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.

If one asks, What does it mean to find the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? the answer is not so obvious. Finding means more than getting things straight or discovering the most appropriate analogy in human experience for the Triune God. There can be no finding without a change in the seeker. Our minds, he says, must be purified, and we must be made fit and capable of receiving what is sought. We can cleave to God and see the Holy Trinity only when we burn with love.

Robert Louis Wilken, speaking about St Augustine understanding of the Trinity in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, 108.

I noted this a couple of days ago and was reminded of it a few minutes ago when I read the addendum to Aaron’s latest post. (And, contrary to what it may seem, this blog does not simply exist to send traffic to his site, but what can I do when he posts stuff like this…?)

And this is the order of our faith, the foundation of the edifice and the support of our conduct: God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, one God, the Creator of all: this is the first article of our faith. And the second article: the Word of God, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man. And the third article: the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God.

For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles, granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit: for those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents them to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility. Thus, without the Spirit it is not possible to see the Word of God, and without the Son one is not able to approach the Father; for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit, while the Spirit, according to the good-pleasure of the Father, the Son administers, to whom the Father wills and as He wills.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, On the Apostolic Preaching, 6-7.

Yes, I know, I probably shouldn’t just be quoting this – apart from anything else, if I do it too much St Vlad’s may end up suing me! But who am I to improve on St Irenaeus? And this seemed worth posting in its entirety.

A couple of thoughts come to mind. Firstly, I think that it was Karl Rahner who said – I think approvingly – that if the Trinity were dropped from the language of the last few centuries of western theology, it wouldn’t make much difference to Christian life. The more I have been immersed in Orthodox liturgy, the more I have realised that this is the last thing that could be said about Orthodoxy, and reading Irenaeus here just confirms that! Secondly, the theme of recapitulation   (cf. Ephesians 1:10) is absolutely central to Irenaeus’ thought, and indeed to the faith of the Church, something that we are made particularly aware of in the Lenten and Paschal texts. Yet until a few years ago, I was barely aware of this! And, thirdly, leading on from there, salvation is not a juridical act, but the destruction of death in our flesh in order to re-establish life and incorruptibility and renew us to God.

So, faith procures this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us: firstly it exhorts us to remember that we have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, [who was] incarnate, and died, and was raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God; and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life and rebirth unto God, that we may no longer be sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and everlasting God; and that the eternal and everlasting God is above everything that has come into being and everything is subjected to Him, and that which is subject to Him is all made by Him, so that God does not rule nor is Lord over what is another’s, but over His own, and all things are God’s: and therefore God is the almighty and everything is from God. [3]

Saint Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching

We see here Saint Irenaeus insisting both on the link to the apostles and that God is the Creator of all, which establishes a relationship between God and His creatures. He proceeds by insisting that God was not made by anyone else, but that everything was made by him, and that there can be no other God or creator. Moreover, God creates by His Word and His Spirit:

…since the Word ‘establishes’, that is, works bodily and confers existence, while the Spirit arranges and forms the various ‘powers’, so rightly is the Son called Word and the Spirit the Wisdom of God. Hence, His apostle Paul also well says, “One God, the Father, who is above all, and through all and in us all” – because ‘above all’ is the Father, and ‘through all’ is the Word – since through Him everything was made by the Father – while ‘in us all’ is the Spirit, who cries “Abba, Father,” and forms man to the likeness of God. Thus the Spirit demonstrates the Word, and, because of this the prophets announced the Son of God, while the Word articulates the Spirit, and therefore it is He Himself who interprets the prophets and brings man to the Father. [4]

Very quick notes: The link to the apostles is clearly crucial for Irenaeus. His insistence on God as Creator and Father is in contrast to Gnosticism. Somewhere in his book on the Trinity, Fr Boris Bobrinskoy discusses Irenaeus’ thought more fully – if I had the book here and the time, I would look it up, maybe again! Finally, it is illuminating to see how the both the doctrines of the Church and of the Trinity were clearly by the end of the second century.

