05 November 2008

Spirituality and Theology

Mediaeval saints above the south porch of Lichfield Cathedral. The theology that developed in the mediaeval period was a theology for living and for the life of the church. It was theology in, for, and by the church and was never intended to be abstract. (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford


In a lecture/seminar on Wednesday, 5 November 2008, we looked at the spiritual dimensions of theology; the history and development of the spiritual traditions of Christianity; the place of spirituality in Church history; and the practice of spirituality today.

It is common among theology students in colleges to ask whether there may be a gap between their theological education and their spiritual development. Students on this course are engaged not just in formal theological education, but also in formation, both pastoral and spiritual. It is understood here that our minds are not being trained just for the same of knowledge’s sake, but that each of us needs to grow and develop as the whole person for relationship with God.

Theology without spirituality is empty, while spirituality without theology is blind. When theology is “thin,” it is often because it is not steeped in prayer. When spirituality becomes “spirituality lite,” it is usually because it is theologically vacuous.

But how do we find and integrate the different dimensions of spirituality and theology, so that they are complementary rather than conflicting?

Theology and Spirituality

The unnatural gap that sometimes emerges between learning and life in the spirit, between the discipline of theology and the practice of spirituality, has always been a problem. It was first expressed as early as the 2nd century when Tertullian of Carthage asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

That long-standing dichotomy between theology and spirituality is a false one. There is a danger of separating our understanding and talk of God (theology) from our attempts to live in the light of that understanding and talk (spirituality).

Our questions about the place of spiritual development within theological education are directly related to the question: “What is theological education for?”

Students who have formal theological education in the classroom in preparation for ordained ministry still need field practice (such as opportunities for service or parish placements) and alongside these there is the need for intentional practices to aid spiritual growth, such as worship, prayer, journaling, quiet days, retreats, &c.

Any spiritual progress, growth and development, any spiritual insights gained during formal theological education cannot be left to accident rather than design. Theological education offers us a range of skills, methods, questions and reflective practices. Your subjects include Scripture, biblical languages, exegesis, preaching, church history, theological argument and method, reflection on church practice, mission and pastoral care. However, competence alone would be poor preparation for any form of Christian vocation.

Authentic spirituality in theological education must be part and parcel of the spirituality of the whole people of God. Our spiritual formation here must be rooted in community, experiencing God in our life together, finding a place for living and living out theology, for Christian ministry is always about “who we are” with “the other.”

The classroom cannot exclude spiritual thought and growth. The chapel is not a place separate from formal theological learning. No place here should exclude the opportunities for and the potential for spiritual encounter and growth.

There is a sound sensible dictum that “theology is not good theology until it is lived.” And so, within theology, there is a growing field or discipline of spirituality that marks the beginning of the recovery of a serious spiritual theology in Christian circles. It includes the practice of Christian spirituality and spiritual direction.

There is a new dialogue between theology on the one hand and spirituality and mysticism on the other. It offers the opportunity to recover a more holistic spirituality and to rescue spirituality and mysticism from the margins of elitism and the weird.

Today there is a widespread disaffection with academic systematic theology at those points where it has become divorced from its experiential roots and has lost much of its ability to address, in a meaningful way, actual faith communities and their practice of the Christian life. Both theology and spirituality have suffered from a great divorce, and a new conversational relationship between spirituality and theology may help heal theology of this deprivation.

Academic studies in spirituality until recently have been dominated by a pluralist approach to interfaith dialogue, which has led to spirituality being presented in generic and experimental terms.

For students preparing for ordained ministry, Christian spirituality needs to be re-grounded in the history, the practice and the doctrine of our faith community. This means the proper focus of spirituality and spiritual theology is not on the human spirit and its potentials, or even on human self-transcendence and spiritual growth. Instead, as Philip Sheldrake points out, it must focus on how humans and the Holy Spirit generally interact with each other (Sheldrake, pp. 19-22).

And so, in recent years there has been an exciting recovery of Trinitarian and incarnational theology. Trinitarian doctrine is not an abstract bit of absurdity supposedly true of God’s inner being but of no practical use. Instead, it has become the key to understanding the divine economy as well-God’s plan of salvation for individual and cosmos alike.

The history of ‘spirituality’

The word spirituality as we use it today only gained popularity in the 1970s the term gained a new popularity. After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the word spirituality began to dominate and replace older terms such as “ascetical theology” or “mystical theology.”

