Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Politics of Spirituality

Thomas Merton, leading
American Spiritual writer
of the last 100 years.
A friend of mine called me the other evening with a question he is facing on a take-home exam at Catholic U in Washington.  He wanted my advice as it is a field in which I teach.  And the question was “Compare and contrast contemporary spiritual writers with the classical spiritual writers.” 
I suggested several ideas he might want to follow—contemporary spiritual writers draw on other fields such as psychology, anthropology, sociology of religion etc. in their writing, fields not developed at the time of Francis de Sales or Teresa of Avila or Bernard of Clairvaux.  Moreover, contemporary spiritual writers will also draw insights from other world-religion traditions such as Buddhism or Islamic mysticism and they will also find insight in Native American spirituality or in the spiritual
traditions of cultures such as the Australian aborigines.  This would not have been done before Nostra Aetate at Vatican II nor could it have been done in the more culturally narrow worlds of the medieval or even the early modern periods.  At this point my friend interrupted me and said that the contemporary authors they had read for this course on the history of Christian spirituality drew neither on an inter-disciplinary nor a inter-faith tradition.  So whom, I asked, had they been assigned to read.  The answer was Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Karl Rahner, and Henri deLubac.  I had been expecting Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Joan Chittester, Ronald Rohlheiser, Richard Rohr, Evelyn Underhill, Henri Nouwen, and other contemporary writers.  Ratzinger, Rahner, and deLubac are great writers—but they are systematic theologians not spiritual theologians.  Granted that each of the produced some writings of profound spiritual importance and each has shown through his writings a profound personal spiritual experience but it is interesting that the writers who are influencing contemporary American Catholics are overlooked in favor of these ivory-tower pietists. 
Now I realize that a Ratzinger or a Rahner or a deLubac  bring an academic rigor to their writings that the above mentioned authors do not.  But Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux and even Francis de Sales were not academics.  Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises are not the overflow of scholarly reflection. Thomas à Kempis did not write from a theological perspective.  Eckhardt was a theologian of course—but clearly distinguished between his mystical works (which were usually in the vernacular being in the way of sermons for enclosed nus) and his speculative theology which was written in Latin.   So too Bernard—while his work is theologically sound—wrote from inner spiritual experience not from rational constructions.  I am not questioning why a fellow professor assigned Rahner and Ratzinger but I do wonder why he passed over Merton, Underhill, and others?  But then, it is Catholic University and the ecclesiology of some professors is rather narrow to suit the purposes of the University’s governors and their own advancement.   Such is how the academic world plays its politics. 
It is, I am afraid, another symptom of the widening gap between the Church of the hierarchy and the Church of the Faithful.  Those who buy into the hierarchical model of Church dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit among the ordinary rank and file Christians.  It is tragic that this dichotomy has opened up at all but it is dangerous that the gap is widening.  There is so much spiritual vitality among the everyday Catholics that can be harnessed for a true New Evangelization if only those leading the hierarchical Church could look beyond their narrow vision and see it.      


1 comment:

  1. I began my day listening to the "On Being" podcast entitled "The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel" (, where I was struck by this quote from Heschel:

    "It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."

    Then, I read this entry on your blog, and immediately after that I read this blog post:

    An interesting collection of ideas to think about, I'd say.