What is essential to remember, here [in the thought of St Irenaeus], is, on the one hand, the double movement of the Father who sends the Spirit on creation through the Son, but also of the Spirit who returns and brings the creature back to the Father, also through the Son. The Son will always be the mediator in all things; man’s entire life, his most incarnate, most fleshly human existence, will be summoned and made capable of being transparent to the action of the Spirit. Consequently, the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries in His work of permeating, of penetrating, precisely, this flesh or this human being He must soften, which He must constitute into one bread, one body, the Body of Christ. … It is the same action of the Holy Spirit on the Son and on the Church; it is the same action of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and in man himself. Man too, to the degree that he becomes conformed to Christ, in the Church, through the Holy Spirit, becomes, in turn, “sacrament”: he becomes a sacrament of the new life, which means that his body rediscovers why it was created. The totality of the human psycho-physical composite, our entire created reality is capable of being penetrated, of being filled with the divine life. If the sacraments are symbols, if they are signs, they are this because the human body, man’s natural being, is this in the first place. I would call this the anthropological finality, and the continuity of the sacraments in the life and in the building up of the new man.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 205-206.

Maxime Egger continues this biographical introduction to Father Boris Bobrinskoy’s The Compassion of the Father by turning to Father Boris’ theological vision, where he detects the paradoxes of light-darkness and descent-ascent that run through several themes.

Central to Father Boris’ theology is the theme of the vision of God which is summed up in the words: “To see heaven open.”

The opening of the heavens by Christ is fundamental and irrevocable because it is of an ontological order; through it we are already in the mystery of the Trinity and in the Church. However, who of us can boast about the vision of God. As for the apostles, it can only be provisional because our eyes are still covered with scales, darkened by our passions. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overtake it,’ St John said” (Jn 1:5). (32)

However, darkness has not only a negative, but also a positive connotation.

When I speak of darkness, I often think of Christ carried in the tomb and descending to Hades, and of these Gospel words: ‘Except a grain of wheat fall in the ground and die, it abides alone, but if it die, it brings forth much fruit’ (Jn 12:24). This is a deep spiritual reality that appears very well in icons, particularly those of the Nativity and of the Resurrection: before being illumined, the darkness must become the place of germination of the Light, in silence, in expectation, like some type of secret becoming. Our entire being, all our intelligence, must penetrate into the inner darkness to meet Christ and be changed there; must carry out the turning of conversion, the baptismal rebirth, and reemerge thus into the Light. The entire old man must die, must surrender to the Lord, in order to be reborn and live again. No being can reach the Light without passing through such darkness. (32-33)


This permanent worship, in spirit and in truth, given to the Father places Christ in a double relation of love for the Father and of mercy for the world. Jesus stands at the intersection, at the crossroads of the conflict and the reconciliation of the world with the Father. It is in the prayer of Christ, in His permanent and perfect worship, that the relations of the world and God are unveiled in their hidden truth, reaching a degree of extreme tension. Far from being absent from the prayer of Christ, the world is intensely present in it, in two ways: a) because Christ summarizes in Himself humankind, recapitulates it, takes up the burden of its sin, presents Himself to the Father by carrying upon his shoulders this load of iniquity and sin, “the One who knew no sin, was made sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21;  see Gal 3:13); and b) because this world and this humanity are the object of the supplication of the Savior, of His heavenly intercession. (157-158) …

In the Spirit, the Church evokes the Savior’s entire work of redemption, but also, inversely, the cosmos, creation, all of humanity projected in Christ, recapitulated, and restored in Him. Here we discover the concept of “extensive Christology.” This means that the redeeming Pascha that the Church memorializes is the heart of the world’s history, its most real and decisive destiny. The Church gives thanks to the Father for Jesus and remembers Him. In the power of the Spirit, this  memorial of the Church is creative: it transcends space and time, makes us contemporaries of the Jesus of history, of the creative Logos, of the crucified Christ, exalted at the right hand of the Father; contemporaries, that is, of the One who is, who was, and who is to come. The tribulations of Christians behind all the iron curtains of the world sensitize us more to the ecclesial and cosmic memorial of the Cross and Passion of the One who recapitulates and sublimates in Himself all human suffering, who wipes away every tear. …

It is necessary to widen the memorial of Christ to a remembrance of the saints, the deceased, the suffering, the living, of all the members of the Body of Christ. It is necessary, finally, that the memorial of the divine Christ, historic and whole, culminates in the eucharistic communion which introduces us at the same time to an encounter with the risen Christ who becomes more intimate, more inward than our inmost self. But eucharistic communion also means life in common, a sharing with all the members of the Body of Christ, the saints, the deceased, the living; the eucharistic communion therefore actualizes the real, sacramental presence of the entire Church, in the totality and the fullness of her faith, her tradition, and her holiness. All this is immersed in the eucharistic Body and Blood we consume and which consume us, which we assimilate and which assimilate us. (184-185)

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999).