The theology that almost exclusively developed in the male religious houses of the mediaeval period, from the 7th to 12th centuries, was a theology for living in those times and essential to the life of the church. It was theology in, for, and by the church, and it was never intended to be abstract.

Words and concepts such as Lectio Divina (the intentional art of spiritual reading), veneration, mystery, love, inner experience, faith and contemplation capture the determination of those people to firmly connect theology and the spiritual life. The task was not to explain the mysteries of God but to reflect on them and impregnate all of life with them. But their “theology of admiration” was always in danger of being reduced to a rational science.

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 (the practice of spiritual exercises) while contemplation, in turn, tended to become separate from both the Eucharist and from Christian ethics.

The rise of scholasticism in the 12th and 13th centuries, and of the new universities, established to train men to run both Church and State, provided the impetus for formation of new critical approaches and what became academic theology. And in the Middles Ages, the clergy became known generally as “the spirituality.”

Following the Reformation, institutions of theological education and professionalism in theological education developed apace from the 16th to the 19th centuries. But theology tended to be detached from “who we are” and this was a sad segregation. Since the High Middle Ages, there has been a real need to reunite the speculative theologian and the practical saint.

The word spiritualitas began to be used commonly in references to the spiritual life’ in 17th century France. But at first, the word spirituality was not always used in a positive sense, due mainly to the earlier clerical associations with the word.

The word spirituality then disappears from theological use until the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Once again, it appears first in French and is used in reference to the “spiritual life.”

What is spirituality?

So what is “spirituality”? And how can we integrate it into theology? A working definition of Christian spirituality needs to be focused on the Biblical understanding of the Spirit (ruach), which has a wide range of meanings, including: spirit, breath, wind, and that which gives life and animation.

Spirituality then is what animates a person’s life of faith and what moves that faith to greater depths and perfection. Or, as Mark McIntosh says: “What is mystical is not the inner experience of the Christian but the hidden meaning and transformative understanding discovered in Christ” (McIntosh, p. 43).

Spirituality has been called theology on its knees, but it is also theology on its feet, in labora as well as ora.

Spirituality is theology with soul – but not a soul without a body. A truly Christian spirituality will be incarnational – but it does 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 (pneuma, spirit) is not σωμα (soma, the body) but σαρξ (sarx, the flesh). Nor, needless to say, are the “sins of the flesh” essentially sensual (c.f. Galatians 5: 19ff.). We can say that the material, as such, is a spiritual matter.

It is no coincidence that liberation theologies are deeply committed to combining experience, reflection, action, with prayer, worship, and the Eucharist. But is this not a common teaching in all Christian traditions?

“Bread for myself is a physical matter,” said Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the Russian Orthodox religious philosopher, “but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual matter.” Any authentic Christian spirituality will have shalom – peace-and-justice – at its heart.

The German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the Roman Catholic mystical theologian, has said: “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.”

The elements that make up Christian life include, beliefs (Creeds, doctrines, &c), a set of values (e.g., hope and the promise of redemption, love of others, denial of self), and a way of life (the real, human life in which our values are embodied and expressed). In other words, an authentic Christian spirituality involves all parts of our way of life as Christians.

Putting all these together, we might say Christian spirituality is the quest for a fulfilled and an authentic life that involves taking the beliefs and values of Christianity, and weaving them into the fabric of our lives, so that they “animate” and provide “breath” and “spirit” and “fire” for our lives.

Christian spirituality involves the whole person. Christian spirituality involves the whole person (body, mind, soul, relationships), the entire fabric of our lives. It is a lived experience. And it involves experiencing and knowing – not just knowing about – God.

Christian spirituality is lived experience. Or, as Alister McGrath says, it is “a creative and dynamic synthesis of faith and life, forged in the crucible of the desire to live out the Christian faith authentically, responsibly, effectively and fully” [McGrath, p. 9].

Christian spirituality is the quest for a fulfilled and authentic life. That quest involves taking the beliefs and values of Christianity, and weaving them into the fabric of our lives, so that they “animate” and provide the “breath” and “spirit” and “fire” for our lives. At the same time, Christian spirituality needs to be true to our own personalities, and it needs to understand the differences of personality in other people. For example, those who rely more on verbal thinking will value and be enriched by spiritualities that emphasise spoken devotions and prayers, while those who value visual thinking will value and be enriched by spiritualities that emphasise images, pictures, art, and icons.

