From Spiritual theology to Spirituality

In recent decades a major shift has taken place in Western theology. The move has been from a more deductive, transcultural theology towards serious reflection on experience of God in its cultural particularity and pluriformity In harmony with this shift, and partly provoked by it, understandings of the Christian life have also changed. 'Spiritual theology' has given way to a more dynamic and inclusive concept, 'spirituality'. The result is that the separations noted at the end of the medieval period and reinforced by post-Enlightenment emphases, have begun to break down. First, 'spirituality' is an inclusive term that is not limited to elites such as monastic celibates. 'Spirituality' has broadened beyond attention to a limited range of phenomena, for example mysticism, to include the values and life-styles of all Christians. 'Spirituality'

has gained considerable ecumenical acceptance and so studies of spirituality tend to draw upon the riches of a shared Christian heritage rather than to limit themselves to sectarian understandings of 'life in the Spirit'. The term has also found favour in inter-faith dialogue and is no longer limited to Christian experience. More contentiously, 'spirituality' has been used to describe the deepest values of people professing no coherent religious belief system (Schneiders 1986:253-74; 1989:687-97; Van Ness 1992:68-79).

Second, spirituality has become more closely associated with theology and biblical exegesis than it has been over the last few hundred years (Bechtle 1985). A number of major theologians and theological 'schools' once again take experience seriously as a subject for reflection. This has been associated with a renewed theology of grace and of the human person. In some cases, reflection on experience, and the question of the relationship between experience and tradition, have become the heart of theological method. One specific area where there is a fruitful dialogue is the interrelationship between spirituality and moral theology (O'Donohoe 1987). Moral theology has moved away from a concern primarily with the quality of actions to a greater interest in people's dispositions of character. There has been a shift from human actions to the human agent and an increasing awareness of the basic unity between the moral and the spiritual life. A number of writers have suggested that the joint task of contemporary spirituality and moral theology is to explore renewed understandings of 'virtue' (that is, what enables a person to become truly human within a commitment to Christ and aided by the action of grace) and 'character' (or what we should be, rather than do, if we are to become fully human persons).

Third, spirituality is not so much concerned with defining 'perfection' in the abstract as with surveying the complex mystery of human growth in the context of dynamic relationships with God. Equally, spirituality is not limited to interiority but seeks to integrate all aspects of human experience. Clearly this affects its actual definition. The broader the compass, the greater the problem of coherence and the danger of subsuming spirituality into 'religion in general'. Thus, 'the spiritual life is the life of the whole person directed towards God' (Leech 1977:34). The British theologian Rowan Williams rejects an understanding of spirituality as the science of 'spiritual' and private experience: 'it must now touch every area of human experience, the public and social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world' (Williams 1979:2). Contemporary theorists accept that definition becomes more complex once we cease to separate the spiritual dimension of human existence from materiality. Whatever the problems, contemporary spirituality as an area of reflection attempts to integrate religious and human values rather than to concentrate exclusively on such matters as stages of prayer.

For some people, the contemporary emphasis on experience as the starting point for spirituality is associated with an attempt to define it in generic terms, that is, 'spirituality as such'. In practice, spiritualities are specific and have particular doctrinal referents. This is what makes it possible to sift the authentic from the unauthentic in spirituality (Principe 1992:56-60). Every religious tradition has tests for the authenticity of spiritual experience based not only on broadly human considerations but also on the foundational beliefs of the tradition. Generic definitions of spirituality are problematic because spiritualities are always conditioned by context and embody the language of a tradition, its themes and symbols.

The emphasis on experience in contemporary spirituality does not in fact exclude specific reference to tradition. Even if there is some common ground between different faith traditions (e.g. Christianity and Hinduism) regarding the meaning of 'spirituality', that is, the development of our capacity for self-transcendence in relation to the Absolute, nevertheless Christian spirituality is increasingly related to explicitly theological themes. While spirituality, in Christian terms, concerns not some other life but simply human life at depth, our understanding of what this means arises from what Christian revelation and tradition suggest about God, human nature and the relationship between the two. Christian spirituality derives its specific characteristics from a fundamental belief that human beings are capable of entering into relationship with a God who is transcendent yet dwelling in all created reality. Further, this relationship is lived out within a community of believers that is brought into being by commitment to Christ and is sustained by the active presence of the Spirit of God. Put in specific terms, Christian spirituality exists in a framework that is Trinitarian, pneumatological and ecclesial.

