Reflections Exploring Christian Spirituality Essay

As we have already noted, the widespread use of the word ‘spirituality’ is a product of our times. Furthermore, ‘spirituality’ is nowadays presumed to be native to everyone, whether they have religious affiliations or not. It is individually tailored, democratic, eclectic, and an alternative source of personal authority.


However, before asking in more detail what ‘spirituality’ means today, we need to acknowledge the long history behind the concept. The word ‘spirituality’ originated in Christianity with the Latin adjective spiritualis, or ‘spiritual’, which translated the Greek adjective pneumatikos as it appears in the New Testament. Importantly, ‘the spiritual’ was originally not the opposite of ‘ bodily’ or ‘physical’. Rather, it was contrasted with ‘fleshly’ which meant worldly or contrary to God’s spirit. So the distinction was basically between two approaches to life. A ‘spiritual person’ (for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:14–15) was simply someone who sought to live under the influence of God whereas a ‘fleshly’ (or worldly) person was concerned primarily with personal satisfaction, comfort, or success.

This contrast between ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ remained common until the European Middle Ages when an important intellectual p. 5↵shift took place. This resulted in a sharper distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘bodily’. The noun ‘spirituality’ in the Middle Ages simply meant the clergy. Subsequently it first appeared in reference to ‘the spiritual life’ during the 17th century. It disappeared for a time but re-established itself at the end of the 19th century in French, of which the modern English word ‘spirituality’ is a translation.

Contemporary definitions

How is ‘spirituality’ defined today? The answer is not simple because the word is used in such different contexts. However, contemporary literature on ‘spirituality’ regularly includes the following. Spirituality concerns what is holistic—that is, a fully integrated approach to life. This fits with the fact that historically ‘the spiritual’ relates to ‘the holy’ from the Greek word holos, ‘the whole’. Thus, rather than being simply one element among others in human existence, ‘the spiritual’ is best understood as the integrating factor—‘life as a whole’. Then spirituality is also understood to be engaged with a quest for the ‘sacred’. This includes beliefs about God but also refers more broadly to the numinous, the depths of human existence, or the boundless mysteries of the cosmos.

Further, spirituality is frequently understood to involve a quest for meaning (including the purpose of life) as a response to the decline of traditional religious or social authorities. Because of its association with meaning, contemporary spirituality implicitly suggests an understanding of human identity and of personality development. One interesting example is the concept of ‘spiritual development’ in documentation for English secondary schools from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Here, spirituality refers to the development of the non-material element of life. ‘Life’ is more than biology.

p. 6Spirituality is also regularly linked to ‘thriving’—what it means to thrive and how we come to thrive. Finally, contemporary definitions of spirituality relate it to a sense of ultimate values in contrast to an instrumentalized attitude to life. This suggests a self-reflective existence as opposed to an unexamined life.

These contemporary approaches to spirituality provoke two critical questions. First, is spirituality essentially individual or is it also social? If we explore the Web, the majority of available definitions of spirituality emphasize inner experience, introspection, a subjective journey, personal well-being, inner harmony, or happiness. So how does spirituality connect with our social existence? Second, is spirituality more than a useful form of therapy—concerned with promoting everything that is comforting and consoling? In other words, can there be tough spirituality and is spirituality capable of confronting the destructive side of human existence? These questions will be addressed later in the book.

The emergence of contemporary spirituality

The contemporary interest in spirituality is part of a broader process of cultural change during the late 20th century. After a century of world wars, the end of European empires, plus a tide of social change in the northern hemisphere regarding the equality of women and the status of ethnic minorities, inherited religious and social identities or value-systems came to be seriously questioned. As a result, many people no longer see traditional religion as an adequate channel for their spiritual quest and look for new sources of self-orientation. Thus ‘spirituality’ has become an alternative way of exploring the deepest self and the ultimate purpose of life. Increasingly, the spiritual quest has moved away from outer-directed authority to inner-directed experience which is seen as more reliable. This subjective turn in Western culture has created a diverse approach to spiritual experience and practice. For example, spirituality often draws from different religious p. 7↵traditions as well as from popular psychology. However, some commentators, such as Jeremy Carrette, are sceptical about these developments, suggesting that the contemporary enthusiasm for ‘spirituality’ is merely another offshoot of consumerism.

Nowadays ‘spirituality’ is regularly contrasted with ‘religion’. The validity of this contrast will be discussed more fully in Chapter 6. At this point there is an obvious question. Is contemporary spirituality merely a set of optional practices distinct from beliefs of any sort? It seems to me that all approaches to ‘spirituality’, including contemporary secular ones, imply what might be called ‘beliefs about life’, the quest for an effective world-view.

For most people, whether religious or not, spirituality involves values and a principled lifestyle both of which are supported by specific spiritual practices including prayer or meditation. As we shall see in the next chapter, there are a wide range of spiritual practices which vary depending on the type or tradition of spirituality concerned.

That said, in Western countries there has clearly been a shift of attitudes. People who no longer call themselves ‘religious’ wish to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. They express this in the values they espouse and the practices they undertake to pursue a meaningful life. Two British examples illustrate the point. A major survey by David Hay, an academic biologist with a long-standing interest in spiritual experience, covered the period from 1987 to 2000. It showed that the proportion of people who did not attend a place of worship yet believed in a ‘spiritual reality’ increased from 29 per cent to 55 per cent. Later, sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead researched contemporary religious and spiritual attitudes in north-west England. They concluded that what they called ‘holistic spirituality’ was replacing religion in a kind of evolutionary development because it was a better fit with contemporary needs.

p. 8With this background in mind, I now want to summarize three different approaches to spirituality. First, there are religious spiritualities. Then there is the ambiguous category of esoteric spiritualities. Finally there is an increasingly important spectrum of secular understandings of spirituality. References to many of these spiritualities will be developed further throughout the book.

Religious spiritualities

Put simply, ‘religious spiritualities’ are traditions with a combination of all or most of the following: a framework of transcendent beliefs (whether a belief in God or not), foundational texts or scriptures, symbol systems, some visible structure, public practices, and sacred spaces.

All the great religions originated in specific cultural contexts. As a result each of them uses different concepts for what we call ‘spirituality’. The adoption of the actual word ‘spirituality’ outside the West and beyond Christianity is due partly to contacts between Europeans and Indian religious figures in the late 19th century. Thus, the great Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), in speaking to American and European audiences in the 1890s, praised the natural ‘spirituality’ of Indian culture and religion in contrast to the limitations of Western ways of thinking and behaving.

I have selected five representative world religions and one contemporary Western religious movement. The first group of world religions are known as the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths because they claim the biblical figure of Abraham as their common ancestor. In their historical order these are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The second group, Hinduism and Buddhism, originate in the Indian subcontinent. Finally, the contemporary and rather diffuse Western religious movement is known as Neopaganism.

Jewish spirituality

Judaism is the ‘parent’ among the Abrahamic faiths. Its spirituality arose from the collective religious experience embodied in the biblical history and myths of the people of ancient Israel—slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, entering the Promised Land, establishing a political kingdom with God’s ‘seat’ in the Jerusalem Temple, then exile, return, and ultimate dispersal throughout the Roman world. At the heart of Jewish spirituality is a response to God—seeking the presence of God, striving to live in this presence, and focusing on holiness appropriate to such a life. The two great sources of Jewish spirituality are the created world and the Torah. This refers to the first five books of the Hebrew bible (known as the Pentateuch) and also more broadly to Judaism’s written and oral law. Historically, the spirituality of Judaism has embraced great variety: the ritual worship of the Temple era, the countercultural voices of the prophets, the teachings of the Pharisees, and later rabbinic Judaism which applied the Torah to everyday life, ascetical movements such as the Essenes, a rich philosophical tradition across the centuries including the late classical Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), medieval Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), and 20th-century Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), a form of pietistic religiosity in parts of European Jewry and a mystical tradition embracing Kabbalists and the rigorous system of eastern European Hassidism. The city of Jerusalem remains a powerful spiritual focus for Jews. However, with the final destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (70 CE), Jews translated into their everyday, householder spirituality the inherited approaches to holiness that had been shaped by sacred space, sacred times, and a creative tension between interiority and outer social behaviour.