The Christian dimension to spirituality

Without certain attributes, spirituality cannot be said to be Christian. First and foremost among these attributes is a solid theological grounding. Without a solid theological grounding, spirituality loses its moorings and into other territorial waters. It quickly ceases to be Christian.

Today, we have all sorts of spiritualities in our post-modern shopping bag, ranging from Celtic to New Age spirituality. To a degree, the word “Spirituality” is in danger of being monopolised by fashionable therapies and by people who forget the history, traditions, Scripture, liturgy, and community of the Church. In some areas of work in spirituality, there is 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” and 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.

Spirituality is not about me and my efforts to feel good with God – indeed, these can be dangerous illusions and expectations. 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.

But Christian Spirituality will display these marks:

● Christ-centeredness,
● Submission to the Word of God,
● Submission to the Church.

It is possible for someone to build a spirituality without these attributes. But without all of these elements, any spirituality is unlikely to remain Christian very long.

1, Christ-centeredness: Christ-centeredness means simply that Christ is the central point, the continual focus of spirituality. There is no light within, no finding the demi-god in you, no self-deification. Christ is the centre of all. What we have is from him and not our own. This is a critical component in a truly Christian Spirituality for several reasons.

2, Submission to the Word of God: A spirituality that does not include being submitted to the Word will fail to be Christian in any sense of the word. As Christ the Divine Humanity is the central focus of spirituality, Christ the Logos is to be our guide and boundary.

3, Submission to the Church: Christian Spirituality should be in submission to the Church, but also to the church. Any Spirituality that diverges from the Historic Church will find itself also drifting from the Word and from Christ as its centre in due time. Even though we should not of necessity be a slave to tradition, traditions and teachings of the Church are useful guideposts.

Variety in Christian spirituality

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk who was one of the most influential spiritual writers of the last century, was a key figure in the development of modern approaches to spirituality. He warned that there is no view from nowhere, no tradition-less practice, no unmediated interiority, no silence unhaunted by speech … and no separation between spirituality and institutional religion.

Each tradition within the Church has a different emphasis in its spirituality and its spiritual practices.

For example, Roman Catholic spirituality will emphasise the divine reality in the sacrament. The Roman Catholic corporate sense of the Christian community as the body of Christ more easily accepts a corporate sense of Church authority. It is strongly liturgical, and in addition emphasises the role of Mary and the saints.

In Orthodoxy, spirituality has a strong sense of historical continuity with the early Church, and there is a strong sense of tradition. Within that tradition, a more sense-based spirituality has developed, with an emphasis on beauty in the liturgy and the use of the icons, the Jesus Prayer, and the high regard for monastic life.

What are the emphases within Evangelical spirituality? Among Evangelical Protestants we find an emphasis on the Bible. How many homes do you know where family prayer time is primarily reading from the Bible? Among Evangelicals there is an emphasis on salvation, summarised by someone as the contrast between Luther’s “theology of the Cross” and the Orthodox “theology of glory.”

A particular and unique evangelical contribution to Christian spirituality is the emphasis on the need for personal conversion, and with it an emphasis on converting others to Christ. Evangelical spirituality has also made a unique contribution to wider Christian spirituality through hymn-writers and through other writers such as John Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress.

It is important to find the roots of spirituality within our theological traditions, that is authentic within the tradition of our communities. There is a story associated with the Desert Father known as John the Dwarf that says:

“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.”

Is there an Anglican spirituality?

Is it possible to say there is an Anglican spirituality? And is so what are its characteristics? The foundation stones of Anglican theology, Scripture, Reason and Tradition, are also the foundation stones of Anglican spirituality. In this sense, Anglicanism truly offers the opportunity to integrate our theology and our spirituality.

Anglican spirituality is well-rooted in the affective-speculative balance weighing heart and head as well as committed to a historic orthodoxy that, if adhered to, will steer one clear of heresy. Yet, these two factors are critical to any Christian Spirituality, because without them heresy will inevitably result.

There are several identifiable hallmarks of Anglican spirituality. Some of these are distinct to Anglicanism, while others are shared with the other branches of the Church. But we could say:

1, Anglican spirituality is strongly liturgical. There is a principle in Anglican theology that says lex orandi lex credendi … in other words, the way we pray and worship determines the way we believe.

2, Anglican spirituality is sacramental.: Our sacramental experiences are “doors” or “windows” onto the real presence of God in the world, to the divine presence within creation.

3, Anglican spirituality emphasises the incarnation. In other words, Anglican spirituality places an emphasis on the “taking on” of part of the created order by God.

