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.

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

The second chapter of Being and Communion, of which I recently finished my rather interrupted summaries, deals with “Truth and Communion” and serves to highlight the interrelatedness of Christology and ecclesiology. Zizioulas outlines how, for the Fathers, truth comes to be identified with life and with true personhood which is given to us in Christ and in the communion offered in His Body the Church. Such truth is fundamentally ontological; it is an expression of what is, of a reality that exists beyond the fragmentation of our fallen existence.

In reflecting on these themes I could not help but be struck by how they jar with many contemporary assumptions about the Church, at least in the western circles that I come from and am sometimes exposed to. There seems to be a false antithesis between the Church as institution and the Church as a community of individuals. The latter may see themselves as in opposition to the former, or they may co-operate with it pragmatically, or they may identify themselves in various ways with the institution. But there seems to have been a break in our consciousness of what it means to be the Church, of what it means to celebrate the Eucharist in unity with the bishop who recapitulates his Church, of what it means for the Church to birth us and form us in communion.

There are no doubt various reasons for this which relate to the loss of the awareness of Christ’s presence in the Mystery of the Church in the western Church in the second millennium, some of which I may try and post more on again. On the one hand, there were developments that strengthened the role of the papacy and resulted in a focus on the Church as institution (and undermined not just the role of the bishops but also their theological significance). And, on the other hand, there was the break that occurred with the institution in the Protestant Reformation, which also had earlier antecedents and parallels in some later Catholic approaches.

However, underlying this, and making it possible, seems to be a loss of ontological identity. In a recent post, Father Gregory Jensen of Koinonia highlighted a text by Christos Yannaras on “Pietism as an Ecclesiological Heresy”. While Yannaras refers in the first instance to Protestant pietism, he clearly sees it as having earlier roots and parallels in other traditions. In its focus on the individual and its “social” understanding of the Church, pietism “undermines the ontological truth of Church unity and personal communion.”

Once the Church denies her ontological identity – what she really, essentially is as an existential event whereby individual survival is changed into a personal life of love and communion – then from that very moment she is reduced to a conventional form under which individuals are grouped together into an institution; she becomes an expression of man’s fall, albeit a religious one. She begins to serve the “religious needs” of the people, the individualistic emotional and psychological needs of fallen man.

Yannaras sees such pietism as heretical, even though it is difficult to name it as such, for one of its characteristics is the undermining of any speech about heresy by prioritizing “love” over “dogma” and by disconnecting religious distinctiveness from truth.

Pietism undermines the ontological truth of the Church or totally rejects it, but without questioning the formulations of that truth. It simply disregards them, taking them as intellectual forms unrelated to man’s salvation, and abandons them to the jurisdiction of an autonomous academic theology. Pietism preserves a formal faithfulness to the letter of dogmatic formulation, but this is a dead letter, irrelevant to life and existential experience.

In that particular, this real denial of the truth of salvation differs from previous heresies. It does not reject the “definitions,” the limits of the Church’s truth; it simply disconnects this truth from the life and salvation of man. And this disconnection covers a vast range of distinctions and nuances, so that it is exceptionally difficult to “excommunicate” pietism, to place it beyond the bounds within which the Church’s truth and unity are experienced. But this is precisely why it is perhaps the most dangerous assault on this truth and unity.

Such perspectives are extremely difficult to challenge for their assumptions are deeply rooted in “the historical and cultural conditions which have shaped western civilization over the last three centuries” such as “the spirit of individualism, rationalism and utilitarianism, the priority given to rationalization, the myth of ‘objectivity’ and the ‘values’ it imposes…”

I find this a sobering analysis but also one that illuminates many of the attitudes that I seem to come up against. One of these, as I’ve alluded to before, is the split between spirituality, dogma and Church. In this the Church comes to be seen in abstract institutional terms, dogma as something for that is relegated to an academic theology disconnected from the life of faith, and “spirituality” emerges as an autonomous discipline independent of Church and dogma and even as the possibility for undermining them. This seems to me to be remarkably akin to the dynamic that Yannaras is speaking about in pietism, but, as he notes, acknowledging its heretical nature is not easy as it is so deeply rooted in our society and, furthermore, it seeks to undermine the very notion of heresy.

Another point worth noting, and perhaps coming back to, is that I sometimes find myself wondering whatever happened to the rediscovery of the living reality of the Church in the theological and liturgical renewal of the twentieth century. Yannaras’ argument would suggest that such a renewal was always going to have a hard time because the cultural factors militating against it are so deeply ingrained. Thus recovering the Mystery of the Church as an ontological reality will continue to require a deep and ongoing conversion.