Spirituality And Liberation

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Kenneth Leech

Christian theology, spirituality and social commitment are rooted in a belief in the importance, significance and sanctifying potential of matter. This belief is expressed formally in the doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection, and is manifested visibly in the materiality of the Church's sacramental celebrations, and in Christian action in the world. In contrast to the Platonist tradition, which lacked any real historical concern and saw the world in static terms, Christian theology is rooted in the historical and material realities of the flesh of Christ and of the community which grew out of his life, death and resurrection. Yet, although the opposition of soul and body, which we find in such writers as Plato, is alien to the orthodox Christian incarnational tradition with its emphasis on the central place of the body and of matter in the work of salvation and sanctification, it can hardly be denied that such dualistic ideas have influenced the Christian movement, Eastern and Western, at many levels, not least in its attitudes to sexuality and politics. A fear of flesh and politics has haunted the Christian tradition from its early days.

In the West, from Tertullian and Irenaeus in the early Church to Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century, the life of the spirit was seen as originating in the material and physical. The flesh, claimed Tertullian, was the pivot of salvation. Irenaeus laid particular emphasis on the reality of Christ's flesh and on the offering of material things in the eucharist, while Julian claimed that both our substance and our 'sensuality' are in God and together constitute 'our soul'. In the East, the mystical theology of Orthodoxy and its iconography have laid great stress on the transfiguring of the material world and of human personality. The Eastern theologian Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was one among many to stress the importance of the passions in spiritual life, and the need to transfigure the passions, not to transcend them. Other mystics of the Orthodox East, such as John of Damascus in the eighth century, stressed the need to deal with holy things in a bodily manner. As the leading figure in the opposition to the iconoclasts, John insisted that, while he did not worship matter, he did worship the Creator of matter, who, for his sake, 'became material', dwelt in matter, and through matter brought about his salvation. 'I will not cease from reverencing matter', he insisted, 'for it was through matter that my salvation came to pass.'

A Christian spiritual vision as expressed in such statements is thus a materialistic vision. It is a vision which is deeply and unashamedly materialistic, which values the creation, which rejoices in the physical, in the flesh, in human sexuality, and which is rooted in the principle that matter is the vehicle of spirit, not its enemy. When William Temple said that Christianity was the most materialistic of all religions, he stood within a long tradition of incarnational and sacramental materialism. It not only saw bread and wine as symbols of the transformation of all human resources; it saw the material world as the primal sacrament from which all others derived. Orthodox Christian theology refuses to tolerate a division between matter and spirit, or any disparaging of matter or the physical. To despise and undervalue the creation is to despise its Creator. Catholic Christianity stands or falls on this sacramental principle: and this must involve a break with those movements of Christian thought which see the spiritual as the antithesis of the material, and concern for social and economic justice as a hindrance to true spirituality. Such dualism is deeply alien to a sacramental materialism.

In spite of such witnesses, the influence of dualism and even of Gnosticism, with its view that matter and spirit are opposed, has been considerable. For the Gnostic, both sex and the polis (i.e. socio-political life) were sources of contamination. True spirituality consisted in an ascent from the realm of the carnal and worldly to that of the supernatural. One consequence of this kind of dualism has been a tendency, evident throughout Christian history, to associate 'spirituality' with passivity, and 'Christian discipleship' with social action and struggle, movements of change and reform, perhaps revolutionary political activity. It is widely assumed that a 'spiritual' emphasis is associated with the realm of the inward, and a lack of concern for the transformation of society; and that 'social concern' goes hand in hand with a lack of interest in the deeper realms of the spirit. So spirituality comes to be associated with dependence, activism with the assertion of autonomy. Some writers have approached the study of Christian spirituality itself by way of the theory of bimodal consciousness in which the features of the receptive mode (such as surrender, intuition, symbol) are contrasted with those of the active (such as logic, control, analysis.)

Yet the polarization of passive prayer and active discipleship in the world represents a fundamental mistake which has damaged the history of spirituality, and from which there has, in the last thirty years or so, been a growing process of recovery. Prayer is not passive, nor is action intrinsically hostile to reflection. Much early Christian writing on prayer stressed its active and dynamic features: Augustine saw prayer as the 'affectionate reaching out of the mind for God' while Gregory of Nyssa characterized the spiritual life as one of epektasis, straining forward. Prayer was closely linked with work, particularly with manual work, as in the Rule of St Benedict.

The importance of a balance between action and contemplation was expressed clearly by Augustine whose City of God was so important in shaping both the spirituality and the political thought of the early Middle Ages.

No one ought to be so leisured as to take no thought in that leisure for the interest of his neighbour, nor so active as to feel no need for the contemplation of God. It is love of truth that looks for sanctified leisure, while it is the compulsion of love that undertakes righteous engagement in affairs.

(Augustine 1972:880).

While Augustine certainly encouraged the division between the earthly city (ultimately the city of Cain and of the Devil) and the city of God, his work helped to create a world in which men and women could live together in community. According to Augustine, the city of God was both a pilgrim living by faith amongst the wicked, and a presence within the 'the stability of the eternal resting place for which it now waits in patience' (City of God 1). The design of medieval cities, made from stone and glass, in which God's people could live in peace, was the result of the theology of such thinkers as Augustine and Isidore of Seville (Sennett 1991).

From Augustine's time to the present, it has been widely recognized that movements of social transformation, if they are to survive and flourish, need a reflective, critical dimension, and a certain inner spiritual discipline of patience, stability and persistence. On the other hand, one strain in Christian thinking, from an early period, saw activity as particularly associated with the Devil. One amusing example of this approach is the Vulgate translation of the passage about the Devil from Psalm 90(91):6, used in the Office of Compline: negotium perambulans in tenebris—literally, the business that prowls around in the shadows!

In spite of such aberrations, the Catholic culture of the Middle Ages was rooted in a sense of the integration of activity and contemplation, and of individuals and community. The emergence of what was to become known as 'Christendom', while it was open to severe criticism, did seek to embody the unity of spirit and matter within a unified social order. The history of the medieval Church was marked by a complex dialectic of social upheaval and intense personal devotion with the eucharistic liturgy at the very heart of the culture (Rubin 1991). The monastic tradition, while at times it encouraged a view of the 'religious' life (i.e. in monastic and other similar communities) as spiritually superior to that of men and women in 'the world', was an attempt to embody Gospel values within a social framework of common life and activity rooted in prayer and worship. As such, it formed a microcosm of medieval culture as a whole. Within this essentially sacral context the idea of a fundamental cleavage between spirit and matter was inconceivable. It was the awareness of this unity which led the Anglican social theorist Maurice Reckitt to write:

If you had told any typical Christian thinker in any century from the twelfth to the sixteenth that religion had nothing to do with economics, and that bishops must not intrude in these matters upon the deliberations of laymen—propositions which to many of the correspondents to our newspapers appear to be axiomatic—he would either have trembled for your faith or feared for your reason. He would have regarded you, in short, as either a heretic or a lunatic.

(Reckitt 1935:12)

It was the disintegration of this culture which reinforced and developed some of the emerging fissures between the dimensions of Christian prayer and Christian life in society. Recent historical work has suggested that the ending of medieval Catholic culture had serious effects on the sense of Christian community, on the understanding of the transcendence of God, and on the experience of the holy (Duffy 1992; Somerville 1992).

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