Academic journal article
By Hughes, Robert Davis, III
Anglican Theological Review , Vol. 81, No. 3
Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology. By Mark A. McIntosh. Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. xi + 246 pp. (index). $28.95 (paper).
Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God. By Philip Sheldrake. Trinity & Truth Series. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1998. xvi + 246 pp. (bibl. and index). L12.95 (paper). US: Orbis Books, 1999. $20.80 (paper).
These two recent works in theology and spirituality are essential reading for anyone interested in the growing academic discipline of spirituality, the beginning recovery of a serious spiritual theology in Christian circles, the practice of Christian spirituality and spiritual direction, or the theological revival in Anglo-Catholic and English-speaking Roman Catholic circles. They also appear in distinguished series with which interested readers should be acquainted. McIntosh's book is in the Challenges in Contemporary Theology series from Blackwell, edited by Lewis Ayres and Gareth Jones, which already includes David Cunningham's These Three are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology and Catherine Pickstock's fascinating After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Sheldrake's latest book appears in Darton, Longman and Todd's new Trinity and Truth series, edited by Bishop Stephen Sykes of Ely, which already contains a number of distinguished volumes, including Sykes's own recent work on the atonement. Not only the two books under review, but both series as wholes represent a new and vigorous movement in Catholic theology (Anglo- and Englishspeaking Roman, and indeed recent Eastern Orthodox) often called "radical orthodoxy."
Both books, in fact, are at some pains to locate the importance of a new dialogue between theology on the one hand and spirituality and mysticism on the other, in the light of several trends which help define this new movement. First, like the "radical orthodoxy" movement itself, both accept the critical problems and anxieties about selfhood and knowledge which come under the large umbrella of "postmodernism," without critically embracing the ideology or conclusions of any particular school of such thought. Along with others, both have recognized in that strange book, Michel de Certeau's The Mystic Fable (Chicago, 1992) a unique opportunity to recover a more holistic spirituality from underneath modernity's shrunken empirical ego and relegation of spirituality and mysticism to the social and political margins of elitism and the paranormal. In this light, both also make use of the seminal works in this stream by Denys Turner (The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge, 1995) and Grace M. Jantzen (Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge, 1995).
Second, both works respond to the widespread disaffection with an academic systematic theology which has been divorced from its experiential roots and thereby lost much of its ability to address, in a meaningful way, actual faith communities and their practice of the Christian life. Both envision specific ways in which a new conversational relationship between spirituality and theology may help heal theology of this deprivation.
A third and complementary point, however, is that spirituality has also suffered from this divorce. Until recently, academic studies in spirituality have been dominated by a pluralist approach to interfaith dialogue, which has led to conceptualizing spirituality in generic and experimental terms. This has fed and been fed by a vague sort of "new age" eclecticism in the culture which has been suspicious of all institutional religion and its doctrines. These two works, like many others and indeed the general trend in history of religions studies, now emphasize the doctrinal and contextual differences between world faiths (even while maintaining dialogue), and seek to reground spirituality in the history, practice and doctrine of specific faith communities, in this case Christian. …