4, Anglican spirituality emphasises the goodness of creation and the physical world. This is based on a sacramental view of the word and the Anglican emphasis on the Incarnation.

Two hallmarks of Anglican spirituality are the Book of Common Prayer, which is deeply rooted in Benedictine spirituality, and the Anglican view of salvation.

The Book of Common Prayer:

Anglican spirituality and life have been influenced greatly by the Regula or Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule of Saint Benedict has been so influential in English life that England was once referred to as the “Land of the Benedictines.” In later English thinking, the three-fold Benedictine rule of worship – consisting of the Daily Office, the Eucharist or Holy Communion and family prayer – was applied not only to the clergy and monastics, but to the laity as well.

At the Reformation, Anglicans pulled Benedictine spirituality out of the monastery and into the parishes. The Book of Common Prayer took Benedictine spirituality into the streets and into home of parishioners.

As the Anglican spiritual theologian Martin Thornton so aptly states: “I shall also maintain that the Book of Common Prayer, as a system, is one of the most brilliant pieces of ascetical construction there has ever been, that it is the consummation of centuries of spiritual development, and that, regarded as ascetical theology, it is almost as Benedictine as the Regula itself” (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality).

The Book of Common Prayer is a system for life if it is properly used and used by all. Seen as a system, and not as a series of services, the Book of Common Prayer is then the common basis for the Christian lives of the bishops, the clergy, and the laity.

The basic Benedictine structure of Daily Office, private prayer, and Eucharist is found in the Book of Common Prayer, and although the unique, private prayer of the individual is not regulated in any way, its practice is assumed and encouraged. Having a Book of Common Prayer offers Anglicans as willing, disciplined disciples a system to maintain the Rule and thus work to apply Christ’s likeness to their lives in a time of severe spiritual disconnectedness.

The Anglican view of salvation

Anglican spirituality is wrapped in the Book of Common Prayer and the community experience that is inspired by Anglicanism at its best, is a good guide for the development of these sanctifying attributes in the life of a disciple.

The short and simple version of an Anglican view of salvation was summed up by Bishop Brooke Foss Wescott (1825-1901): ”I have been saved, I am being saved, I will be saved!” The Apostle Peter, in his second letter, has a set of verses that outline quite well the idea of Anglican justification, sanctification, and glorification (see II Peter 1: 3-11).

Sanctification is tied up in the Church. We should not forget that we are sanctified both individually and corporately. In the Church, we are sanctified by receiving Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion or the Eucharist, approaching him in worship, and living by his commandments in community. It could be argued that apart and separate from the Church Militant there can be no sanctification.

Some closing thoughts

Perhaps spirituality is one of those things that is easier to point to than to talk bout, to show than to say. From an Anglican perspective, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who has written extensively on Augustine, the Desert Fathers, the Carmelite tradition, and icons in prayer and spirituality, sees thought itself as a practice of askesis.

Archbishop 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, he says, 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.”

Authentic spirituality is an exilic practice – it is for pilgrims on a journey. Think of the night theology of Saint 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.”

There is an important sense, therefore, in which “spirituality” is almost synonymous with discipleship, with starting from exactly where I am, where you are, and taking the next step in following Christ wherever he leads me, leads you. Hence, as Simone Weil has pointed out, a good deal of holiness has to do with discernment, with attendre.

As John Webster says at the end of his book 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, is watchfulness, it is being alert to the present moment, it involves being disabused of illusion and fantasy and seeing what is really there. It is the toil to be truthful, it is the struggle against self-deceit, it is the purification of desire.

Next week: Lectio Divina

Bibliography and additional reading:

Alexander, Donald, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
de Certeau, Michel, The Mystic Fable (Chicago, 1992).
Hughes III, Robert Davis, “Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology/Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God,” Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999.
Jantzen, Grace M, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995).
McGrath, Alister, Christian Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).
McIntosh, Mark A., Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Challenges in Contemporary Theology series) (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
Sheldrake, Philip, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Trinity & Truth Series), (London: SPCK, 1995; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998).
Tertullian, “On Prescription against Heretics,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to AD 325, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), vol iii, p. 247.
Thornton, Martin, “The Anglican Spiritual Tradition,” in The Anglican Tradition (ed. Richard Holloway, 1984)
Thornton, Martin, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986).
Turner, Denys, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture/seminar in the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on Wednesday 5 November 2008.

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