Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Some Problems in Contemporary Christian Spirituality

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Some Problems in Contemporary Christian Spirituality

Article excerpt

In the huge burgeoning of writing and activity in the area of Christian spirituality in the last two decades I believe that there are some very serious confusions and misunderstandings. They concern confusions in the definition and scope of spirituality, and misunderstandings deriving from English usage, the relation of spirituality and religion, inner and outer life, and private and public life. I will attempt to resolve these with some help from my teacher, Paul Tillich, among others.

I can summarize the main confusions and misunderstandings in the following way. It is commonly assumed that spirituality is an optional matter, that some people are more spiritual than others and some not at all, that spirituality is essentially a good thing (the more spirituality the better), that while spirituality is somehow related to religion it should be sharply distinguished from religion as something superior to and more important than religion, that spirituality is essentially a matter of the inner or interior life (while religion is a matter of the outer life), and that therefore spirituality is essentially concerned with private life rather than public life. In brief I believe that these common assumptions are erroneous and lead to damaging results in contemporary spirituality. I should add, of course, that these confusions and misunderstandings are not universal. My point is that they are widespread.

As against these assumptions I believe that spirituality is something universally human, that all people are spiritual, that spirituality and religion are practically synonymous, that spirituality, therefore, is as much concerned with the outer life (of the body, community, institutions, liturgy, tradition, doctrine, ethics, and society) as with the inner, and that spirituality is as much concerned with the public life of citizenship and work as with private life.

First, the matter of definition and scope. I suspect that a large part of the problem here lies in the fact that the term "spirituality" is relatively new. Although it was apparently coined in the seventeenth century (when it was used pejoratively!) and has been used occasionally since then, it has come into common usage only in the last two or three decades. (The 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does not list the contemporary meaning. ) Because of this relative novelty, it seems to have been assumed that "spirituality" must be distinct from religion or the Christian life, or that it is some special aspect of the Christian life.

I believe, however, that spirituality is most fruitfully defined as the sum of all the uniquely human capacities and functions: self awareness, self transcendence, memory, anticipation, rationality (in the broadest sense), creativity, plus the moral, intellectual, social, political, aesthetic, and religious capacities, all understood as embodied. As Paul Tillich has put it, "Man's whole life, including his sensual life, is spiritual."1

(This is based on Tillich's definition of "spirit" as the unity of depth and form or power and meaning, and the telos of life. This in turn is elaborated as the unity of the two sides of the three polarities of ontological elements, power [individualization, dynamics, and freedom] and meaning [participation, form, and destiny]).2

This is the formal definition of spirituality. The material definition is the manifold forms in which these capacities and functions have been actualized in human history, namely, the variety of convictions, commitments, associations, and practices by which people have realized, interpreted, ordered, and guided their lives.

The upshot of this definition is that spirituality is universal among humans and not optional. All people are spiritual. Hitler is just as spiritual as Mother Teresa. Spirituality can be good or bad, life-enhancing or life-destructive. Thus spirituality should not be used as an honorific but as a descriptive term. …

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