This is once more late, but having summarised Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” (the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality  – the previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here), I want to return to this and say something more specific about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality” and the challenges that it poses to anyone who desires to be faithful to the historic Christian tradition.

As already noted, the word “spirituality” is used to mean almost anything today, and has a spectrum of meanings even when used in a consciously Christian context. It also seems clear to me that the most fundamental problem with much of the language of spirituality is related to its lack of theological grounding or, in some cases, with its deployment in theological projects that are decidedly at odds with Christian tradition.

This was illustrated for me a couple of months ago with the release of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. Now, I had been vaguely aware of Rohr for some time and the popular quotes of his that I had seen seemed to exemplify some of my concerns about the “spirituality” scene – one-liners that sound so appealing, but which I suspected were nevertheless part of a broader agenda. My suspicious were confirmed by this article, but I didn’t think much more about him until Amazon tried to sell me his Divine Dance. I wasn’t going to spend money on it, but I did wonder whether I was writing him off unfairly so listened to some of his YouTube talks, which further confirmed my suspicions. He may be a pleasant person and even have helpful insights, but his talks were full of caricature, half-truths, and the downright peddling of ignorance, which made me wonder how anyone could take him seriously.

I was therefore pleased to come across Fred Sanders’ critical review, Why I Don’t Flow with Richard Rohr. Apart from the obvious factual inaccuracies in the book (not only in terms of the misuse of the word “perichoresis” but also in terms of absurd made-up stories about mirrors), Sanders draws attention to Rohr’s fundamental misuse of the Cappadocian Fathers in his own attempts to undermine the distinction between God and creation. Sanders concludes:

And my long—forgive me—review has one main point: it’s that The Divine Dance isn’t about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a book about an alternative spirituality of Flow, committed to a metaphysic that refuses to recognize a distinction between God and the world. It’s one long looting of the language of Trinitarian theology, with an avowed goal of using that language to teach an entirely novel doctrine. I would oppose the doctrine of Divine Flow in any context where it came to my attention. But for this doctrine to be marketed as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is insupportable. This sustained misrepresentation is what makes this book a piece of false teaching in the church.

It is precisely this creeping monism that most concerns me about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality,” but I will hopefully return to that again. What I want to note now is the response of Rohr’s co-author, Mike Morrell, to Sander’s review. Instead of engaging with any of Sanders’ substantive points, Morrell basically rants. But, in doing so, his basic argument is that his and Rohr’s is a different approach that is just as legitimate, and claims that theirs is “an apophatic, social, process-oriented Franciscan approach,” while Sanders’ is “a kataphatic, hierarchical, substance-oriented Calvinist approach.” Quite apart from his misunderstanding of these terms, or the suggestion that this is a Calvinist issue (!), his basic argument is that what he and Rohr are doing is what “mystics” do, and so he appeals to another kind of experiential and mystical knowledge that would somehow excuse him from answering Sanders’ substantive points.

It seems to me that this is the core of the problem, namely, that the language of “spirituality” and “mysticism” is currently being used on a large scale to undermine historical Christian faith. And when people object to it, they are simply countered by an appeal to a different type of knowledge or, if they don’t know better, by the misquoting of Church Fathers or “mystics” to justify such positions. Now, there is a grain of truth in all this as there is such a thing as “mystical knowledge” in Christian tradition, which is perhaps something to explore in a future blog post. But it is certainly not what is being presented by Morrell and his self-identified “mystics.”

Of course, all of this also leaves us with the question: Does it matter? And is monism really such a bad thing? I hesitate to promise future blog posts given my terrible recent record, but that is what I would like to explore next.

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This blog series has been sadly disrupted. This post concludes my summary of Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” that forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts can be found here, here, and here. In the following post I hope to reflect on concerns raised in this essay against the background of recent events.

