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.

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the introduction to Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby pointing to Christ’s relationship to His Father as the foundation of Christian prayer, which He transmits to His disciples by teaching them the Our Father.

Even before there was a Creed to sum up the Christian faith, this simple text epitomized what it means to be a Christian, precisely in the form of a prayer – that is to say, that new relationship between God and man which the only begotten, incarnate Son of God established in his own person. This is surely no coincidence. (11-12)

Human beings are created in the image of God but are also destined to grow into the likeness of God. The most essential thing about our humanity is that it is relational, a relationship that is akin to that between an original image and its copy.

Yet this relation is not static, like the one between a seal and its impression, for instance, but rather living, dynamic, and fully realized only through becoming. (12)

Just as Christ is the “face” of God who is Person, and is turned towards humanity, so too we as created personal beings have a “face.”

The “face” is that “side” of the person that he turns toward another person when he enters into a personal relationship with the other. “Face” really means: being turned toward. Only a person can have, strictly speaking, a real “counterpart” to which he turns or from which he turns away. Being a person – and for man this always means becoming more and more a person – always comes about “face to face” with a counterpart. Therefore Paul contrasts our present, indirect knowledge of God, “in a mirror dimly [Greek: en ainígmati = enigmatically]”, with the perfect eschatological beatitude in knowing God “face to face”, whereby man “shall know as he is known”. (13)

This spiritual essence is reflected in our corporal nature.

To turn one’s face toward another or deliberately turn it away from him is not something indifferent, as everyone knows from daily experience, but rather a gesture of profound, symbolic meaning. Indeed, it indicates whether we want to enter into a personal relationship with another or want to deny him this.

The purest expression of this “being turned towards God” to be found here on earth is prayer, in which the creature does in fact “turn” towards his Creator, in those moments when the person at prayer “seeks the face of God” and asks that the Lord might “let his face shine” upon him. In these and similar phrases from the Book of Psalms, which are by no means merely poetic metaphors, the fundamental experience of biblical man is expressed, for whom God is not an abstract impersonal principle, after all, but rather is Person in the absolute sense. God turns towards man, calls him to himself, and wants man to turn to him also. And man does this quintessentially in prayer, in which he, with both soul and body, “places himself in God’s presence.” (13-14)

A Christian should humbly recognise that God is a mystery beyond anything which might be attributed to him. A person who attempts to comprehend God’s essence is, according to Gregory [the Theologian], like someone who runs after his own shadow: the faster he runs, the faster the shadow moves. The way towards God can never end with the comprehension of God’s essence: its end is silent amazement before the mystery. In this state all discursive knowledge falls silent.

The heroine of the Song of Songs seeks her lover but cannot find him, pursues him and cannot reach him. The image of the pursuit has been interpreted in the Christian tradition, for example by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, to mean the soul’s pursuit of God, who eternally flees from her. The soul seeks God, but no sooner does she find him than she loses him again. She attempts to comprehend him, but fails to do so, endeavours to embrace him, but cannot. He moves with great speed and always transcends the soul’s capabilities. To find God and to catch up with him would mean that we had become divine ourselves. The laws of physics dictate that if the material body were to travel at the speed of light it would turn into light. So it is with the soul: the closer she is to God, the more she is filled with light and becomes a bearer of light.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) 24.