Christian spirituality

Christian spirituality grew out of Judaism and continues to use the Hebrew scriptures. However, the distinctive starting point is the p. 10↵teaching of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Christianity is sometimes associated with complex doctrines but its desire to speak of the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity is not fundamentally abstract but closely connected to maintaining a balanced spiritual vision and practice. In particular, God is both a transcendent mystery and also understood as present within creation and intimately engaged with human life. This belief is expressed by the notion of God’s ‘incarnation’ (becoming human) in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth (c.4 BCE–30/36 CE) who was eventually given the title of ‘Christ’, or ‘anointed one’, by believers. The varied historic Christian spiritual traditions are therefore Christ-centred in some way or other. A key New Testament concept in spirituality is ‘discipleship’ which implies the call to conversion and to follow the way of Jesus. Discipleship classically includes three dimensions. These are proclamation, service, and membership of a community. Although Christian spirituality has a strong ascetical tradition it is not fundamentally world-denying. Both the natural world and embodiment are contexts for God’s self-disclosure and for encounters with the sacred. Yet, alongside this fundamentally positive evaluation of everyday life, Christian spirituality recognizes disorder in the world and a restless desire in the human heart that propels humans to seek their source of fulfilment in God. Consequently, in Christian spirituality, God confronts human disorder with the possibility of spiritual transformation. At the same time God promises ultimate fulfilment beyond human time-bound existence. The biblical roots of Christian spirituality are not individualistic but are both communal, within the community of believers, and also broadly social, expressed in the ideal of the love and service of humanity.

Islamic spirituality

The third Abrahamic faith, Islam, honours both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and their prophets, including Abraham and Jesus, but traces its specific origins to the Prophet Muhammad p. 11↵(c.560–c.632) in 7th-century Arabia. His principal sayings were collected in the Qur’an (westernized as Koran). This book embodies what is believed to be divine revelation and is seen as completing the earlier scriptures. Islamic spirituality is founded on personal commitment to God. This includes attentiveness and obedient submission to God’s will as well as acting in ways that achieve God’s will. Thus the core of spirituality consists of the virtues of acceptance and commitment (taqwa) as well as faith, hope, and charity as in Judaism and Christianity. The practices of prayer five times a day (recitations from the Qur’an accompanied by reverential postures in the direction of Mecca), recalling the name of God (dhikr), diet and fasting, pilgrimage (hajj), charity, and cleanliness are obligatory because they motivate people to fulfil God’s will in all aspects of life.

In the later development of Islamic spirituality, spiritual practices were seen as aids to promoting virtue or righteous action in everyday life. The two main divisions of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, involve differences of historical lineage more than differences of belief or spiritual practice. While some Muslims focus exclusively on the ummah, or community of right believers, the Qur’an also portrays a vision of the intrinsic unity of all humanity. The most mystical form of Islamic spirituality, Sufism, crossed the boundaries between Sunni and Shia traditions. Also, at different times Sufism has had a significant impact beyond Islam with its music, poetry (for example, by Rumi), meditative techniques, ritual dance, and ‘orders’ such as the Dervishes.

Hindu spirituality

We turn now to religions originating in India. Hinduism is a complex of philosophical traditions, scriptures, devotional or folk religion, and ascetical movements. With a variety of origins, it is arguably the oldest surviving world faith. Some scholars date it to the Indus valley cities around 2500 BCE. Any brief summary of ‘Hindu spirituality’ can be no more than a few broad p. 12↵generalizations. The ‘scriptures’ are understood either as divinely revealed, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads (dating from 1500 BCE onwards), or as later, humanly composed wisdom or mythological texts such as the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita, sutras (500 BCE–100 CE texts on yoga and right conduct) or Purana mythologies (around 900 CE). In terms of ‘spirit’ and ‘God’ Hinduism embraces a range of approaches. The soul or true self of each person (atman) is eternal. For some this is identical with Brahman or the supreme soul. Thus the goal of life is to realize this identity and thereby to reach freedom (moksha). For others, Brahman is more personal and to be worshipped in divine manifestations such as Vishnu, Shiva, and so on depending on one’s sect. The atman (human spirit) is dependent on God and moksha (ultimate freedom), is built on love of God and on God’s generosity. A prominent feature of Hindu spirituality is a move from what presents itself as real to the discovery of what is truly real. This journey towards reality via a cycle of rebirth (reincarnation) may involve ascetic renunciation or living in the world while learning to be ‘world-less’. This means treating contingent reality merely as a transitory means to integration and demands a progressive loss of ego. The various spiritual paths are not simply techniques of self-actualization but are also ways to true enlightenment.

Buddhist spirituality

Buddhism derives in some respects from Hinduism but is fundamentally a variety of traditions based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who lived in north India between the mid 6th and mid 5th centuries BCE. Siddhartha renounced his wealthy background in search of deeper fulfilment and eventually became known as the ‘Buddha’ or ‘enlightened one’. His teachings were intended as a recipe for all sentient beings to be freed from suffering, to escape the cycle of rebirth and to achieve enlightenment (nirvana). There are two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada is widespread in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and p. 13↵the rest of south-east Asia whereas Mahayana is found in various forms in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan and includes Zen. Buddhism is arguably the religion most intensely focused on spirituality rather than on doctrines. While the Buddha never denied that there might be gods, he taught that we do not need to rely on any god for our salvation. This approach is best described as non-theistic rather than straightforwardly atheistic.

The basis of the spiritual journey is the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’. This is the fourth of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which summarize the Buddha’s teachings (dharma) and point the way to the ultimate goal of liberation from suffering caused by a false craving for ‘things’. The eightfold path is clustered into three groups of ‘higher trainings’: wisdom that purifies the mind (prajna), abstention from unethical deeds (sila), and mental discipline involving meditative practice (Samadhi). The aim is to achieve transformed spiritual insight, to become free from illusion, and to learn universal compassion. Some versions of Buddhism practise devotions but the most common spiritual practice is meditation (Zen practice is particularly famous in the West) directed at peacefulness, mindfulness, and compassionate wisdom. The emphasis on ‘emptiness’ (sunyata) is sometimes assumed to refer to meditative emptying of the mind. However, it is more properly a realization that nothing possesses the ‘fullness’ of autonomous identity.


Finally, Neopaganism is a relatively recent development in North America and Europe. It is not highly structured but covers a range of modern spiritual movements that look back to pre-Christian belief systems. Neopaganism is a religion rather than a secular philosophy because it embraces transcendent beliefs. However, there is no Neopagan orthodoxy. Adherents may believe in polytheism (a pantheon of gods) or in pantheism (nature as divine) or in a mixture of both. In some groups there is an emphasis on a p. 14↵monotheistic divine feminine, the Goddess. Spiritual practices are more important then belief systems. Groups include Wicca and Druidism. Ceremonial magic is common. There is usually a collective observance of festivals associated with the seasons or phases of the moon. Some groups practice positive witchcraft, seeking to redeem it from its association with evil. Celebration, joy, and a sense of personal freedom are also characteristic spiritual values alongside respect and care for nature.

One of the most iconic contemporary Neopagan pilgrimage sites is Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the English county of Wiltshire just north of Salisbury. This stone circle lies at the heart of a major prehistoric burial area and was probably built sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE. There are a number of theories about its original purpose which remain speculative as the society that constructed it had no written records. It clearly had some religious and spiritual purpose and may have included some kind of ‘observatory’ function, given that the religion of the time seems to have been centred on the seasons and movement of the stars. Contemporary Neopagans, particularly the Ancient Order of Druids, have revived Stonehenge as a place of spiritual pilgrimage where some ritual use is permitted during the festivals of the ancient pagan calendar of seasons and phases of the moon, for example, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices.

Esoteric spiritualities

The second category of spiritualities is known as ‘esoteric’. Such spiritualities are ambiguous because they sometimes have religious elements and sometimes philosophical or ethical ones. Esoteric spiritualities experienced a resurgence in recent years. The word ‘esoteric’ implies secrecy. However, apart from secret rituals and special initiates, esoteric spiritualities have several shared characteristics. ‘Correspondence’ implies a code for understanding the interconnectedness between the visible and invisible universe.

p. 15Nature is a book rich in potential revelation. ‘Mediation’ involves symbols, rituals, spirits, and human teachers that act as intermediaries of the universe’s mysteries. ‘Transmutation’ promotes a quest for illuminated knowledge, a passage through levels in the universe or even a second birth. ‘Concordance’ seeks commonalities between religions with a view to superior illumination. ‘Transmission’ enables esoteric teachings to pass from the illuminated to new initiates. Among the better-known esoteric movements are Anthroposophy, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, non-traditional Kabbalah, and Spiritualism.

