Leslie Houlden

A vastly greater number of persons concern themselves with what is put under the heading of spirituality and religious experience than with the concepts or content of belief, or indeed with the Bible. Many who would be reluctant to give adherence to formal creeds and churches or even to claim much in the way of religious conviction are ready to testify to experience identified as religious, however hard it is to define or account for. Rivalled only by ethics, this is the area in which religious reflection and activity have their most typical and pervasive expression. That expression ranges from inchoate yet often deeply felt private longings to the most meticulously worded and staged public liturgies. What these have in common is the quest for God or for 'the Other', or else (as it may rather be put) the response to the Other's quest for human creatures. Here we encounter the democratic heart of religion. In this sphere people of the whole gamut of intellectual capacity and of the complete social spectrum are brought to a certain equality. In this area too, deep discernment and foolish credulity may be mixed surprisingly at all levels of mental ability or apparent religious professionalism. From the investigative point of view, this is the prime field for the kind of enquiry that falls within the scope of the anthropology of religion and, in part, of the sociology of religion. The focus of this Part, however, is on religious thought, rather than on religion as a human phenomenon; but in this aspect above all, it would be wrong to lose sight of the inarticulate and even irrational hinterland behind its articulate manifestations.

As some of the following chapters point out, the isolation of spirituality or experience for special treatment, and indeed the very use of spirituality as a special term to describe this aspect of religious life and behaviour, would have mystified Christian thinkers over the greater part of the Church's history. All rational thought about God and the elements of Christian belief were part and parcel of the soul's search for the divine, all bound up with the journey of salvation. For what else could be the purpose of life but the attainment of union with God who had stepped into the human arena in Christ for our rescue? To articulate the faith and to engage in the quest were twin aspects of a single enterprise.

Only with the Enlightenment did it become at all commonly thinkable to reflect on God in a spirit of detachment, scepticism and even disbelief—and (more relevant to our present concern) in the context of a life in which prayer and worship played only a formal part or, eventually, no part at all. The non-practising philosopher of religion or even theologian is a modern phenomenon, who would have seemed to earlier periods as unlikely as a tone-deaf musician or a colour-blind artist. There would have been little sense of the virtues, in the quest for truth (now the motivating goal), of dispassionate and uncommitted enquiry.

Even committed Christian theologians, however, often came to share something of this separating off of Christian thought from the intensity of the quest for God. Symbolically, the home of theology, especially in the Protestant West, came to be the increasingly secular university rather than the monastery. There might (or, increasingly, might not) be a context of worship, but that was not, as in the monastery, the raison d'etre of the institution, the dominant element in life. The study or library, not the chapel, came to be the place where the action was.

Yet, ironically, it is only in relatively recent times that 'spirituality' has become identified as a distinct object of attention for religious thinkers of various kinds and as an academic discipline—a branch of theology as a whole; quite apart from the widespread popular interest it has come to attract. It is possible to see this development as a natural reaction and even protest against the stunting effects of the prevailing secularism. At the academic level, it is perhaps best looked at as one among a number of examples of the separating out of new objects of study—a much-needed breaking of the traditional mould of the academic agenda. Just as, at the popular level, there can in certain cases be something escapist and distorting, even enfeebling, about the isolation of 'spirituality', with its apparatus of withdrawal from life, from other aspects of Christian thought and activity, so its separation as a discipline of enquiry may have disadvantages. It may, for example, lead to the avoiding of the bracing challenges posed by philosophy of religion, ethics and biblical studies, and may lack something of the rigour of its near neighbour, systematic theology.

All that assumes, of course, that it is impossible to put the clock back—to restore a sense of theology as a unified quest, mustering all resources as appropriate for a single agreed enterprise, to seek that which may now be expressed as the divine mystery. Few people of sensitivity would, after all, deny the ineradicable and enriching character of this 'questing' tendency of the human spirit, whether it be seen as directed inwards, to the depths of the self, or outwards, towards God, however described. Not one unified enterprise surely, however: but perhaps many unified enterprises, with individuals and groups arriving at their own syntheses of theological thought centred on a purpose that transcends the supposed neutrality of the secular and does justice to the totality of human aspiration—that is a way in which spirituality might achieve a stabilizing and focusing role. But, given the present global context of religion as of all else, there is bound to be much diversity, much syncretism, much (in traditional Christian terms) indiscipline and even anarchy. Spirituality as an academic subject will not lack scope for analysing, ordering and assessing a mass of astonishingly diverse phenomena.

The chapters that follow examine Christian spirituality and experience in a number of different ways. They spell out and exemplify matters that have been adumbrated in this introduction. In the first, Philip Sheldrake gives a magisterial overview of the state and character of this aspect of theological enquiry. He draws a strong picture of its width of concern and its potential to give a unifying and practical perspective to theological thought.

The next four chapters are historical. Dealing with some of the major periods of Christian history, they demonstrate the many different styles of language and practice and the different aspirations that have marked Christian life down the centuries. The selected periods are the patristic, where both Eastern and Western Christianity are involved; the medieval West, with its (at least in retrospect) highly integrated world-view; the time of reform, both in the new Protestant sphere and in Catholicism; and the last two centuries, where the wide range of thought, both in the Churches and more under the shadow of the Enlightenment, is amply demonstrated. All these chapters should be read alongside those on the tradition of theology in Part II which they complement and with which, to a degree, they inevitably overlap.

William J.Wainwright's chapter reaches out in the philosophical direction. Moving beyond the narrowly Christian sphere, it discusses the language of religious experience and mysticism, analysing its use and validity.

In some circles in both past and present, spirituality has lived up to the implied rejection, seemingly present in the word itself, of the material context of life in this world. But alongside this world-fleeing tendency and, it may be held, truer to Christianity's foundations in the Incarnation, the thorough involvement of the divine within the world, there is also a persistent tradition of a spirituality that lives in the light of that involvement and seeks to extend it. Here the bond with Christian ethics is at its strongest. The twists and turns of this tradition, down to its modern flowering, notably in liberation theology, are set out by Kenneth Leech.

Finally, Christian spirituality has never been solely concerned with 'what a man does with his solitude'. Again, the essentially corporate and social character of Christian belief from its beginnings, with Christ seen as the inaugurator of a new, or renewed, people, together with the continuous experience of corporate worship, have meant that this side of the divine quest has in practice been dominant, even though it is the more personal side that comes out chiefly in the literary tradition of Christian spirituality. In the final chapter, Gordon Wakefield explores some aspects from Christian history of the liturgical expression of Christian spirituality and experience, in which individuals of many kinds have found common ground and the means of their nourishment.

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