Spiritual experience is not 'naked' in the sense of being free from values and assumptions drawn from faith traditions. Nor is it entirely private but exists within systems of religious discourse or behaviour—even if these, in some cases, are implicit rather than expressed in public membership of some faith community. This seems to indicate that members of different faith traditions do not simply describe their spiritual experiences differently but actually have different experiences in significant ways (Lindbeck 1984:30-45).

Theologians and religious experience

A number of significant theologians or theological traditions in recent decades have explored the reintegration of spirituality with theology by focusing attention on religious experience. Among these have been the Roman Catholic theologians Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, liberation theology and feminist theology.

The Canadian philosophical theologian, Bernard Lonergan, directed a great deal of his attention to theological method. His 'transcendental method' explored religious experience, and particularly conversion, as the heart of theological enquiry. There is a movement within human consciousness from attention to experience, to understanding what has been experienced, to judgement in the light of understanding, to final choice or decision in terms of what has been understood. In other words, human intentionality moves from desire to knowledge to action in a process that involves personal consciousness being drawn towards the Ultimate, Love, God (Lonergan 1972:6-20, 101-24, 235-66).

Perhaps more than any other theologian, Karl Rahner has made acceptable the language of 'openness to mystery' and 'self-transcendence', both of which concepts had long been familiar to students of spirituality. The mystery, of course, is God in whom is our origin, within whom we live and towards whom we are drawn in a movement of self-transcendence. Rather than starting with God, Rahner begins his theological enquiry with our shared human experience. There is a kind of knowledge that is acquired by being in existence. This is 'experiential knowledge'. As social beings, this knowledge reaches the level of reflection and communication in us. An aspect of this existence and experience of it is a sense of responsibility and of freedom to choose. To this extent we exist 'beyond' the world and its causes and in this sense transcend it. The questions that arise, therefore, are: where do we come from (if not solely from the world) and where is our transcendence leading us (if the world cannot define our limits)? It is this ultimate questioning (or transcendental experience), confronting us at every turn, that Rahner reflects upon as a starting point for speaking of God (Rahner 1966:3-22; 1971:2546; 1974:68-114; 1984, passim).

In the case of liberation theology, the method involved is not simply inductive rather than deductive—that is, reflection on human experience in a general sense. It is reflection on the quite specific daily experiences of Christian communities in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere that exist in conditions of massive poverty, human suffering and oppression. It is also reflection on the experience of a people, a collective experience rather than that of isolated individuals. In this tradition, theology and spirituality are essentially intertwined from the start and at all points. There is, therefore, no question of bridging a gap or of bringing two discrete disciplines together. As Gustavo Gutierrez suggests, 'the kind of reflection that the theology of liberation represents is conscious of the fact that it was, and continues to be, preceded by the spiritual experience of Christians who are committed to the process of liberation' (Gutiérrez 1984:1). Note, it is a spiritual experience, not merely a socio-political one, that is reflected upon. Equally, it is the case that valid theology is lived (orthopraxis) and so the actual following of Jesus Christ in concrete circumstances, not merely reflection on 'discipleship', is an essential theological 'moment' (ibid.: 35-71).

Feminist theology also suggests a profound integration of experience and reflection. 'As the experience of God's salvation in Christ and the response of individuals and groups to that salvation, spirituality can be understood as the source of both theology and morality' (Carr 1990:202). Again, this is dialectical because theology and morality also work upon spirituality in that they may criticize and transform what is often an unconscious pattern of convictions and behaviour in relation to God. While generalization is hazardous, it seems that much feminist theology seeks to move theological anthropology away from a dual-nature position to a single-nature one (ibid.: 117-33). While there are observable differences between the sexes regarding styles of understanding and relating to self, others and God, these result from the power of historical conditioning (ibid.: 204-6). Thus, it is argued, feminist theology and spirituality are not essentially reflections upon distinctively female ways of relating to God in contrast to male. That is more appropriately termed 'women's spirituality'. By contrast, feminist spirituality has specifically integrated a critique of patriarchal tradition and lives out of this consciousness (ibid.: 206-14).

In such contemporary theological approaches, a disjunction between the God who evokes a feeling response and the God of systematic theology is undermined. Older styles of theology, affected by limited understandings of 'scientific' truth and which set great store on objective, value-free knowledge, as well as on the overwhelming importance of coherent systems, always had problems with spirituality. Personal experience was rejected as having no place in the essentially rational and logical compendium of faith. Today, the frontiers of theology are more likely to seek articulation in a method and process that is experiential.

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