Spiritual classics and hermeneutics

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The complexity of historical and textual interpretation in reference to spiritual classics has received increasing attention in recent years. Previously, histories of spirituality tended to present and analyse spiritual traditions in relative isolation from their wider social and historical contexts and paid scant attention to the contingency of their theological assumptions. Classical spiritual texts were treated as though their perspective and language raised no major problems. There was an assumption that the meaning of a text consisted of the literal sense of the words and the intentions of the author.

The adoption of the phrase 'signs of the times' by the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, and the suggestion that Christians must pay proper attention to those signs, were an important indicator of a major theological shift that was taking place more broadly. History was no longer incidental to redemption. Faith was not opposed to history. No separation is possible between religious history and the world which this history unfolds (Ruggieri 1987:95-104). A consequence for the study of spiritual traditions is that they must be seen as existing within the limitations of history. Their origins and development reflect the circumstances of time and place and the mental horizons of the people involved. For example, the emphasis on radical poverty in the spirituality of the thirteenth-century mendicant movement was both a spiritual and social reaction to the conditions of Church and society at the time. This does not imply that spiritualities, and the texts that arise from them, have no value beyond original contexts. However, in order to appreciate the riches of a spiritual classic we need to take context seriously and to adopt a critical rather than naive approach to their interpretation.

Hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, has long been at the centre of the debate about how Christians are to read the Scriptures. This is because such texts are intimately bound up with Christian identity and experience and are accorded the status of 'revelation'. However, the insights of contemporary hermeneutics have become increasingly important when the interpretation of spiritual texts is addressed. This is because certain texts have been accorded a kind of normative status in some Christian circles, e.g. the Rule of St Benedict in monastic communities or The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola among many retreat-givers.

While all spiritual texts are historically conditioned, some move beyond the time and place of origin and become significant influences in new contexts. These are what we may call 'classics'. In other words, they continue to disclose something that is compelling, challenging and transformative in terms of what is perceived as central to the Christian experience. Some people have consequently described such texts as 'wisdom documents'. The literary genre of such texts is often related to their continued success. Usually they are pastoral rather than purely technical, stimulate the imagination in different ways and have the capacity to persuade and move the reader to a response that is affective as well as intellectual (see Tracy 1981: ch. 3).

Because we live in a historically conscious age, we are inevitably aware of different perspectives when we read classical texts. If interpretation is not purely for antiquarian purposes, the question arises as to how far to respect a text's conceptual framework, structure and dynamic in relationship to contemporary Christian living. Certain answers would be naive. On the one hand, it is possible to ignore the author's intention and the text's inner structure and to use it, or elements of it, simply as it suits us. On the other hand, it is possible to assume that the author's intention alone is normative, assuming that this can be reconstructed. In the first case we subordinate the horizons of the text to present need and in the latter case we subordinate present horizons to the past. Both approaches assume that to arrive at the relevant 'meaning' of a text is relatively simple. In contrast, a more sophisticated and also more fruitful approach to interpretation would involve a receptive yet critical dialogue with the text. This enables its own wisdom to challenge the contemporary reader and yet accords a proper place to present-day questions.

In the dialogue between the horizons of a text and contemporary questions, the text's historical context is a vital starting point. Spiritual 'classics' usually addressed specific concerns with a specific audience in mind. Modern literary criticism reminds us that even if words in an ancient text initially appear familiar, the assumptions that lie behind the words are different from our own and that, consequently, words change their meaning across time and place in nuanced and even substantial ways. When reading a text it is also important to recall that the moment of its creation and the moment of our reading are not totally disconnected. Between the two moments lie the subsequent history of the text and a tradition of interpretation which affects our own moment of reading.

However, there are limits to the value of historical knowledge in isolation. For example, because texts employ the conventional categories of their age, what we encounter in a text is not direct experience of another time but what a text claims. In other words, texts are already interpretations of experience rather than merely records of it. Some texts, for example the Long Text of the Showings of Julian of Norwich (the fourteenth-century English woman mystic), are explicitly interpretations of experience based on hindsight. However, to acknowledge the interpreted nature of texts does not undermine their value. Indeed, subsequent reflections on experience may be more relevant to those who seek to use a text than the particularity of the original experience alone. For example, the Gospels are creative re-workings of earlier oral and written traditions about Jesus that the Gospel writers allowed to interact with the contexts and needs of their audiences. This creative approach is part of the value of the Gospels for readers in subsequent ages.