The previous post noted the weaknesses of descriptive and stand-alone approaches to Christian spirituality, particularly regarding their lack of theological and anthropological grounding. Father Golubov continues by arguing that “outside a proper theological understanding and grounding of its goals and purposes, Christian spirituality loses authenticity.” (Kindle Location 250) In response to this, he outlines some theological foundations for an authentically Orthodox Christian spirituality. These are:

a) There is a relationship between God and humanity that is rooted in “the one God, ‘the Ground of all Being,’ glorified and worshipped in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Divine Author of, and Provider for, all human life” and the “Supreme Lawgiver.” (Kindle Location 269)

b) Every human person is created in the Image of God and therefore has the possibility of a direct and personal relationship with God.

c) Every human person is created autonomous and free and is intended to acquire the Divine Likeness, which is our primary spiritual vocation but is dependent on our free choice.

d) God’s Divine philanthropia desires the welfare and salvation of all human beings, but always respects our human freedom.

e) The human race has been unable to live out human life according to the Divine purpose but has “through defiance and disobedience wilfully altered human nature as originally created, entering instead, into a fallen state of disintegration, corruption, and bondage to sin, being ‘wedded unto death.’” (Kindle Location 287)

f) Despite the present fallen state of human nature, human life remains a “a lived-out response to the creative Divine fiat (‘let it be’) which originally called man out of non-being into being; but it is only in rising to conscious awareness that the transcendent purpose and goal of life is to be found in God that human experience, sua generis, becomes the type of authentic ‘spiritual experience’ through which man arrives at profound understanding not only of the depths of human imperfection and brokenness, but also an abiding need for effectual deliverance and redemption.” (Kindle Location 295)

g) Since the fall, human nature has become corrupted and human beings are incapable of extricating themselves from their fallen state. They are therefore in need of divine forgiveness and reconciliation “through a healing reintegration of their relationship with God and with each other.” (Kindle Location 295)

h) God “so loved the world” that “in the fullness of time” He sent the Incarnate God-Man who, through His obedience and death, becomes the only Redeemer and Saviour of humankind, calling all to repentance and opening the way to the “re-perfecting” of human nature.

i) The human yearning for salvation responds to the Divine kenosis that flows from the Divine philanthropia and focuses on the Person of Jesus Christ. “It is from here, in one’s personal recognition of Christ as the unique Saviour and Redeemer of the world, that faith, indeed, becomes possible, and that an intentional and inspired Christian spirituality becomes a purposeful and integrative inner journey to the ultimate healing of the ‘old’ and ‘fallen’ human nature, through perfect union with the ‘resurrected,’ hence ‘re-imaged’ and ‘glorified,’ divinely-human (theanthropic, bogochelovecheskaia) nature of Christ.” (Kindle Location 311)

Father Golubov argues that it is precisely this theological challenge and promise that constitutes both the point of departure and the objective goal of authentic “Orthodox spirituality.” This is neither a theological abstraction of Christian doctrine, nor a “reification of Christian living and practice,” but is rather a “theologically informed discipline of living.” (Kindle Location 319) While it can be taught, such teaching and learning is not yet the fullness of celebration. In conclusion,

Understood symbolically, Orthodox spirituality is experienced sub specie aeternitatis (“from the perspective of eternity”) and lived out holistically, with inherent purpose and meaning, as a symbolic journey, or spiritual quest, in accordance with the commandments of the Gospel, through personal appropriation of the living and authentic experience of the ecclesial community (“Holy Tradition”), leading to the ultimate reality of deification (theosis) and Life Everlasting in the Eternal Kingdom of which Christ Himself is both Lord and King. (Kindle Location 331)

I haven’t abandoned this series, and will hopefully conclude the summary of this article in the following post. I do intend to engage with it more as I am noticing all sorts of resonances. Once I’ve finished this article, I will return to the Florovsky blogging, and possibly return to the rest of this book at a later stage…

Having noted some Orthodox objections to the term “spirituality,” Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective”* proceeds to consider western discussions of the term that emerged in the 1960s. He notes the work of Walter Principe and Ewert Cousins, before focusing on the contribution of Sandra Schneiders, which, he argues,

comes closest to Orthodox understanding – at least on the basis of ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ theology – and is useful to us precisely as a sounding board, as it were, for testing aspects of Christian spirituality understood specifically from the Orthodox perspective. (Kindle Location 190)

