Spirituality


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.

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…

This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful.  Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?

Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)

Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s points about spirituality in my second last post highlight a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.

This was highlighted for me by a recent interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio. He is (or was) a leading South African theologian, a Methodist, who has worked in a liberationist mode and is now arguing for the importance of “spirituality.” He states:

For me, spirituality has to do with having an openness towards life and towards truth. It means wanting to move beyond any closed ideological, dogmatic system. It also means a willingness—and, in fact, a desire—to discover what lies beyond the material. I’ve often said to myself that the question of God and the question of the divine are more important than the answers. It’s a very, very arrogant thing to begin to describe who God is or what the divine is. Yet these questions range from the relationship between religion and the sciences to ethical inquiry, and certainly to political justice, reconciliation, and coexistence. In that sense I regard myself as a very spiritual person. But I find myself resisting institutional forms of religion that try to impose upon me and everyone else a definition of the divine. It’s openness that I think is really important.

I am highlighting this not to attack Villa-Vicencio or to engage in polemics about liberal Protestantism or liberation theology – and conservative Catholics and Orthodox finding common ground in demonizing such people is another one of the things that I find quite distasteful about some online interactions. I have never met Villa-Vicencio, but I do know several people with a similar background to his who would espouse similar sentiments. These are well meaning, good people who sincerely believe in what they are doing and who often display real Christian concerns, often at great personal cost. In fact, his comments in this interview struck me precisely because they made concrete the sort of attitudes that I often encounter and which I nevertheless find it difficult to pin down so that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

There are of course a cluster of ideas associated with such developments which I suspect have deeper roots in the development of western theology. Thus we find a reaction to “institutional religion” which points to a total loss of consciousness of the Mystery of the Church which is reduced to simply being an institution. (In fairness to Protestants, I have also found this attitude among Catholics and suspect that it is rooted in the transformation of western understandings of the Church in the second millennium). And, allied to this, we find a rejection of dogma in favour of “openness” and a refusal to draw boundaries (something that I hope to return to again). At which point I suppose that one does have to start asking whether this whole phenomenon can really be considered Christian.

However, what has sometimes struck me in such discussions is the appeal that some make to apophatic theology that is reflected in Villa-Vicencio’s comment about theological arrogance. I remember being in a WCC meeting where Protestant theologians responded to Orthodox concerns about their use of gender-inclusive language for God on the basis that “we cannot know what God is.” At a superficial level apophaticism can simply lead to a speculative nihilism or to an “anything goes” approach, and Villa-Vicencio is certainly not the first whom I have heard invoking it in such a way as to lead to outright relativism. But such an appeal to “the apophatic tradition” is all-too-often unaware of the dogmatic rootedness of this “tradition.”

I was struck by this while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to the Selected Writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. For Maximus, as I dare say for other Fathers, our supreme ignorance of God is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of Him which is made possible through the Incarnation of Christ.

“Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And he answered his own question: “This only faith understands, adoring the Logos in silence.” It was, then, a genuine understanding, but one that appropriately expressed itself “in silence” rather than in words. Not even the words of the orthodox dogma, for which Maximus contended and suffered all his life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. “Theological mystagogy” transcended the dogmas formulated by the councils of the Church. A spirituality shaped by Orthodox apophaticism, therefore, was one that gratefully acknowledged those dogmas and was ready to defend them to the death against those who sought to distort them, but that, at the same time, willingly – in fact, worshipfully – acknowledged the limitations that had been placed on all knowledge and all affirmation, be it human or angelic. (9)

In Orthodox theology, apophaticism cannot be separated either from dogma or from worship which are so closely intertwined as to form one whole. I once commented on the irony that it is those traditions, whether liturgical, iconographic or theological, that pay most attention to correct detail, that are best  able to lead us beyond the limitations of human expression.

Indeed, it is the uniting of the polarity between knowing and unknowing that is the heart of faith, and those who insist on the limitation of human language to speak of God, are the first to lay down their lives to defend its expressions. For faith has a name, and a concrete history. It is the revelation of God in Christ and His continued presence in His Body the Church.

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