Anthroposophy is a spiritual philosophy founded in the early 20th century by the Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). He linked a form of Christian humanism with the principles of the natural sciences. It is best known through the Steiner Waldorf Schools and the Camphill Movement of communities for people with special needs.

Theosophy, founded in New York in the late 19th century by Madame Blavatsky (1831–91), mixes religious philosophy, occult knowledge, and mysticism, strongly influenced by Indian religions. It attracted artists and musicians such as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, with his ‘mystic’ theory concerning how music transforms perception and the creation of a grand religious synthesis of all the arts leading to the birth of a new world.

Rosicrucianism claims to originate in a medieval secret society and an alchemist, Christian Rosenkreuz. During the 18th century it is said to have added ancient Egyptian, Greek, Druid and Gnostic mysteries to its alchemical system. Modern Rosicrucianism is diverse, similar to esoteric Christianity or to Freemasonry.

Freemasonry is a male fraternal association with a large international membership organized into jurisdictions (Grand Lodges) of local groups or ‘lodges’. Beyond a requirement to believe p. 16↵in a Supreme Being (the Great Architect of the Universe), there are esoteric rituals and dress and the use of key symbols and secret gestures of mutual recognition. Masonic values include moral uprightness, commitment to fraternal friendship, and charitable action.

Kabbalah was originally a mystical movement in Judaism but Western esoteric Kabbalah also embraces a syncretistic range of practices and teachings drawn from astrology, alchemy, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, the tarot, or tantra. Tantra is very difficult to define but had an impact on every major Asian religion before being adopted by Western ‘New Age’ movements. It is an accumulation of esoteric ideas and practices that seek to tap into the energy that is believed to flow through the whole universe. Tantra is based on a non-dualist understanding of reality and opens up a spiritual dimension in all aspects of human bodily life.

Spiritualism was particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century among the English-speaking professional and upper classes. It is monotheistic, is nowadays organized as a Christian church, and holds to the belief that the spirits of the dead communicate with the living through teachers (‘mediums’), offering knowledge of the afterlife as a means of spiritual or moral guidance.

Secular spiritualities

A final, and increasingly important, category of contemporary spiritualities embraces a wide range of secular approaches. Of course the word ‘secular’ was not originally the opposite of ‘religious’. The Latin word saeculum simply means ‘this age’ or ‘the here and how’. However, in contemporary usage, ‘secular spirituality’ covers the ways spirituality is used outside explicitly religious contexts. What follows is a brief summary of some of the more significant approaches to ‘spirituality’ as a framework of meaning in philosophy, psychology, gender studies, aesthetics, and p. 17↵science. The use of the word ‘spirituality’ in professional worlds and in relation to food and clothing will appear in Chapter 4, and spirituality in relation to public values (for example, health care, economics, and urban life) will be explored in Chapter 5.


In the context of global history, philosophy often overlaps with spirituality. An important example is Confucianism. This originated in China with Confucius (551–479 BCE) who emphasized the cultivation of moral virtue, especially humaneness, civility, and decorum. These virtues exemplified the truly noble person. Proper order and harmony begins with rightly ordered family relationships and spreads into wider society. The underlying philosophy is cosmic harmony reflected in daily affairs. Thus the ordinary features of material life are sacred. A sense of heaven or the Ultimate is not entirely absent but the focus is on being more truly in the world. Not surprisingly, Confucianism places a high value on cultural forms, on education, governance, and agriculture—all seen within the life-giving processes of the universe.

When we turn to contemporary Western philosophy, we find that a number of thinkers engage with the idea of spirituality. For example, Pierre Hadot, the eminent French historian of philosophy, wrote a remarkable study on spirituality and philosophy, Philosophy as a Way of Life. This presents a history of ‘spiritual exercises’ from Socrates to Michel Foucault. For Hadot, philosophy is not purely intellectual. Its goal is to cultivate the art of living and to achieve the transformation of human existence. The English philosopher John Cottingham more overtly relates philosophy to religion. He engages philosophy with matters of human self-discovery, personal experience, and transformative awareness. Finally, several philosophers adopt explicitly atheist or agnostic approaches to spirituality. Examples are the Frenchman André Comte-Sponville and the American Robert Solomon.

p. 18Comte-Sponville argues that atheism is no reason to deny a spiritual or metaphysical dimension to being human. Philosophical spirituality implies a desire to engage with ‘the whole’ and with human fullness. Solomon bases his sceptical ‘naturalized spirituality’ on ‘the thoughtful love of life’. He engages with themes such as eros, authentic trust, the rationality of emotion, confronting tragedy, life as gift, the self in transformation, and finally the challenge of death.

Psychology and psychotherapy

There is also an extensive body of literature on spirituality in relation to psychological development and psychotherapy. This often involves considerations of sexual identity and sexual maturity in relation to spiritual development. For some people, therapeutic relationships are replacing religiously based spiritual guidance as a medium of growth. The psychologist or therapist becomes a spiritual guide where non-judgemental acceptance and empathy are critical values. Conversely, religious forms of ‘spiritual guidance’ nowadays regularly attend to the therapeutic side of people’s lives. Among the most important psychological works are the influential theories of Abraham Maslow, the writings of Rollo May or Ken Wilbur (influenced by Buddhism), David Fontana’s engagement of psychology with spirituality and William West’s dialogue between psychotherapeutic models and the spiritual. Addictions are also treated increasingly as a spiritual disease, and classic approaches, such as Twelve-Step programmes, encourage a personal belief system based on spiritual self-discovery. Even the British Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a volume on spirituality and spiritual needs. Common to all of these approaches to psychiatry, psychology, or therapy is a movement beyond narrowly medicalized models of treatment.

Psychological writing also explores such themes as states of awareness beyond ‘adjustment’ therapy; self-understanding as the medium for reordering our inner life; therapy as a spiritual p. 19↵process; and finally the achievement of a harmonious connectedness with self and others as a response to alienation.

Gender and sexuality

Until the 1980s spirituality used to be discussed in very general terms without reference to the specifics of women’s and men’s experience or to different experiences of human sexuality. However, because spirituality relates to the core of human life, gender and sexuality are vital aspects. ‘Gender’ implies the meaning different cultures give to sexual characteristics. The women’s spirituality movement, of which feminist spirituality is one example, involves a creative reimagining that embraces personal, social, and planetary concerns, for example in ecofeminism. It emphasizes embodiment and subjectivity. Feminism is not purely political. There is also a spiritual element to women’s liberation. For example, feminist spirituality rejects the notion of ‘submission’, whether to God or to a human other, dualistic divisions of body and spirit, and an ‘otherworldly’ ethos. It seeks spiritual role models from the past (foremothers) such as medieval women mystics (the Beguines or Julian of Norwich), women Sufis such as Rabia, or the Buddhist nuns and their search for enlightenment in the Therigatha ‘Songs of the Sisters’.

A new male spirituality movement also arose in response to the women’s spiritual movement. This emphasizes a sense of profound loss among men. ‘Loss’ does not imply a desire to reverse social and spiritual changes but refers to the spiritual challenges posed by stripping away former patriarchal certainties. Where are men now to look for wisdom? What are men to do by way of spiritual practice? Among the important themes of men’s spirituality are a more inclusive approach to God or ‘the sacred’; an embracing of sexuality and embodiment as authentic spiritual realities; the cultivation of ‘wildness’ and play in contrast to a classic male culture of duty; an acceptance of fluidity in life rather than a desire for fixity; and, finally, the recovery of emotional intelligence. The p. 20↵movement has additionally appealed to gay men as a way of reversing past exclusion, silence, and moral condemnation.

Finally, broader connections between spirituality and sexuality have been developed. Thus sexuality is no longer seen as a purely psychophysical reality. It has a spiritual dimension because it relates to our fundamental human identity. Equally, balanced pleasure rather than excess may be a way to self-transcendence. Such views are sometimes related to a contemporary Western fascination with tantra.

