For some, spirituality trumps theology any old day. For those who call themselves ‘spiritual’, the word ‘theologian’ brings to mind self-styled intellectuals who have stepped into a self-made ivory tower from which they engage in a fruitless search for knowledge of God. Too bad these theologians look for God in abstract commentaries written by other bookish-types rather than in the vibrant, pulsing life so obviously going on around them (if only they’d look up from their books!). The stereotypical theologian has a clear preference for the subtleties of his or her own imagination (theory) rather than for doing useful works among ordinary folk (praxis). He or she relies on reason and distrusts feelings. A sad head-shake for these poor theologians is appropriate right now—if you’re ‘spiritual’ that is.
Unlike theology, spirituality (the ‘spirituals’ explain) is interested in love and personal experience. The reasons of the heart are closer to God, they say, than the reasons of the head. Spirituality trusts love and distrusts logical arguments. And anyway, the best ideas are the ones that help people, the more directly the better.
Although the tug-of-war between theology and spirituality may seem like a contemporary phenomenon (the word spirituality is an 18th century invention), the same struggle took place in Western Europe as early as the Middle Ages. Elected Chancellor of the University of Paris in 1395, Jean Gerson, criticized theologians for lacking in common sense and failing to base their study in love. That didn’t stop him from also making the case that as long as they didn’t ignore the world, they had valuable contributions to make. He summed up the situation with this helpful analogy: Just like viscous honey needs a honeycomb, spirituality needs theology. Just like honey needs the structure of the honeycomb, spirituality needs to be structured by a thoughtful and organized mind. On the flip side, theology needs to be filled by spirituality because “the ideas of the mind must also warm the heart and lead to activity in the world.” Gerson tried to unify spirituality with theology while preserving the integrity of both.
Gerson’s analogy illustrates the fact that spirituality without theology is a puddle of sweet goo; it can’t be handed over (except in extremely messy form) to other people or to the next generation. Likewise, theology without spirituality is a lovely structure made of bland wax most people don’t want to eat.
The Renaissance humanist, Pico della Mirandola, agreed, pointing out that although “we can live without language, although not well, but we cannot live at all without the mind. “ For him, the person who is untouched by poems and novels and other people’s stories may not be humane, but the person who is untouched by logical inquiry and understanding is no longer a human being. Sounds harsh, maybe. But Mirandola was on to something.
We can’t be spiritual in a generic way. Our spirituality is tied to our beliefs about the human being, about ethics, about meaning, about God. To understand what those beliefs are takes more than a contemplative practice; it requires mindful reflection. Questions like “does God care about me?,” and “what did God mean by the command to love one’s neighbor?” call out for our attention. They call out for us to try to answer them, at least provisionally, by studying alone, or in groups, or in conversation with great thinkers through their books. Theologians ponder the most fundamental of the fundamental questions about the human and the divine. At times, these questions may appear overly subtle and specific but that’s going to the case any time answers are being pursued in the most serious way. And besides, to learn to love, we need not give up logic; to lead a life of simplicity and good deeds, we need not trump every question put forth by the intellect .
Spoken like a true theologian, don’t you think?
HNFFT: Must we choose between spirituality and theology? Or can the two be integrated?
Reference: Steven Ozment, “The Spiritual Traditions” in The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, 73-134 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).