(This is Neil) This post isn’t about liturgy, but perhaps an even more tangled issue: spirituality. I suspect that many of us, whether in pastoral ministry or not, have heard the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This claim usually means that the person in question lives according to certain deeply felt values and meanings in the light of which specific religious doctrines and rituals, while useful at particular times, can’t be considered as generally obligatory. Obviously, this claim can and should be interrogated. Does the “spiritual” person grasp that the self is estranged from God and needs to be disciplined by specific religious doctrines and rituals to overcome distractions and avoid the real danger of fantasy and self-deception? When does “spirituality” become nothing more than a form of consumerism?
But while the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is problematic, we shouldn’t uncharitably assume that it is necessarily superficial or that it reflects “postmodernism.” We also shouldn’t suppose that “spirituality” lacks any historical antecedents at all. It is true that the concept of “spirituality” doesn’t have very deep roots in the history of Christian theology, although it has etymological origins in the Latin spiritualis and the Greek pneumatikos. And, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has pointed out, only one American publication before 1800 had “spirituality” in its title, and that was a collection of hymns to be sung in community, not anything like a guide to the interior “spiritual” life. But, as Leigh Eric Schmidt also points out in a very interesting short article (sub. required), our use of the word “spirituality” comes to us from 19th century American Protestant liberalism.
This means that the language of “spirituality” does come, perhaps inevitably, from a particular religious tradition, and, should we choose to use it, we are – consciously or not – in dialogue with American Protestant liberalism. We might now want to retire the word “spirituality” and remove ourselves from a fruitless dialogue. Or we might find this dialogue to be profitable – I lean in this direction, since Catholicism and American Protestant liberalism have, to some extent, a common patrimony (see my post here for an example). But, in either case, we should be more aware of the meanings of “spirituality”: it is not a neutral term.
Leigh Eric Schmidt points to six characteristics that “came to define spirituality as it was given form and substance in the matrices of religious liberalism”:
1. “An aspiration after mystical experience.” Schmidt tells us that this concept of mysticism became universalized. Thus Robert Alfred Vaughan’s Hours With the Mystics (1856): “It is a state of thinking and feeling, to which minds of a certain temperament are liable at any time and place, in occident and orient, whether Romanist or Protestant, Jew, Turk, or Infidel.”
2. “An emphasis on practices of solitude, prayerful retreat, and sustained meditation.” This led, Schmidt writes, to the re-imagining of Christian models of holiness.
3. The belief that the transcendent “is immanent in each person and in nature and is not necessarily mediated through institutions, clerics, sacraments, catechesis, or rites.” The transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson claimed, in his “My Creed So Far As I Have One,” that awareness of God could come from “the art of a prayer-book; it may equally well be in the depth of a personal experience to which all prayer-books seem an intrusion. It may be in a church; it may equally well be in a solitary room or on a mountain’s height.
4. “A cosmopolitan spirit that emphasized the appreciation of religious variety and the ecumenical pursuit of unity amid diversity.” Higginson elsewhere wrote, “When we fully comprehend the sympathy of religions, we shall deal with other faiths on equal terms.”
5. “An adventuresome embrace of the seeker’s endless curiosity, though paired with a nostalgic longing for the finder’s clarity.” While the term “seeker,” originally used in 17th century heresiology, was popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles” (1841), Schmidt credits the 20th century Quaker Rufus Jones with encouraging its use to describe a “general disposition toward searching and questing.”
6. “An ethical commitment to justice-producing reforms that manifested itself in various progressive visions of ‘social salvation’ – from abolitionism to women’s rights to labor relations.” Schmidt sees this as the root of the model of “ethical mysticism” that has, in its somewhat improbable and unwieldy canon, figures such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Howard Thurman.
Four questions for you, patient reader: Should we speak of “spirituality” (or should we intentionally return to speaking of “spiritual theology” or “ascetical theology”)? If so, what might it mean? Is “spirituality” always connected to the tenets of 19th century American Protestantism?
And, perhaps most provocatively for this blog, has liberal Catholicism been shaped to any extent through the unknowing adoption of these six tenets of “spirituality”?
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