Aesthetics and the arts

In non-religious contexts, aesthetics has become an important medium of contemporary spirituality. This relates to the arts but is not merely a matter of entertainment or sensual pleasure. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek aisthetikos, ‘concerning perception’, meaning how we come to understand reality through our senses. Major philosophers from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) wrote in various ways about ‘beauty’. For some, this concept is not merely concerned with what is attractive but is connected with ‘the sublime’—what relates to the sacred, to truth, and to integrity. At the heart of all the arts (for example, music, painting, sculpture, theatre, literature, dance) is the power of the image. The artist creates an image, communicates via imagery, and the audience receive ‘meaning’ through their imagination. An image evokes meaning through a fourfold pattern: sensual experience, an interpretative framework for knowing the world, a judgement about the way the world should be and an invitation to decide how to live. In other words, artistic images have a capacity to touch the depths of human experience beyond the limits of rational discourse. This is its spiritual dimension.

Some religious groups have been deeply suspicious of images. For example, Islam forbids representations of God and for p. 21↵16th-century Protestant reformers images suggested a dangerous power independent of biblical ‘truth’. Yet, historically, the creative arts have deep religious roots—for example, there is religious depth in the art of Michelangelo (1475–1564), in the poetry of George Herbert (1593–1633), and in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Equally, broadly understood, all religions use artistic forms. We can note the riot of painting and sculpture in Hindu temples, the cosmic architecture of the great medieval cathedrals, the chanting of Buddhist monks, or the music and poetry of Sufi Islam. Outside religion, some artists approach their work as both a philosophy of life and a form of spiritual practice. More widely, for many people aesthetic experience is an intense source of self-transcendence. This will be considered in more detail in Chapter 3.


Finally, among secular spiritualities, science is the newest recruit. In an earlier age, maverick individuals like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), French priest, palaeontologist, and geologist, sought to evoke the mystic elements of science. More recently, many scientists have moved away from an emphasis purely on the provable. The best scientists are never ultimately certain but are always ready to respond to ever-expanding knowledge and the production of new theories. This counters a popular misconception about science that uncertainty implies a lack of rigour. On the contrary, many modern scientists suggest that uncertainty is central to their craft. In a new scientific paradigm, scientists do not seek final ‘truth’ but test models of understanding in a never-ending process of discovery and refinement.

Science does not inherently contradict all notions of ‘the holy’, the spiritual, or the religious, although it is clearly incompatible with all forms of literalism. The writings of Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake offer a striking if controversial example of a scientist who questions dogmatic materialism and scientific literalism.

p. 22While science studies natural phenomena, it stands in the face of open-ended mystery when it asks what most deeply ‘nature’ is. Contemporary science is not afraid of the numinous even while it refuses to assume that this implies a God. Whether people approach scientific enquiry through astrophysics and cosmology or through microbiology, they confront deeper questions that counter the certainties of old-fashioned materialism such as specifiability, predictability, and total analysis. Indeterminacy and unpredictability are an essential part of an honest scientific quest.

The fear of climate change makes the theme of eco-spirituality increasingly popular. This is not merely concerned with a recovery of ‘wonder’ but with the impact of human behaviour on the natural world. This is a scientific, ethical-practical, and also a spiritual question. Such an approach to spirituality challenges the notion that human identity is uniquely valuable in relation to the wider environment.


In summary, at first sight the notion of ‘spirituality’ is confusing simply because of its breadth and diffuse nature. Hopefully, three important points about contemporary understandings of spirituality have been established.

First, spirituality is inherently related to context and culture. The way we talk about spirituality reflects the priorities of the different contexts in which it is used. For example, the dominant themes are different in health care and education. Equally, spirituality has a distinct flavour in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as opposed to Europe or North America.

Second, despite these varied approaches, there are certain ‘family resemblances’ which make it possible to offer a tentative definition of spirituality. Thus we saw that spirituality concerns a fully integrated approach to life (holism), involves a quest for the p. 23↵‘sacred’, underpins a desire for meaning, and implies some understanding of human identity, purpose, and thriving. Finally, spirituality points to a desire for ultimate values and involves the intentional pursuit of a principled rather than purely pragmatic way of life.

Third, contemporary approaches to spirituality take many forms partly because spirituality has become egalitarian or at least anti-authoritarian. People on a spiritual quest often reject traditional sources of authority and their association with fixed dogmatic systems in favour of the authority of personal, inner experience. This makes it increasingly common for people to borrow from more than one spiritual tradition and even to talk about ‘double belonging’—‘I am Christian and Buddhist’.

The next chapter will look more closely at different types and traditions of spirituality as they appear in world religions and secular spiritualities.

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Christian Spirituality and Social Transformation

Summary and Keywords

The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.

Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.

The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.

Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.

Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.

Keywords: asceticism, ascetical theology, contemplation, discernment, discipleship, mysticism, mystical theology, sacred, spirituality, spiritual theology, transformation

What Is Spirituality?

The word “spirituality” is much in vogue these days, both inside and outside religion. However, the notion is sometimes difficult to define precisely because it is often detached from traditional religious beliefs, and specifically from its Christian origins. In broad terms, spirituality expresses something fundamental about human nature. In her famous book, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill suggested that human beings are vision-creating beings rather than merely tool-making animals.1 In other words, humans are by nature driven by goals that are more than simply a desire for material success, physical well-being, or intellectual achievement. When we turn specifically to Christianity, the word “spirituality” has a more defined content than its general contemporary use. Specifically, it embraces the ways in which human values, lifestyles, and spiritual practices relate to understandings of God, human identity and the material world. This is not a purely individual matter but includes the quest for a transformed world.

The contemporary concept of spirituality refers not only to spiritual practices but also to a framework of values, often implicit rather than explicit, directed at a more intentional lifestyle. In contemporary spirituality literature, the following approaches regularly appear. First, spirituality concerns what is holistic—that is, a fully integrated approach to life. Historically the notion of the spiritual relates to the holy. This translates the Old English word hālig, that is “whole” or “complete,” which relates back to the Greek word holos (ὅλος‎) Thus, spirituality seeks to engage with “life-as-a-whole” rather than with aspects of it. Second, spirituality involves a quest for the sacred. In religious spiritualities, such as Christian ones, the sacred relates to beliefs about God or the Absolute. However, in wider culture, it may refer to broader understandings of the numinous, to the undefined depths of human existence or to the boundless mysteries of the cosmos. Third, contemporary spirituality frequently involves a quest for meaning and purpose. This reflects a growing decline in respect for traditional religious and political authority, particularly in Western countries. The question of meaning also relates to an understanding of personality development. An interesting example is the concept of spiritual development in documentation for English schools produced by the government Office for Standards in Education, in 2004. Here, spirituality is defined as “the development of the non-material element of a human being, which animates and sustains us.” It concerns “the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning, and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’.”2 Fourth, spirituality is regularly linked to a notion of thriving that is deeper than merely being successful. In spirituality terms, to thrive is to flourish as a human being in the fullest possible sense. Finally, contemporary definitions of spirituality reflect a search for ultimate values beyond a purely materialistic approach to life. Spirituality also overlaps in significant ways with ethical behavior and moral vision.

Origins of the Concept

The concept of spirituality originated within Christianity. The word translates a Latin noun spiritualitas, associated with the adjective spiritualis (spiritual). These derive from the Greek noun pneuma (πνεῦμα‎), spirit, and the adjective pneumatikos (πνευματικός‎) as they appear in St. Paul’s New Testament letters. It is important to underline that, in the New Testament, “spirit” and “spiritual” are not opposed to “physical” or “material,” Greek soma (σῶμα‎), Latin corpus. They are the opposite of the flesh or fleshliness, Greek sarx (σάρξ‎) Latin caro, and refer to everything that is contrary to the Spirit of God. A spiritual person (see 1 Cor. 2, 14–15) was simply someone who lived under the influence of the God’s Spirit.

This Pauline moral sense of spiritual, meaning “life in the Spirit,” remained in constant use in the West until the 12th century ce. At that time, under the influence of the new theology, influenced by the retrieval of Greek philosophy, the concept of spiritual began to be used as a way to distinguish intelligent humanity from non-rational creation. Yet the Pauline moral sense and the supra-material sense of spiritual continued side by side in the 13th-century writings of a great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. The noun only began to refer to a spiritual life in 17th-century France—and not always in a positive way. It then disappeared from religious circles until the end of the 19th century, when it again appeared in France in positive references to the spiritual life as the heart of Christian existence. From there it passed into English usage via translations of French writings.

