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Personal Engagement: Constructive Source of Knowledge or Problem for Scholarship in Christian Spirituality?

  • Diana L. Villegas


Traditionally, works that have formed part of the history of Christian spirituality have been produced by authors engaged in and committed to their subject matter. How can this 2000 year-old characteristic of Christian spirituality be incorporated into the contemporary identity of the discipline in a manner congruent with critical scholarly methodology and in a manner that can be communicated to scholars in other disciplines?

Theologians and philosophers of religion have argued for the importance of participatory knowledge for full understanding of the transcendent and of the rituals and practices of religions that claim to have a transformative effect upon the life of persons. Based on these arguments, this essay suggests that scholars' engagement in the practice of spirituality is an important source of knowledge and that it is a source of knowledge that can contribute to critical reflection.



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1 The issue of a discipline's identity has been studied in other fields. E.g., see Hollinger, David A., “The Disciplines and the Identity Debates, 1970–1995,” Daedalus 126 (1997): 333–51, for a historical discussion of the shifts in disciplinary boundaries in four humanities and social science disciplines.

2 Tarrance Group Report on Religion in America, cited in Wuthnow, Robert, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950's (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 199, n. 2. Also discussed in Roof, Wade Clark, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 7679.

3 Wuthnow, , After Heaven, 2. In his important study about spirituality in America, sociologist Wuthnow documents these observations and the nontraditional developments in contemporary culture regarding the understanding and practice of spirituality.

4 See Van Ness, Peter H., ed., Spirituality and the Secular Quest, vol. 22 of World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 47, for his definition of secular spirituality, which includes New Age movements, the search for the spiritual from the point of view of science, psychotherapy and other disciplines, and games and sports as “spiritual.”

5 For two sociological studies see Wuthnow's and Roof's (cited above). Physicians d'Aquili and Newberg studied the neurobiology of religious and spiritual experiences and speak of a “neurotheology.” See d'Aquili, Eugene and Newberg, Andrew, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999). Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School has published several studies on the relationship between prayer, meditation and healing and on the connection between belief, spiritual practice and physical health. A nontechnical summary of this work can be found in Benson, Herbert, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief (New York: Scribner, 1996). The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley is sponsoring a number of international symposia led by major scholars on “Science and the Spiritual Quest.” For a description of this project see, «».

6 There is no one agreed upon definition of Christian spirituality. McGinn cites thirty-five definitions of spirituality and Egan and Cunningham devote several pages to examples of the variety of definitions of Christian spirituality. See McGinn, Bernard, “The Letter and the Spirit: Spirituality as an Academic Discipline,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1/2 (1993): 4, and Cunningham, Lawrence S. and Egan, Keith J., Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist, 1996), 2228. For discussions regarding the question of defining Christian spirituality, see Downey, Michael, Understanding Christian Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1997), 3059; Principe, Walter, “Toward Defining Spirituality,” Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses 12/2 (1983): 127–41; Schneiders, Sandra, “Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals or Partners?Horizons 13/2 (1986): 253–74.

7 For somewhat different positions on the debate regarding the relationship between spirituality and theology, see Laguë, M., “Spiritualité et théologie: d'une d'une même souche,” Eglise et théologie 20/2 (1989): 333–51; Principe, Walter, “Spirituality, Christian,” in The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Downey, Michael (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 931–38; Schneiders, Sandra, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 6/1 (1998): 112; Schneiders, , “Strangers, Rivals,” 253–74. Principe's and Schneider's articles also discuss the “object” of Christian spirituality as an academic discipline and Principe discusses the distinction between spirituality and religious studies.

8 Some scholars have attempted to categorize and describe a number of methods in the study of contemporary spirituality. Some of these categorizations are gaining acceptance but the discussion is still very much in process. For a summary of this discussion, see Downey, , Understanding Christian Spirituality, 123–39.

