Criteria for evaluating spiritualities

Spirituality as an area of study obviously needs tools both to analyse and to evaluate different traditions, their texts and other modes of self-communication. Given the plurality of contemporary approaches to spirituality, and the apparent novelty of some of them, the question of criteria for assessing what is authentically Christian takes on greater importance. These criteria will be based on central theological principles developed within the faith community. The process will involve addressing questions to spiritualities in order to discern theological dimensions that are often only implicit.

A number of contemporary theologians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have responded to the increasing appeal to experience in theology by developing criteria for evaluating religious experience. These criteria are also useful in terms of evaluating different approaches to spirituality. Theologians commonly approach the question on two levels. Prior to an examination of criteria drawn specifically from the Christian tradition, such theologians as Schubert Ogden and David Tracy agree that it is important to show that religious experience meets the basic demands of modern 'secular' knowledge and life. This is in terms of what have been called 'criteria of adequacy'. A further level consists of questions of faithfulness to a specifically Christian understanding of existence, termed 'criteria of appropriateness'. The contemporary work of David Tracy may be taken as a typical example.

The application of criteria of adequacy should not be interpreted as a reduction of Christian theology and spirituality to non-religious norms. What it implies is that neither spirituality nor theology can be innocent of generally accepted developments in human knowledge nor of the ways in which previously over-confident views of human progress have been undermined by recent, painful historical events. To put it simply, we have to take into account the new worlds opened up by cosmology, evolutionary theory, psychology and the social and political sciences. Equally, theology and spirituality can never be the same again after the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

Tracy suggests three broad criteria of adequacy. First, is a particular religious interpretation of experience meaningful? That is, is it adequately rooted in common human experience and related to our lived experience of the self? Put another way, what aspect of ordinary human experience, shared by many or all, is expressed here? And does it relate to reality as commonly understood? Second, is the specifically religious understanding of experience coherent? Any spirituality makes some cognitive claims in that it seeks to reveal meaning. Can these claims be expressed conceptually in a coherent way? Do they also fit with the generally accepted claims of scientific knowl—edge? Third, does the spiritual tradition throw light on the underlying conditions that make existence possible? Does it have anything to say about our human confidence in life being worthwhile? Does it affirm that 'the good' will have the last word? Does it confirm the underlying conditions for the possibility of existence in the human world? (Tracy 1975:64-71; see also Ogden 1963:122, 190-2).

While David Tracy argues the need for criteria of appropriateness (Tracy 1975:72-9), other theologians such as Dermot Lane and Walter Principe provide useful summaries of what these might be. In general terms, does a spirituality relate us to a God worthy of our complete loving involvement? Does it effect genuine conversion? Does a spirituality offer 'special' or individualistic experience or does it offer a connection to a wider community of experience? This latter criterion seems particularly important in a world where new religious movements sometimes appear to offer experience detached from commitment or open only to special initiates (Lane 1985:26).

More specifically Christian criteria would be as follows. Is a spirituality consonant with a Trinitarian God who is engaged with the human condition and with a belief in Incarnation and all that this implies? Does it, for example, recognize the priority of God's grace and Jesus' saving work over human effort? Is the view of God adequately personal or is it deist? On the other hand, is it adequately transcendent and 'other' rather than excessively anthropomorphic or pantheistic? Does the spirituality suggest a graced world or a world radically alienated from God? Is there an adequate view of creation as God's outpouring into the cosmos? In general, what theology of grace is implied in a given spirituality? Does a spirituality lead to choice or commitment inspired by the vision and teachings of Jesus Christ? Within the limits of legitimate diversity and of valid emphases, is it sufficiently 'catholic' in the sense of inclusive of the whole Gospel rather than selective, exclusive or unbalanced? On the other hand, is it excessively Christocentric by neglecting the role of the Spirit or, indeed, of a transcendent God to whom the teachings of Jesus point? Is the nature of the conversion described and offered related to the dynamics of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Does it not only have an individual dimension but also a social dimension in line with Jesus' teachings about the demands of the kingdom of God? How is the goal of the Christian life viewed? What models of holiness are presented?

What theological anthropology is present in a spirituality? Is the view of human nature excessively materialistic or is it, on the contrary, dualistic with a low theology of the human body and a detached theology of 'the spiritual dimension' of human life? How are human emotions judged? Is sufficient role given to imagination as opposed to an exclusive emphasis on intellect and will? What is the understanding of sin? How is suffering viewed? How is human work viewed? Is there a balanced and healthy evaluation of sexuality?

What understanding of prayer and contemplation is presented? Is its approach to mysticism elitist? Does it view Christian life essentially as one, in a common baptism, or does it tend to perpetuate a hierarchy of life-styles? Is there a balance between contemplation and action?

Does the spirituality, however radical and prophetic, exist in some kind of continuity with the experience of the Christian community across time and place? What is the role of Scripture and tradition? Is it peripheral and accidental or, on the other hand, is the approach fundamentalist? Is the spirituality excessively individualistic or does it relate to communal activity and worship? Does it manifest a balanced approach to authority? Is a spirituality compatible with the hierarchy of truths and values that exists within Christianity? For example, does a spirituality focus on a specific devotion or traditional activity to such an extent that it becomes unbalanced or reduced to antiquarianism?

Finally, does the spirituality have an eschatology and specifically one that encourages an appropriate balance between 'the now' and 'the not yet'? Does a spirituality allow a proper place for the value of human history? What is its understanding of the virtue of hope? (Lane 1985:27; Principe 1992:58-60).

When questions of evaluation of theologies and spiritualities are discussed nowadays, the critique offered of traditional approaches by, for example, liberation theology and feminist theory demands a 'hermeneutic of suspicion'. That is to say that questions provoked by contemporary values and understanding will be more critical than hitherto of the theological and social assumptions behind spiritualities. There is a greater awareness of their conditioning and of the need to expose hidden ideologies. Spirituality has, like theology as a whole, tended to marginalize certain groups whether they are women or members of cultures other than the dominant Eurocentric or North Atlantic ones.

Consequently, there may be a number of additional questions that are especially appropriate today. In general, are spiritualities open to the experience of 'the other', whoever that may be? Are they informed by human sciences that open us up to the widest possible spectrum of reality? Are spiritualities aware of the need for indigenization or are they more or less uncritical of their own cultural conditioning and consequent limitations? There may be some more specific questions. Does a given spirituality bear noticeable marks of patriarchy, unrestricted capitalism, racism, colonialism or individualism? Does it emphasize not merely charity but also social justice? Is it oppressive to any group of people and, if so, does this undermine its central values? Does it respect the dignity and rights of the human person? Does it foster maturity or immature dependence?

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