Despite the Christian origins of the word “spirituality,” its use beyond Christianity is not entirely new. The great world religions reflect different cultural and historical contexts. Consequently, they developed a range of concepts and words to express the reality that we nowadays call spirituality. However, the adoption of the actual word outside Christianity appears to have begun in the late 19th century due to contacts between Europeans and Indian religious figures. For example, the famous Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) regularly travelled outside India. In speaking to American and European audiences in the 1890s, particularly during the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, he praised the inherent spirituality of Indian culture and contrasted this with what he perceived to be the limitations of Western thought and behavior.

Christian Spirituality and the Scriptures

All Christian spiritual traditions are ultimately rooted in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, particularly the teachings of Jesus Christ in the four gospels. However, the connection with these texts is not straightforward. The extensive range of Christian spiritual traditions across time are also attempts to reinterpret the wisdom of foundational scriptural texts within new historical contexts. Therefore, there is an inevitable tension between a thread of continuities in the history of Christian spirituality and the fact that particular historical expressions are always in response to specific circumstances. This tension is expressed in an interesting way by the late Michel de Certeau, the eminent French social scientist and historian of spirituality.

Christianity implies a relationship to the event which inaugurated it: Jesus Christ. It has had a series of intellectual and historical social forms which have had two apparently contradictory characteristics: the will to be faithfuḻ to the inaugural event: the necessity of being different from these beginnings.3

In de Certeau’s terms, Jesus Christ is the measure of all authentic forms of Christian life. Yet, the contextual nature of the event of Jesus Christ permits the contextual nature of all subsequent attempts to follow his teachings.

Behind the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) lie the Jewish Scriptures (or Hebrew Bible). Apart from the obvious fact that Jesus and his first disciples were Jews, the Christian scriptures grow out of the Hebrew scriptures in many different ways. Equally, the Hebrew scriptures have had a significant impact on Christian spirituality across two thousand years from the use of the Book of Psalms in Christian liturgy and the Song of Songs in medieval Western mystical writings to the role of the Book of Exodus in late-20th century spiritualities of liberation.

The main New Testament image for the Christian life is discipleship, or “following Christ.” Christian spirituality is therefore not reducible to devotional practices or to abstract theory. It implies a complete way of life. Interestingly, discipleship is regularly expressed in the New Testament by the Greek noun mathētēs (μαθητής‎)—that is, a person who learns. This implies not simply a teacher-student relationship between Jesus and his disciples. It also implies that the Christian disciple absorbs a whole way of existence by being alongside the teacher. This links the concept of discipleship to another important New Testament verb, akolouthein (ἀκολουθεῖν‎), to follow, or follow after.

The notion of Christian discipleship has two elements. The first is a call to conversion (in Greek metanoia, μετάνοια‎)—that is, to turn away from previously flawed ways of behaving in response to a call from God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The second element is actively to follow the way of Jesus. This involves both a new way of life and joining in building the Kingdom of God—that is, continuing Jesus’ mission. “And Jesus said to them [Simon and his brother Andrew], ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’” (Mark 1:17). The same dual call to repentance and to following the way of Jesus is present at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 4:17 & 19) and, although expressed differently, is implicit also in the Gospels of Luke and John.

In New Testament terms, to become a disciple is not a matter either of selecting a reliable spiritual teacher or of relying on the teacher only until we have gained sufficient wisdom to move on. Jesus is recorded as choosing his own disciples (Mark 1:16–20; Matt. 4:18–22; Luke 5:1–11; John 1:35–42). This involves four things. First, discipleship is not self-chosen but is a response to a call by God. Second, the title of “disciple” is not given because of social status or some kind of religious superiority. Jesus is recorded as calling despised tax collectors (Matt. 9: 9) and all kinds of sinners or socially unacceptable people (Mark 2:15–17). Unusually for the time, (1st-century Palestine), there were also women in his immediate circle (Luke 8:1–3). There is a tension here. On the one hand, Jesus called upon everyone to repent and to welcome the Kingdom of God. Yet, on the other hand, the call to join him in formal discipleship is only made to a select number. However, this notion of discipleship radically expands after Jesus’ time. Third, the call to discipleship implied a radical break with the past that involved leaving family, work, possessions (for example, Luke 1:26; Mark 2:24; Mark 10:21)—indeed everything (Luke 5:11)—for the sake of the gospel. The price of this radical change is sometimes characterized as “losing one’s life in order to find it” (see for example, Matt. 10:38–39). Finally, the call to discipleship implies sharing in the work of Jesus to bring about God’s Kingdom. Thus, Matthew 10 lists the work of the disciple as proclaiming the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons (Matt. 10:7–8). This process of sharing in Jesus’ work and life is also bound up with the notion of “taking the lowest place,” or of selfless service to others, as in Mark 9:35, or even of giving up one’s life out of love (John 15:12–13).

After Jesus’ death and the belief that he had subsequently risen from the dead and returned to God, the understanding of discipleship moved strongly in two related directions. First, disciples are not simply people who follow Jesus’ teachings or who model themselves on his life (imitation). Disciples are also profoundly united to Jesus as a person and through that union share in Jesus’ own intimate relationship with God. Through baptism, a disciple enters into the same dynamic of Jesus’ passage through death to new life. The letters of St. Paul, for example, express this as participating in the cross of Jesus and in his resurrection—in other words, in the triumph of glory over suffering and life over sin and death (Rom 6:3–5; Phil 3:8–11). This dynamic is continually strengthened by the regular celebration of the Eucharist in early Christian communities. The notion of union with, and participation in, the life of Jesus Christ is further developed in St. Paul, who also uses the language of adoption. That is, Christian disciples are now adopted as children of God and are co-heirs to God’s promise in Jesus (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Second, and closely related to this, is the emphasis on discipleship as membership of a family. Thus, discipleship expands beyond Jesus’ few close confidants to embrace all who follow the way of Jesus within the community of believers, that is, the Church. This community is described as “the body of Christ” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 12:12–13).

Spirituality and Christian Beliefs

As already noted, Christian spirituality implies an understanding of God, the material world, and human identity. In other words, spirituality and beliefs are inseparable. However, as we shall see, in the study of Christian spirituality, how the relationship between beliefs and spirituality is understood has changed over the years.

The fundamental point is that the varied traditions of Christian spirituality grew out of spiritual practice rather than out of abstract theory. Equally, formal definitions of Christian doctrine about God, or about Jesus Christ as both human and divine, did not arise from intellectual speculation. They slowly grew out of the ways in which members of the early Church sought to live in relation to Jesus’ life and teachings as expressed in the New Testament and how they experienced his abiding presence with them. Christian doctrine, scripture, and the Christian life were intimately interconnected. However, the motives behind seeking greater doctrinal precision grew from a sense that authentic living depended on maintaining right belief (orthodoxy), and that misbelief (or heresy) led to spiritual inauthenticity.4 For these reasons, it is not surprising that Christians came to see that being clear about the nature of Jesus Christ, and his relationship to God, was critical. The doctrine of the Incarnation, affirming that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth there was a union of the divine and the human, not only governed all other Christian beliefs but was also the bedrock of Christian spirituality.5 In the words of Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130–200 ce), a major Christian thinker and a bishop in the Roman province of Gaul, “The Word of God … did … become what we are, that He might bring us to be what He is Himself.”6

Irenaeus also battled against a heresy called Gnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, γνῶσις‎). This heresy had two main elements. The first was a focus on esoteric knowledge. That is, true knowledge of God was reserved to a special group of initiates who inherited secret oral teachings. Second, this secret knowledge involved dualistic, anti-material beliefs. Human bodily existence is the result of sin. Humans have a fundamental spiritual nature that is trapped in the body, belongs to another world, and needs to return there. For mainstream Christians, such a belief undermined any idea that God actively created “matter” or human embodiment. It also undermined the belief that God entered into the material world and into the human condition in the person of Jesus.