There have been developments in hermeneutics in recent years. The conventional approach, inherited from the nineteenth century, had as a basic premise that the values brought to a text by the reader are a problem for a correct interpretation. The new hermeneutics, however, emphasizes that a text has possibilities beyond the original author's conception that may be evoked in a creative way by questions arising from the new religious worlds in which a classic text continually finds itself.

An interpretation of spiritual classics also takes place in the use of texts (for example, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola in retreats). For this reason, the example of the performing arts may be helpful in understanding the new hermeneutics. Thus, musicians use a text, the score, which they interpret. A 'good performance' will certainly be true to the score in the sense of accurately reproducing the notes and observing the composer's main instructions. This is because performers cannot do simply anything with Sibelius and still call it his Seventh Symphony. However, those of us who have heard 'dead' musical performances will know that a good performance must go beyond mere accuracy. It must also be creative. As with music, so with a classic spiritual text. In this sense, there cannot be a single, true interpretation. Every 'performance' is in some sense a new interpretation (Lash 1986: ch. 3).

Thus, there is a dialogue between a classic text and the reader in which both partners may be challenged. A text may reveal a genuinely new interpretation yet the reader may also be provoked into a new self-understanding. Understanding a text implies not constant repetition but constant reinterpretation by people who question and listen within their particular historical circumstances (Gadamer 1979). A concrete example would be the way that interpretations of the Rule of St Benedict have, while retaining some common features, produced different monastic life-styles over the centuries.

Finally, as has been mentioned, contemporary approaches to interpretation emphasize a 'hermeneutics of suspicion' as well as one of 'consent'. On the one hand, we 'consent' to a text in that its origins, author's intention and consensus of interpretations over time exert some kind of normative role that prevents the reader from exploiting the text. On the other hand, the questions provoked by contemporary horizons may be critical of aspects of the text and its theological or cultural assumptions. An uncritical reading may simply reinforce hidden prejudices, for example anti-Semitism (John 1988).

3 Typologies and spirituality

There have been a number of attempts to differentiate spiritualities according to 'type' based on theological criteria. To speak of 'types', however, assumes that Christian spirituality is plural. Until the early 1960s it was assumed that all spiritualities were essentially the same. This resulted from the dominance of a systematic and deductive spiritual theology that proceeded from universal principles. It was the collapse of this approach, coupled with a recognition of the relationship of spirituality to historical context that pointed to the plurality of spirituality and made it impossible to reduce the diversity of spiritual experience to universal formulae. It is possible to argue, of course, that a fundamental unity of all spirituality in Christ is prior to any diversity. Christologically, all spiritualities meet and flow together (von Balthasar 1965:5-13). Yet, Christianity is a religion of incarnation and thus cannot retreat from the particularity of history into some kind of 'timeless truth'. Each generation of Christians, and members of diverse cultures, are challenged to respond to the Gospel within the circumstances of their time and place.

Three typologies of spiritualities in relation to theological emphases merit particular attention. First, there is the classic division between the via negativa (or apophatic theology) and the via positiva (or cataphatic theology). Second, there have been attempts to distinguish between Protestant and Catholic 'mentalities'. Finally, in recent years, there have been several attempts to classify spiritualities in terms of their eschatologies or their evaluation of history and the world as contexts for spiritual transformation.

Apophatic and cataphatic theologies

The words 'apophatic' (emphasizing silence, passivity and the negation of images of God) and 'cataphatic' (emphasizing images of God, and created reality as a context for God's self-revelation) are often used to describe mutually exclusive spiritual paths and theologies. However, the origins of this distinction in the writings of the pseudonymous sixth-century writer,

Pseudo-Dionysius, make a rigid distinction questionable. There, cataphatic and apophatic theologies are essentially complementary. Creation is a self-revelation of God's goodness because it results from an outpouring of divine life. God can be affirmed and named, for example as 'good'. Yet, even the Christian affirmation of God as Trinity ultimately reveals God as unknowable. Paradoxically, through our relationship to God we realize that God is not our possession or an object of knowledge. Consequently, it is through a way of 'denial' that we move towards the deepest knowledge of God. Contemporary usage of the words apophatic and cataphatic simply to describe different forms of prayer is therefore misleading. Any typology must allow for the fact that they are theological concepts related to our ways of apprehending God and as such are mutually complementary (Louth 1989; Sheldrake 1991:191-8, 211-13).

Protestant and Catholic mentalities

Protestant and Catholic Christianity have developed distinctive forms of religious consciousness, but do these concepts distinguish fundamentally different spiritualities (Sheldrake 1991:198-205)? One approach to this question contrasts an emphasis on the individual hearer of the Word (Protestant) with an emphasis on membership of a sacramental community (Catholic). The main proponents of this viewpoint are two representatives of the Reformed tradition, Franz Leenhardt and Hieje Faber (Leenhardt 1964; Faber 1988).

