Starting Over: The Holy Spirit as Subject and Locus of Spiritual Theology

Article excerpt

The burgeoning interest in "spirituality" is too obvious to be missed. Alongside tendencies towards a New Age1 there is a genuine revival of classical Christian spirituality. This more focused movement can be seen in new seminary courses, training programs at diocesan and local levels, and new scholarship embodied in the formation of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality and a number of scholarly journals devoted to the subject. Seemingly endless debates about what "spirituality" means as practice and as an academic discipline have arisen.2 Nevertheless, both studies and pastoral practice have flourished in four areas: (1) resources for introducing people to the disciplines and traditions of the spiritual life;3 (2) courses, programs, and literature on the theory and practice of spiritual direction/spiritual formation;4 (3) recovery of the history and literature of classical Christian spirituality;5 and (4) a hermeneutical or phenomenological approach, highly interdisciplinary, relating Christian spirituality to philosophy of religion, psychology, and non-Christian religious traditions.6

Missing from this blossoming resurgence, until recently, has been spiritual theology, that is, disciplined Christian theological reflection on the source, nature, and shape of the Christian life in the Holy Spirit. Important recent works have explored the territory and offered powerful suggestions for moving forward;7 but as far as I know there has been no attempt in this new situation to provide a systematic spiritual theology of the sort that was ubiquitous in Catholic (including some Anglo-Catholic) circles for the two centuries preceding Vatican II.8 There are a number of reasons for this, including a deep sense that there has been too vast a shift in world-horizon for the older manuals to have much relevance, even while many of us recognize real wisdom in what they contain.9 It seems terribly difficult to get started today on such a project, because the old foundations of the discipline do not provide a place to begin, and the current discussions on "spirituality" do not further the conversation.

There are many tasks relevant to making a new beginning for the discipline. In this essay, I want to suggest a systematic and construetive contribution: one of the difficulties we have in getting started or restarted is that the Western theological tradition has saddled us with a wrong systemic location for the discipline, and current discussions have not really resolved that difficulty. I propose to do three things here to contribute to a new start: (1) to provide a quick review of the reasons for the collapse of the tradition of spiritual theologies; (2) to note briefly the current discussions about approaches to the study of Christian spirituality and the place of theology in that study; and (3) to articulate three propositions for moving forward: (a) the proper subject of a theology of the Christian life is the Holy Spirit and herl mission; (b) more immediately, the object of study of spiritual theology is primarily the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Missio Spiritus, and only secondarily the impact on the human community or individual life; and (c) the proper locus for spiritual theology, therefore, as a theology of the Christian life in the Holy Spirit, is pneumatology. More precisely, I propose that spiritual theology proper is structurally to pneumatology as soteriology is to Christology. These propositions, taken together, at least provide us with a place to restart the discipline.

The Rise and Decline of the Classic Model

The rise and precipitous decline of spiritual theology as a discipline has been well documented in recent years, most especially by Philip Sheldrake and Eugene Megyer, from whose accounts the following summary is largely drawn. 11

It is generally agreed that in early patristic times there was no separation of theology and spirituality, a characteristic that remains true of Eastern Orthodoxy to this day. …