This process of clarification about the nature of Jesus Christ, his relationship to God, and the implications for the Christian life, took several hundred years to be formally defined. Two official gatherings, or Councils, of Church leaders stand out. First, the Council of Nicaea in 325 ce condemned the heresy of Arianism (named after an Egyptian priest called Arius). Arianism denied that the nature of God could be shared or communicated. Consequently, Jesus Christ was not an uncreated equal of the eternal God as Father. Equally, there was no intimate relationship between God and humanity. Consequently, against this, the famous Nicene Creed that came to be recited in Christian liturgies affirmed that Jesus Christ was indeed “God from God” and “one in being with the Father.” Second, a later Council of Chalcedon, in 451 ce, condemned the opposite view that affirmed that Jesus Christ was only divine and not fully human at all. This heresy was termed Monophysitism. Again, this undermined the value of the human condition. The Chalcedonian Creed affirmed that Jesus Christ had two natures and so was paradoxically both truly God and truly human. However, it did not manage to resolve precisely how this was to be understood.

In the end, the focus of all this debate about doctrine was practical in relation to understanding and leading the Christian life and, indeed, to understanding the nature of human life more generally.

Christian Spirituality as Transformation and Mission

It is now possible to describe briefly the fundamental characteristics of Christian spirituality. As we noted, Christian spirituality is founded on “discipleship.” This is expressed in the gospels as the task of extending Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom to the whole world (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–49). However, it is too narrow to understand the call to proclaim the Kingdom simply as a verbal communication of information about God or of moral teachings. Proclaiming the way of Jesus was understood from the beginning as living “after the manner of Jesus Christ.” Thus, Christians extend Jesus’ mission by being a “living message,” through the kind of people they are and how they act in the world (see 2 Cor. 3:3).

While later forms of Christian spirituality necessarily re-interpret these scriptural foundations, it is nevertheless possible to say that personal transformation and the mission to transform the world are key themes. The history of Christian spirituality is a rich and varied commentary on how these two themes have been expressed in a wide variety of spiritual movements and literature. In the light of these values, all classic Christian spiritual traditions address certain questions, implicitly or explicitly.

First, in reference to transformation, both personal and social, what needs to be transformed and why? Second, is transformation essentially individual, or does it also imply a commitment to transform society? Third, what factors stand in the way of transformation? These factors were described in religious terms, although nowadays commentators would also note the role of psychological or social and cultural factors. Fourth, what is the context for transformation? Is it the processes of everyday life, or does it demand stepping aside into a special context (for example, the desert, the monastery, or a retreat house)? Fifth, how does transformation take place? This usually involves some theory about how spiritual growth takes place as well about lifestyles or spiritual practices that assist it. Finally, what is the purpose of transformation? In other words, classic Christian spiritual traditions offer some vision of spiritual enlightenment and human completeness.

In terms of the word mission, the concept is both rich and ambiguous. For some traditionalists, it implies proselytizing—that is, converting people to Christianity. However, for others, Christianity is mission-focused in a quite different, outward-looking way. That is, a key part of the Christian life is to share in God’s own mission to make a better world by proclaiming God’s work of creativity, active goodness, reconciliation, healing, and love, directed towards enabling humanity to arrive at its ultimate destiny. This outward-looking approach seeks to respond to the lives and needs of others. This expands the notion of “mission” beyond purely religious preoccupations to embrace broader social transformation. The message of Jesus Christ demands that disciples attend to the needs of the poor and marginalized, and enable their voices to be heard.7

Images of Spiritual Transformation

At this point it is worth summarizing the classic approaches to spiritual transformation. One widespread image in Christian spirituality is that of a pilgrimage or journey. This has been a rich theme in classic literature from Augustine’s City of God in the 5th century ce to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in the 17th century, and onwards to the anonymous 19th-century Russian work on the Jesus Prayer, The Way of the Pilgrim.

Sometimes in Christian spirituality, two rather static concepts, “perfection” or “union,” have been used. However, the metaphor of “journey” expresses a more dynamic approach. Thus, the theology of the early Church gradually developed a theory of successive stages on the spiritual journey. The theologian Origen (c. 185–255 ce) wrote of three ascending stages away from material existence towards a greater transcendent light—beginners (praxis, πρᾶξις‎), proficients (theōria, θεωρία‎), and the perfect (theologia, θεολογία‎).8 The goal of the journey was to recover the original created likeness of God in the soul. In the following century, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395 ce), in his Life of Moses, also described the spiritual journey in similar terms of ascent. His metaphor was the story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to enter deep clouds of darkness in his encounter with God.9 The climax of the spiritual journey in darkness suggests that, while God may be experienced, God is never finally known.

During the Western Middle Ages, the approach to the spiritual journey adopted the concept of “three ways” (triplex via)—the ways of purgation, of illumination, and of union. While described as consecutive stages, in practice they are interrelated dimensions. Subsequent spiritual literature also employed the classic theme of “ascent,” whether of mountains, for example the 16th-century Ascent of Mount Carmel of John of the Cross, or of ladders, for example, the 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton’s Ladderof Perfection. The 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict also used the image of a ladder (Chapter 7)—the twelve degrees of humility are “a ladder of our ascending actions.” Another influential 12th-century book by a Carthusian monk, Guigo II, on the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina (meditating on scripture) was entitled Ladder of Monks and referred to four structured stages, reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and silent contemplation (contemplatio).10

While these classic Christian approaches to the spiritual journey may continue to offer wisdom for the present day, their purely individual approach would nowadays be balanced by a renewed biblical emphasis on collective, social understandings of spirituality. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, in the early mid-1960s, underlined that it is the Christian community as a whole that is a pilgrim people “led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, Chapter 1). This recovery of a corporate understanding of the spiritual journey inspired the theme of radical solidarity with others in the movement known as “Liberation Theology” when it emerged in Central and Latin America in the late 1960s. Thus, the theme of transformation in Christian spirituality is nowadays more explicitly engaged with the question of transforming society rather than simply transforming individual lives. This theme will be further developed in the section on “Types of Christian Spirituality.”11

Types of Christian Spirituality

As has already been noted, Christianity embraces a great variety of spiritual traditions and writings. Any attempt to write an overview of Christian spirituality confronts the question of how to organize a large amount of material into an intelligible pattern. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to define what they see as major types of Christian spirituality. Types of spirituality are fundamentally distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom and spiritual practices with certain shared characteristics. These may be expressed in a body of literature, in meditative practices or other spiritual disciplines, in distinctive communities that practice a certain lifestyle, or in a combination of these.

Having identified such types, it is then possible to develop a framework (what is called a typology) that enables us to compare and contrast them and thus to understand their distinctive qualities. However, typologies need to be used with caution. They are useful tools to help people analyze the complexities of Christian spirituality. However, the notion of types is itself an act of interpretation rather than a straightforward description of reality.

For the purposes of this article, I identify five types of Christian spirituality, which will now be briefly described. These types are ascetical, mystical, active, aesthetic, and finally, prophetic. These types sometimes overlap to some degree. Thus, for example, ascetical forms of spirituality may also have mystical elements.

The Ascetical Type

The notion of asceticism derives from the classical Greek word for exercise, training, or discipline (askēsis, ἄσκησις‎) originally related to sport. The ascetical type of spirituality sometimes prescribes special places for the process of spiritual transformation, such as the wilderness or the monastery. Characteristically, it also describes certain disciplines or practices of self-denial, austerity, and abstention from worldly pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth and moral perfection. The end in view is a condition of detachment from material existence as the pathway to eternal life. In some respects, all the major Christian spiritual traditions contain an ascetical or disciplined element. However the most familiar expression of this type is associated with monasticism.

The period from the 4th to the 12th centuries ce was one of major consolidation in the history of Christianity and complex changes in its surrounding political and cultural contexts. First of all, Christianity emerged from being a persecuted minority into the public mainstream as a result of the Emperor Constantine’s edict of toleration (313 ce) and, within a relatively short time, it became the official religion of the Empire. Inevitably, this led to readjustments in self-understanding and in spiritual values. One consequence was the expansion of counter-cultural ascetical movements that gave birth to monasticism. For the next seven centuries, the history of Christian spirituality, both East and West, was in many ways dominated by the ascetical-monastic type of spirituality.