The 'Protestant', Abrahamic, type emphasizes dependence solely on God, hearing God's word, repentance, prophecy and an eschatological kingdom. God is transcendent and a figure of authority, is essentially free and continually calls humans to a response. The 'Catholic', Mosaic, type involves a journey of faith within a community and a tradition. God is present and is associated with priesthood, cult and place. The stress is on the glory of God made visible and tangible. The medium of reception is the eye (ritual) more than the ear (proclamation).

Another approach emphasizes different understandings of human communion with God in terms of immediacy (Protestant) and mediation (Catholic). The power of sin and an awareness of separation from God drive one either towards a reliance on human mediation (ritual and priesthood) or towards liberation from sin and guilt by total dependence on God's grace. Both types agree that salvation is by grace and through Christ but the foundations are essentially different. For the Protestant, God forgives sin once and for all and salvation is assured solely by God in a completely free act. Catholic spirituality, by contrast, suggests that God, by grace it is true, actually makes human actions worthy in the divine sight. Room is left for human action even if initiated by and dependent on grace. If Catholic spiritualities speak of the human search for God and of spiritual ascent, Protestant spiritualities speak of God alone seeking and descending to us.

Such attempts to use 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' as absolute types come up against a number of problems. For example, as biblical types, Abrahamic religion allows for ritual and theophany and Mosaic religion emphasizes trust and hope in the promises of God. With regard to immediacy and mediation, it is now better understood that certain strands of pre-Reformation spirituality emphasized the immediacy of communion with God more than mediation and that the Reformers drew a great deal on these in their views on salvation and God's relationship with humankind (for example, Pannenberg 1984:15-22; Veith 1985:25). Equally, Protestantism, both in its Lutheran and Reformed strands, in the end encompassed a complex of emphases on grace, free will and human cooperation with God. At the institutional level, 'Protestant' may of course include High Church Lutheranism in Sweden and the fundamentalism of the American 'bible belt', while 'Catholic' encompasses liberation theology and Archbishop Lefebvre.

Eschatologies and spirituality

Finally, there have been attempts to create typologies in terms of attitudes to history and eschatologies. Kinerk asks how spiritualities evaluate the world and human history as contexts for self-transformation (Kinerk 1981). There are four types. The first, classically expressed in mystical spiritualities, says 'no' to the world and history. The second, for example Ignatian spirituality, says 'yes' to both. The third, expressed for example in monasticism, says 'yes' to the world but 'no' to history. The fourth type, for example Francis of Assisi or prophetic movements, says 'no' to the world but 'yes' to history. The four types are not graded but are treated as equally important with equal weaknesses.

A more complex typology, derived from Richard Niebuhr, examines the relationship between Christ and culture from the viewpoint of eschatology and distinguishes a number of possibilities (Wainwright 1986). 'Christ against culture' views the world as hostile to the kingdom of God. Eschatologically, the kingdom is 'not yet' or elsewhere, for history is beyond redemption. Embodiments of this approach include Pentecostalism and primitive monasticism. 'Christ of culture', on the contrary, affirms the world as it is. The eschatology identifies the kingdom with the world or avoids eschatological language altogether by rejecting a human fall from grace. The Reich Church of Nazi Germany would fit this category. Each of these first two types is interpreted as cripplingly deficient. Three further 'types' are more balanced in their attitudes to human culture. 'Christ above culture', while emphasizing a positive view, recognizes the need for purification. The eschatology emphasizes the redemption of all creation. This tends to favour the present effectiveness of Christ's action. Examples cited are Orthodox spirituality and the hymns of Charles Wesley. 'Christ and culture in paradox' is more world-

denying. Eschatology is both 'now' and 'not yet'. Spiritualities emphasize struggle and paradox. Contrasting examples are the holy fools of the Celtic and Russian traditions but also Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 'Christ the transformer of culture' views the world positively and suggests that any corruption is a perversion of its essential goodness. The eschatology points to the beginnings of the kingdom in history through various processes of dying to self. Yet there is an urgent impulse towards final completion. Liberation spirituality finds a place in this type alongside Augustine, certain aspects of Methodism, and Ignatian spirituality.

One may argue about the validity of placing specific spiritual traditions in one type rather than another. Equally, the theological assumptions behind any typology need to be exposed. It is dangerous to adopt a single typology as the sole means of differentiating spiritualities. However, the attempts to highlight eschatologies and theologies of history remind us of the necessarily intimate relationship between spiritual experience and theological mentalities.

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