Schneiders summarizes Christian spirituality as:

personal participation in the mystery of Christ begun in faith, sealed by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nourished by the sharing of the Lord’s Supper [i.e., Eucharist], which the community celebrated regularly in memory of Him who was truly present wherever his followers gathered, and was expressed by a simple life of universal love that bore witness to life in the Spirit and attracted others to the faith. (201)

While it would appear that all the essentials are in place in this understanding, Father Golubov raises “a third major issue in a focused study of spirituality,” namely, that of “the theological context of the discussion, as well as the dangers of facile formulaic definitions taken out of such context.” (201) Spirituality is both formed and informed by theology, which raises the question of the theological meaning of Schneiders’ description. While she gives adequate explanations elsewhere, “in contexts wherein definitions of spirituality, such as the one given above, stand on their own merit, absent a larger framework of discussion, inevitable confusion arises about implicit theological assumptions standing behind such definitions.” (211)

This leads Golubov to argue that “The stark realization, ultimately, is that an externally descriptive approach to Christian spirituality is, at best, meaningless, absent the dimensions of theological definition and evaluation, appropriation and understanding of inner goals and purposes.” (211) Such a definition provides no clear answers to the question of Jesus Christ’s identity, nor does it clarify what “participation in the mystery of Christ” involves. Moreover, such a descriptive approach also lacks an understanding of human nature and the need for a transformational inner struggle.

Is spiritual metamorphosis, or transfiguration, a noteworthy component of Christian spirituality? Or is it that “a simple life of universal love” is somehow (how – magically?) to be attained without need for any internal striving or struggle (askesis) implicit in Christian living, without the necessity of self-denial and crucifixion of the self, as implicit in the injunction “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23-25; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26)? And is there, in fact, in “coming after,” or “following” Christ, a “way” to be travelled, a “spiritual journey” to be undertaken? Is there any movement, development, growth, direction on the way, or a goal that is to be achieved at the end of the journey? (230)

Finally, there is the question of the role of theology. Father Golubov argues that:

It is, in fact, theology, as intentionally engaged in the process of ongoing theological reflection, that directly imparts both meaning and direction to authentic spirituality, not only in the active categories of speaking or informing, but also in passive terms, as hearing and appropriating, or even in seeking deeper theological understanding.

From this perspective, then, beyond exhibiting the inherent weakness of a purely “descriptive” approach to spirituality, there is implicit in stand-alone definitions of Christian spirituality a certain theological naïveté that speaks, perhaps, to a larger failure of theological understanding; it is here, in fact, that we meet up, once again, with the difficult issues of Christian living that have been identified and raised by Evdokimov and Florovsky. (241)

To be continued…

* This forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts on it can be found here and here.

Having noted the importance of context and the meaning of words in his preface to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality, Father Alexander Golubov turns his attention to the confusion around the word “spirituality” in the contemporary West. Quoting Paul Evdokimov, he notes that:

the word “spirituality” has nowadays acquired an almost faddish quality. It is glibly used in many different, almost contradictory, contexts to point to, or describe, certain aspects or modes of human “being,” as represented by beliefs and practices that are deemed to be of a “spiritual” nature, but which most often do not easily fall into the comfortable frameworks either of so-called “institutional religion” (as elements, properly, of religious belief or religious doctrine), or, alternatively, of an essentially secular-humanist, rational and empirical mindset that tends to negate religiosity on principle, as something vaguely old-fashioned and retrograde, thus inappropriate for modern public consumption, and tends to see the primary locus of spirituality as being somehow situated apart from, or in opposition to, religion. (Kindle Location 99)

Nevertheless, spirituality can include a curiosity about Christian and non-Christian ascetical and mystical traditions. This includes:

expressions of Orthodox culture as seen through the prisms of Orthodox liturgy, architecture, iconography or literature (i.e., the “writings of the fathers”) all of these, indeed, can easily fall into loosely construed denotative and connotative categories of this fuzzy and slippery word. (Kindle Location 109)

Given this, it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Mantzarides likewise argues that the term “spirituality” is unknown in the biblical and patristic tradition and derives from Western theology, contrasting the religious life of the faithful to that of the world, and being in danger of reducing Christianity to an ideology. He writes:

Spirituality is an abstract concept which has no place in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Spirituality is the mother of materialism, together with whatever distorts and dissolves the universality of the truth of Christianity. Therefore, the concept of ‘Orthodox spirituality’ must be abandoned. (Kindle Location 130)

While both Harakas and Mantzarides make claims that could be challenged, it nevertheless seems clear to me that much of the language of “spirituality” emerged out of a western Christian context that had lost the earlier unity between theology and a lived life of faith. And it is this unity that persists in an Orthodox understanding and that should make us cautious about adopting words that have a particular history. However, as Golubov notes, this concern is not unique to Orthodox Christians but has also been discussed among western scholars.

