sees thought itself as a practice of askesis, is the finest contemporary guide I know to what spirituality might look like, not least in his own personal and theological life (and he has written acutely on Augustine and extensively on the Desert Fathers, the Carmelite tradition, and iconic prayer). Williams suggests that we understand spirituality in terms of “each believer making his or her own that engagement with the questioning at the heart of faith.” But spirituality is “far more than a science of interpreting exceptional private experiences; it must … touch every area of human experience, the public and the social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world. And the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness – an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work.”

8. In an important sense, then, “spirituality” is almost synonymous with discipleship, with starting from exactly where you are and taking the next step in following Jesus wherever he leads. Hence a good deal of holiness has to do with discernment, with attendre (Simone Weil). As John Webster says at the end of his little gem Holiness (2003): “A crucial aspect of holiness is an increase in concentration: the focusing of mind, will and affections on the holy God and his ways with us.” Spirituality, then, as watchfulness, being alert to the present moment, disabused of illusion and fantasy and seeing what is really there – the toil to be truthful, the struggle against self-deceit, the purification of desire. Unlike many of the Pelagian nostrums on offer, Christian spirituality takes sin seriously.

9. Authentic spirituality is an exilic practice, for nomads on a journey: “Exile, the home I have with God; God, the home I have in exile” (Marc Ellis). Peace and perfection are redefined in terms of strain and growth, what Gregory of Nyssa called epektasis (from Philippians 3:13). To Augustine’s famous image of the cor inquietum, add Gregory’s image of the vertigo one feels at a cliff-top, with the abyss below and the beckoning yet ever-receding peaks beyond. Divine darkness and human incomprehension become themes that will be explored in the night theology of St John of the Cross and the theologia crucis of Martin Luther. Frances Young writes: “It is this whole complex context which demands that we move beyond the easy spirituality of well-being, comfort and happiness to rediscover the wilderness way that lies at the heart of the Bible.” In place of the New Age bandwagon, the desert caravan.

10. “It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference [between monks and ordinary people] was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed aloud.” Thus Thomas Merton, a pioneer in explorations of ecumenical, inter-faith, and ecological spiritualities, who yet knew that there is no view from nowhere, no traditionless practice, no unmediated interiority, no silence unhaunted by speech (and no separation between spirituality and institutional religion, yet another trendy dichotomy that crumbles under scrutiny). In the end, if spirituality is about “me” at all, it is about my dispossession and transformation into a proper human being, my becoming a living hermeneutic of the Great Commandment, loving the Other and the other. As a saying attributed to the Desert Father known as John the Dwarf has it:

“You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.”
They said, “What does that mean?”
He said, “The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. The neighbour is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this.”


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