Christianity has no monopoly on monasticism. It has existed in some form in other world religions. While single Christian ascetics first appeared in the region of Syria and Palestine, structured monasticism emerged in Egypt. This took several forms, from small groups of hermits to larger, village-like settlements, and eventually to major communities, for example associated with Pachomius (c. 290–346 ce), who is credited with writing the first monastic Rule. By about 400 ce, monasticism numbered thousands of men and women. From its Egyptian roots, structured monasticism spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire inspiring the Rule of St. Basil, which is still the foundation for Eastern Orthodox monasticism. In the West, two major monastic Rules emerged, the Rule of St. Augustine in 5th-century North Africa and the Rule of St. Benedict in 6th-century Italy. Although other traditions eventually emerged, these two Rules continue to dominate Western monasticism. Notable medieval products of the Benedictine tradition, and its off-shoot the Cistercians, include a pope, Gregory the Great (540–604); the philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109); the poet, musician, and artist Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179); the mystical theologian Bernard of Clairvaux; and the English writer on human friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx. In modern times, well-known monastic spiritual figures include the popular writer Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and the Eastern Orthodox nun and writer Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), who was executed by the Nazis for protecting Jews. In recent times, monasticism has re-emerged in Protestant Christianity as well as in the Anglican Communion.12

The Mystical Type

The mystical type of spirituality is associated with the desire for an immediacy of presence to God, frequently through contemplative practice. It does not demand withdrawal from everyday life, but suggests that the everyday world may be transfigured into something wondrous. The mystical type is associated with intuitive knowledge of God beyond discursive reasoning and analysis. The ultimate purpose is spiritual illumination and being connected to the transcendent.

A mystical dimension to Christianity existed from its beginnings. In the 6th century ce, the writings of an anonymous Syrian monk known as pseudo-Dionysius had a considerable influence in both the East and the West.13 His work Mystical Theology, while drawing upon Neo-Platonist philosophy, essentially summed up the early tradition, that all baptized Christians are drawn ever deeper into the mystery of God through exposure to the scriptures, the liturgy, and the sacraments.

However, it is commonly suggested that in Western Christianity the period from 1150–1450 ce saw a particular flourishing of mysticism. This needs qualification. First, according to the researches of the French scholar Michel de Certeau, the noun “mysticism” (as a distinct area of spiritual experience) only appeared in France during the 17th century.14 Second, while spiritual experience does appear in medieval mystics, they were not preoccupied with subjective experiences. The interest in such experiences was reinforced in the late 19th century by the influence of modern psychology in such works as William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.15 Any separation of mystical experience from systems of belief and wider religious practice would have been completely alien to medieval people.16 With these qualifications in mind, it is possible to describe the period as an age of mystical writings and to talk about the emergence of a mystical type of spirituality. This was partly because of a growing sense of the individual self after what became known as the 12th-century Renaissance, and partly as a reaction to a more philosophically driven theology.

The 14th century is particularly rich in mystical writers. A number of key figures have achieved wide popularity, even outside Christianity. Two people may be taken as examples. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328) was a German theologian and preacher who is the subject of a great deal of contemporary fascination because of his paradoxical spiritual language. On the one hand, there is an absolute abyss separating humans from a God who is beyond all concepts—the “God beyond God.” On the other hand, Eckhart made daring assertions of a mystical identity between humans and God.17 Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–c. 1420) is, in the judgment of many, the deepest and most original of the English Mystics who flourished during a period of immense social and religious upheaval. We know very little about Julian’s background and life. She became an anchoress sometime after an almost fatal illness in 1373 when, over a twenty-four hour period, she had sixteen visions provoked by the sight of a crucifix in her sick room. Her famous A Revelation of Love, in the version known as the Long Text (she also wrote a Short Text), is a sophisticated vernacular work of mystical-pastoral theology, written after years of reflection for the benefit of all her fellow Christians. It is difficult to summarize Julian’s rich message about God and the human condition. However, in the final Chapter 86, she notes that “I desired many times to know what was our Lord’s meaning.” Eventually she received an answer. “Know it well, love was his meaning … Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.”18

The Active Type

The active type of spirituality, in a variety of ways, promotes everyday life as the principle context for the spiritual path. In this type of spirituality, people do not need to retreat from everyday concerns in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. What is needed for spiritual growth is within our reach. For, in the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” Because it emphasizes finding God in the midst of everyday existence, this type of spirituality is widely accessible. This type of spirituality seeks to find spiritual growth through the medium of ordinary experiences, commitments, and activity, including the service of our fellow humans.

Among the best-known examples of this type is the spiritual wisdom associated with Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), a 16th-century Basque noble, soldier, and finally Catholic reformer and founder of the religious order known as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The main values of Ignatian spirituality are highlighted in his text, the Spiritual Exercises. This was directed from the start at a broad spectrum of Christians who sought to share in Jesus Christ’s mission to the world. The Spiritual Exercises is one of the most influential Christian spiritual texts, now used as a medium for retreats and spiritual guidance across an ecumenical spectrum of Christians. It is not an inspirational text but a collection of practical notes for a retreat guide. The aim is to flexibly assist a retreatant to grow in inner freedom, to be able to respond to the call of Christ in the midst of daily life.

From the Exercises, it is possible to outline certain key features of Ignatian spirituality and of the active type of spirituality more generally. First, God is encountered in the practices of everyday life. Second, the life and death of Jesus Christ are offered as the fundamental pattern for Christian life. Third, God, in and through Jesus Christ, offers the healing and liberation needed to respond to the divine call. Fourth, spirituality focuses on a deepening desire for God in the midst of ordinary existence. The climax of the text underlines the ability to “find God in all things” and the integration of contemplation with a life of action. Finally, a core value of the tradition is the cultivation of a form of practical wisdom known as “discernment”—the ability to interpret our inner desires accurately, to judge wisely, and then to choose well in relation to different potential life directions and courses of action. Ignatius effectively summarizes a long tradition of discernment in Christian spirituality that finds its roots in ancient philosophy, notably in Aristotle. The Exercises and the wider Ignatian tradition promote a range of spiritual practices including meditation, contemplation, and other forms of prayer, including what is known as the Examen, a brief daily practice of prayerful reflection on the events of the day and how God has been present.19

The Aesthetic Type

The aesthetic type of spirituality covers a spectrum of ways by which the spiritual journey may be expressed in, and shaped by, the arts, music and poetry. A range of Christian thinkers, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and in recent times, the Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue, have written about the importance of beauty and how to understand its role in shaping a spiritual life.20 In terms of art as a medium of spirituality, the Eastern Christian tradition of icons (for example, Andrei Rublev’s Trinity) is a prime example. Icons are understood to be a medium of divine power. Through interaction with them, humans may become spiritually united with, and transformed by, what the icon represents—God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other saints. In the world of music, there is a long tradition of explicitly spiritual-religious music, often associated with Christian worship, such as plainchant, the polyphonic Mass settings of composers like William Byrd or Giovanni Palestrina, and the Lutheran chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach. In more recent times, the French Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen believed that sound in itself was spiritual, because it connects the listener to the harmonies of the cosmos.

If we turn to literature, it is clear that the extraordinary poetry of someone like the 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross was a direct expression of his own inner spiritual experience. The 19th-century English Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is considered to be one of the leading and most innovative Victorian poets, full of spiritual vision. In recent times, the lyric poetry of the late Elizabeth Jennings is deeply imbued with her inner struggles and her Christian faith. However, in the history of Christian spirituality, a cluster of important 17th-century English poets expresses the gradual emergence of a distinctive Church of England spiritual tradition. Deeply inspired by the Bible and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, the sophisticated poetry of such priests as John Donne, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne as well as the physician Henry Vaughan is both great literature and an important expression of Anglican spirituality.