To be continued…

I have recently started reading Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality and it seems that it could be a book worth blogging on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I do intend to resume blogging on Father Georges Florovsky. However, my copy of Bible, Church, Tradition has been in a box in Cape Town for the last few months (although it is now on its way here), while I have Orthodox Spirituality on my Kindle. Whether I do blog through the rest of this book remains to be seen (and for those who are interested Emma Cazabonne has reviewed it here).

However, it occurs to me that the foreword by Father Alexander Golubov addresses a topic that I have long been interested in, and that I have sometimes alluded to on this blog, namely, “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective.” “Spirituality” is a word that has become popular in many Christian and academic circles – in stark contrast to the suspicion with which it was viewed in my undergraduate days thirty-odd years ago. Yet in the meantime, I, who once devoured books on the “mystics” and persuaded my lecturers to allow me to shape courses around them, have become decidedly wary of it (and of its cousin “mysticism”).  But it is not that easy to articulate this wariness, or at least I have not yet got down to doing so. And, frankly, I sometimes wonder if I am just being impossibly pedantic objecting to it at all.

It was therefore rather a relief to realise that the publishers of a book with such a title considered that there was at least a question to be addressed, and Father Golubov’s essay resonated with me at several points. It therefore seems worth noting some of them.

The first point that Golubov makes is the relationship between the context in which theological language operates and the broader frame of reference in which it is heard. Christian truth is not meant to be preserved in some cultural ghetto, but preached to the whole world. The context in which Orthodox Spirituality was written was that of the confessing Orthodox Church in twentieth century Romania in which

the authentic ‘Orthodox spirituality’ of the Church, in a very real sense, stood in understated opposition to an all-encompassing pressure of a patently ‘false spirituality’ propagated by the social and religious doctrine of Marxist scientific atheism, a battle standard, as it were, that permitted not only resistance and survival in a hostile environment, but also inspired the inners struggle for victory. (Kindle Location 53)

Golubov argues that contemporary Western culture has much in common with this hostile environment. He quotes Father Georges Florovsky who writes:

It is precisely because we are already engaged in the apocalyptic struggle that we are called upon to do work as theologians. Our task is to oppose the atheistic and anti-God attitude, which surrounds us like a viscosity, with a responsible and conscious profession of Christian truth… Unbelieving knowledge of Christianity is not objective knowledge, but rather some kind of anti-theology. There is in it so much passion, at times blind, often obscure and malignant… Here again, theology is called not only to judge, but also to heal. It is necessary to enter into this world of doubt, illusion and lies, in order to answer doubt as well as reproach. But we must enter into this world with the sign of the Cross in our heart and the name of Jesus in our spirit, because this is a world of mystical wanderings, where everything is fragmentalized, decomposed and refracted as it were through a set of mirrors. (Kindle Location 72)

While Orthodoxy and the West share a common history, as Orthodox theology once more engages in a Western context, it faces the challenge of finding a comprehensible language in which to be faithful to the patristic tradition.

Here, too, spirituality as a concept acquires layers of meaning and significance not simply as descriptive terminology applied to the topography of Christian life, or as designating a particular field of academic inquiry and a formative goal of the seminary curriculum, but also as a significant commonality bridging the cultural fissure between Christian East and Christian West. (Kindle Location 79)

To be continued…

These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

Every year at this time (when we start using the Liturgy of Saint Basil during Great Lent), I am reminded that the Anaphora of Saint Basil is one of the best statement of the Christian faith that I can think of. I saved this as a draft post two years ago and never got to posting it. But I was reminded of it again this morning and thought it worth posting, for I can think of few better expressions of what we believe.

Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

Source.