9 Schneiders, Sandra, “Spirituality as an Academic Discipline: Reflections from Experience,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1/2 (1993): 1012, 14; “Spirituality in the Academy,” Theological Studies 50 (1989): 694–95; “Christian Spirituality: Countours and Dynamics,” 9–10.

10 I include in the term “history of spirituality” works of mysticism, and, therefore, works included in histories of mysticism. Sheldrake, Philip, Spirituality and History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 65112, offers an incisive analysis of cultural and historical factors that have determined which works of spirituality are included in classical histories, and highlights that important works have been left out.

11 Pourrat, Pierre, A History of Christian Spirituality, 4 vols. (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1953). While Pourrat's classical work does not include contemporary advances in historical scholarship, it offers a comprehensive overview of works in Christian spirituality. For a critique of Pourrat's history, see Sheldrake, Spirituality and History, 98–100.

12 On Mme. Guyon and her spirituality, see Pourrat, Pierre, Christian Spirituality Later Developments: Part II, trans. Attwater, Donald (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1955), 4:177–84.

13 For a summary of Origen's spirituality and a brief assessment of his work in historical perspective, see the introduction by Greer, Rowan A. to Origen, , An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers, trans. Greer, Rowan A., Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1979), 1734.

14 McGinn, Bernard, Foundations of Mysticism, vol. 1 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 110. See ibid., 108–30 for a recent discussion of the importance of Origen's work for Western Christian mysticism.

15 Colombás, García M., “La literatura espiritual en los primeros siglos cristianos,” in Historia de la espiritualidad. A. Espiritualidad católica (Barcelona: Juan Flors, 1969), 1:456.

16 Ibid., 457 (author's translation).

17 For a critical summary of Bonaventure's theology and spirituality see the introduction by Ewert Cousins to Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis, trans. Cousins, Ewert, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1978), esp. 1648. For a recent summary of Bonaventure's spirituality and thought together with excerpts from significant works, see Hayes, Zachary, Bonaventure: Mystical Writings, Crossroad Spiritual Legacy Series (New York: Crossroad, 1999).

18 McGinn, Bernard, The Flowering of Mysticism, vol. 3 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 112.

19 See Waaijman, Kees, “Toward a Phenomenological Definition of Spirituality,” Studies in Spirituality 3 (1993): 1415 for a bibliography of introductions to spirituality for the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that includes manuals written in these centuries. Two contemporary manuals include, Bouyer, Louis, Introduction to Spirituality, trans. Ryan, Mary Perkins (New York: Desclée, 1961) and Bernard, Charles A., Traité de théologie spirituelle (Paris: Cerf, 1986).

20 Sandra Schneiders, whose definition of spirituality is widely used, defines spirituality in terms of self-transcendence. “[S]pirituality refers to the experience of consciously striving to integrate one's life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives” (Schneiders, , “Strangers, Rivals,” 266).

21 See Haight, Roger, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 512 and 198–202 for his discussion of symbol.

22 Ibid., 9.

23 Ibid., 11.

24 Ibid., 11–12.

25 Dupré, Louis, Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection: Excursions in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 7. Dupré discusses the contrasting position that religious feeling can be separated from its symbolic expression (see ibid., 7–8).

26 See ibid., 8–15 for Dupré's discussion of these points.

27 Ibid., 8.

28 Neville, Robert Cummings, “The Emergence of Historical Consciousness,” in Spirituality and the Secular Quest, ed. Van Ness, Peter H. (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 135–36.

29 Ibid., 137.

30 For a detailed description of these categories see ibid., 137–47.

31 Ibid., 138–39.

32 Ibid., 139–40.

33 Ibid., 129–30.

34 Ibid., 129.

35 Ibid., 130, 47, 52.

36 Ibid., 130.

37 See note 9 above.

38 Diana Eck, “Common Ground and Religious Pluralism,” and Christoph Schwöbel, “The Study of Religion in the Twentieth Century” (papers presented at Congress 2000, The Future of the Study of Religion, Boston, September 2000).

39 Schneiders, , “Spirituality as Academic Discipline,” 1012.

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