George Herbert (1593–1633), aristocrat, Cambridge University orator, Member of Parliament, then priest, wrote two great works—a prose treatise on the priestly life, The Country Parson, and an outstanding poetic collection, The Temple. In his own words, his poetry was “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul.” Undoubtedly the poems, some of the greatest in the English language, are genuine expressions of his personal spiritual experience, not least those that take the form of meditative and intimate conversation with God. However, the carefully ordered nature of the collection also indicates their wider purpose—to communicate to readers the sometimes-painful complexity of the Christian spiritual path. Herbert was someone with deep aesthetic sensibilities—to the beauty of liturgy and of church architecture, for example. He was also an able musician and regularly used musical imagery in his poems, for example to express “the way to heaven’s door” (the poem “Church-music”) and his intense desire to respond to Christ’s sufferings (“The Thanksgiving”). He also considered writing poetry as a form of prayer. Behind Herbert’s aesthetics lies a sense of God’s beauty. Created beauty reflects the beauty of God, and it is humanity’s gift to be able to discern God in earthly beauty. “True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame/But borrow’d thence to light us thither” (“The Forerunners”).21

The Prophetic Type

Finally, the prophetic type of spirituality goes beyond the simple service of other people in the direction of an explicit commitment to social transformation as a spiritual task. It is possible to argue that historic religions have always had prophetic elements. Thus, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah critiqued corrupt social and political systems. In medieval Christian spirituality, the movement associated with Francis of Assisi emphasized spiritual poverty and worked with marginalized groups of people, partly in reaction against what Francis saw as the prevailing sins of his own wealthy merchant class. However, neither biblical prophecy nor Francis of Assisi explicitly promoted a spirituality of social justice or social transformation.

The development of a prophetic style of spirituality really emerged during the 20th century in response to three factors. First, the appalling slaughter of the two World Wars, mid-century totalitarianism (Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism), the Holocaust, and then the birth of the atomic-nuclear age provoked an overwhelming sense of the destructive power of war and of human oppression. Second, there was the gradual and often violent end to European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Third, there was a growing wave of social and cultural change in Europe and North America in relation to the status and role of women and to civil rights for ethnic minorities. In Christianity, there has been a range of examples of the prophetic type of spirituality. These include Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radical Christian resistance to the Nazis, the preaching of Martin Luther King at the heart of the American Civil Rights movement, feminist spirituality, political theology, and the birth of what is known as “liberation spirituality” in Central and Latin America in the 1970s. This eventually took other forms in Africa and Asia.

Feminist, Political, and Liberation Spiritualities

The interrelated feminist, political, and liberationist expressions of the prophetic type of spirituality promote two central and interdependent values. First, authentic spirituality necessarily demands that humanity should engage fearlessly with the structures of injustice and violence. This includes the concept of “structural sin.” That is to say, evil and sin are never purely personal but are frequently expressed by the structures that shape society.22 Second, any truly effective commitment to promoting social justice is not purely political but demands the purification of human motivation through a challenging practice of contemplation.

As a first example, the fundamental insight of feminist theology and spirituality is that everyone’s relationship with God is deeply influenced by gender as a social construct. That is, all aspects of human sexuality are shaped by social and cultural systems. Too often, the value of women’s humanity is undermined by certain aspects of traditional spirituality, such as limiting spiritual leadership to men, suspicion of the body, bypassing human sexuality, and excessive intellectualism. The work of feminist scripture scholars such as Sandra Schneiders, who is sensitive to spirituality, has been an important tool.23 Equally, the writings of people like Elizabeth Johnson and Catherine LaCugna have offered spiritually rich interpretations of Christian theologies of God with the aim of outlining a more adequate spirituality.24 In terms of rereading classic Christian spiritual or mystical texts from a feminist perspective, the works of Dorothee Sölle, Protestant feminist-political theologian and social activist, and Grace Jantzen are particularly important. For example, Jantzen wrote a major feminist academic study of Christian mysticism, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism.25

Turning to late 20th-century European political theology, in simple terms, it focuses on how to engage theology explicitly with political and social structures. It has sometimes been caricatured as Christian Marxism. However, its key exponents, such as the Roman Catholic Johannes Baptist Metz and the Protestants Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle, engage in striking ways with mysticism and spirituality.26 For example, Moltmann, in his often overlooked little book Experiences of God, writes explicitly about the interface of mystical theology with social action.27

In terms of classic Latin American liberation theology, there have been many points of connection with a spirituality of social transformation, for example in the writings of Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Pedro Casaldáliga, and in the comprehensive multi-author volume, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology.28 In terms of the intersection of liberation theology and feminist spirituality, the Cuban refugee Ada María Isasi-Diaz is a notable example, not least as an expression of mujerista spirituality in the United States. This approach affirms that true spirituality is not disembodied interiority but should be marked by a struggle against the sexism, ethnic prejudice, and economic oppression that diminishes the life experience of Latina women.29 However, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has become an iconic figure within the liberationist tradition. He was born in a poor family in Lima, studied in Europe, and was ordained in 1959. His dual experience of university teaching and working in a poor parish led him to bring together theology and a commitment to justice. Gutiérrez developed his thinking on spirituality in the book We Drink from Our Own Wells. He used the Old Testament image of the Exodus, a desert journey in which God leads the oppressed peoples from a state of slavery to the possession of a land of their own. The underpinning of all Christian spirituality is discipleship, a radical following of Jesus intrinsically linked to social practice. At the heart of spirituality is the experience of God speaking in and through the poor. In Part 3 of another book, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Gutiérrez underlines clearly that prayer and contemplation are paramount in relation to social engagement. In Job’s robust confrontation with God about his sufferings, he comes to a realization that God acts out of gratuitous love. In Gutiérrez, contemplation and confrontation are closely linked. Job’s encounter with God enables him to abandon himself into God’s unfathomable love, beyond abstract notions of justice. True justice is resituated within the depths of God. For Gutiérrez, contemplation is not separate from social practice, but is an inner element of that practice.30

In Africa and Asia, liberation spirituality has taken distinctive cultural forms while sharing the fundamental values of its Latin American inspiration. In Africa, there are a range of emphases. For example, Laurenti Magesa from Tanzania focuses strongly on the injustice of a continent that is not economically self-sufficient but is the victim of global inequality. Theology and spirituality need to respond to this situation of dependency not by imitating Western materialism but by building creatively upon the basic African “spirituality of being.”31 However, Magesa is not naïve about traditional African culture. He robustly critiques women’s oppression within traditional religious and cultural systems. This issue is also confronted powerfully in the movement of African women’s feminist-liberationist theology. For example, the writings of Mercy Amba Oduyoye in Ghana focus critically on how traditional African culture impacts on the religious spiritual experiences of women.32 In South Africa, divided by apartheid over many decades, there have been a variety of theological spirituality responses. Buti Tlhagale (now Roman Catholic Archbishop of Johannesburg) worked in Soweto and developed a black theology of labor. This seeks to awaken assertiveness in black workers so that they become self-realized persons rather than depersonalized objects in the labor market.33 The Reformed pastor and former African Nationalist Congress (ANC) activist Allan Boesak became known as a liberation theologian during the apartheid era.34 He is now a vocal critic of all forms of discrimination (reverse racial discrimination by the governing ANC or anti-gay attitudes in his Church), because this undermines the vision of a single nation. He also focuses on theology and reconciliation, as do Charles Villa-Vicencio, in his call for a reconstructive theology of nation building, and John de Gruchy, in his work on reconciliation, solidarity, and social justice.35

Because of its necessary coexistence with other major world religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Christian spirituality in Asia is often primarily associated with interreligious interchange, even with what became known as “dual belonging.” Prominent examples are the work and writings of Raimundo Pannikar, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Bede Griffiths in India; Aloysius Pieris in Sri Lanka; and Enomiya Lassalle, Kakichi Kadowaki, and William Johnston in Japan. However, Asia has produced its own variety of liberation theology with an associated spirituality.36 For example, Aloysius Pieris asserted the deep connections between interreligious dialogue and an Asian liberation theology. Another Sri Lankan theologian and human rights activist, Tissa Balasuriya, portrayed the Virgin Mary, a traditional focus of Catholic devotion, as an image of revolutionary strength rather than docile passivity.37 The Chinese theologian Kwok Pui-Lan, recently a professor of theology and spirituality in the United States, has written significantly on the interface of post-colonial and feminist theologies.38 What is called “dalit theology” in India refers to the so-called untouchable castes, who are socially marginalized and traditionally considered to be unclean. Dalit spirituality focuses on the restoration of social dignity, an affirmation of the essential equality of all human beings before God, and a strong emphasis on Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor, freedom for captives, and release for the oppressed (Luke 4). The suffering of Jesus and his resurrection is an important image for the sources of liberation.39 A final example is “minjung theology” in South Korea, which emerged in the 1970s during a period of dictatorship and reflects the struggle for social justice. This “people’s theology” seeks to speak to and for the oppressed who are ostracized by ruling elites.40

Conclusion: Spirituality and Social Transformation

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