Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 2

After looking briefly at Hans Urs Von Balthasar, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a Balthasar commentator, Mark McIntosh. mystical-theologyI will mainly be referring to McIntosh’s prolegomna discussion in his book Mystical Theology. He starts by addressing some issues in defining spirituality, landing on an understanding which focuses on a discovery of the true self through an encounter with the divine and human other. This lays a platform for a discussion of spirituality and theology:

Perhaps one might think initially in terms of encounter with God as the common ground of spirituality and theology: spirituality being the impression that this encounter makes in the transforming life of people, and theology being the expression that this encounter calls forth as people attempt to understand and speak of the encounter” (6 – my emphasis).

McIntosh pushes away from seeing “experiential phenomena” as the defining features of the spiritual life, because when they are, “spirituality seems to lose its theological voice” (9). Following Balthasar, McIntosh states that, “theology without spirituality becomes ever more methodologically refined but unable to know or speak of the very mysteries at the heart of Christianity, and spirituality without theology becomes rootless, easily hijacked by individualistic consumerism” (10). He goes on, and I quote him at length:

Part of the difficulty is that the ramifications of such a divorce are obscure until one sees the proper integrity of contemplative encounter and dogmatic theology; for apart from their mutual interaction the true functioning of each becomes easily misconceived. In other words, when a culture has grown used to the divorce between theology and spirituality, between doctrine and prayer, then the mutually critical function of the two breaks down. Neither is in sufficient dialogue with the other to keep it honest. And after a long period of such separation it becomes increasingly difficult to see what is missing in so much of the pale pretenders that pass fairly often for theology and spirituality today” (10).

In turning his attention to the specific issue of spirituality and theology, McIntosh references Andrew Louth to suggest the “contemplation” become something of a conceptual crossroad between the two. Quoting the Medieval theologian Richard of St. Victor, “Contemplation is a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder.” he spells out a helpful definition for his task: “Contemplation is not particularly concerned with the inner states of the contemplative (however interesting, unusual and worthy of study they may be in their own right), but with the breaking through of wisdom into the contemplative’s consciousness” (12). McIntosh offers two clarifying points:

This is one of those subtle differences that matters enormously. First because it makes clear that the whole event of contemplation is not primarily something that one does but that one is invited into. Second, to speak of contemplation as the breaking through of wisdom makes clear that the event of contemplation issues in new understanding, a new encounter with wisdom. It is inherently theological” (12).

Quoting positively from Louth, McIntosh asserts, “It is in contemplation that theology and spirituality meet. Theology is one of the fruits of contemplation, the attempt to express and articulate what is perceived in this ‘free and clear vision”; spirituality is the preparing of the soul for contemplation. And contemplation, in this sense, is not something we can attain” (12). Therefore spirituality is oriented towards theology, and theology emerges from spirituality, both necessarily arising from an intimate encounter with God.

McIntosh continues on to suggest that the divorce of spiritual from theology, following Balthasar has left both malnourished, and he offers two lacuna: first, their is a gap in the sources – not the least of which is the inner life of the theologians themselves; second, the theologian can lose the proper skills for speaking the doctrines of Christianity – “doctrines conceived not simply as propositions for analysis but as living mysteries to be encountered” (15). Quoting Herbert McCabe, McIntosh affirms: “What we need is to be taken up by God himself, to share in his knowledge of himself , a sharing that to us must just look like darkness. So that our faith seems not like an increase of knowledge but, if anything, an increase of ignorance…So it is God’s initiative that is needed. Not that we should speak more about him, but that he should speak to us” (16).

In coming close to answering the main question at hand, he goes on to state, “So spirituality – prayer – is, I suggest, that which keeps theology to its proper vocation, that which prevents theology from evading its own real object” (17). For McIntosh, it seems, theology is an outpouring of what is true spiritually for the theologian. While he doesn’t address the question of judging a theology based on a person’s spiritual depth, it seems that he would be forced down the road of saying that a person’s spiritual depth is what makes their theological depth possible. In fact, McIntosh seems to go one step further and say that without a real active contemplative life, a theologian isn’t actually speaking of the Christian God:

“…when theologyis divorced from spirituality it is likely to begin talking about a different god, a deity who depends on theological performance for vitality and verisimilitude” (15).

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that we could judge someone’s theology based on our perception of their spiritual depth, nor does it in any way bind God’s ability to use one’s theological analysis. If I may suggest, I think that there is a texture to spiritually rich theology, and that is how theology, in part, needs to be judged. There is the right or wrong question which I don’t want to diminish, but landing on the “right” answer isn’t necessarily showing oneself to be a good theologian. Just as a dogmatically rich spirituality has a certain tenure and texture to it, theology that is actually informed by one’s encounter with the divine and holy other takes on a texture of awe, reverence, and, dare I say, desperation.

What are your thoughts? What do you think about McIntosh’s use of impression and expression? How about the obviously apophatic nature of his task? Parts of his thesis are probably accepted by virtually everyone (that spirituality should be theologically informed for instance), but what about the idea that theology needs to be informed by one’s spirituality to be true Christian theology?

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5 thoughts on “Should Theologians Be Spiritual? Part 2

  1. Kyle, I have been deeply bothered by what seems to be an overemphasized—or perhaps even wrongly defined—notion of spirituality that emerges in this conversation on theology and spirituality. This notion is certainly woven into your very nice synthesis of McIntosh—the repeated implication that spirituality is by nature “contemplative” and “prayer.” The sense one is left with is that progress in spirituality can only really be made when the theologian is somehow removed from ordinary life. This is certainly the impression I get out of his quote from McCabe:

    “What we need is to be taken up by God himself, to share in his knowledge of himself , a sharing that to us must just look like darkness. So that our faith seems not like an increase of knowledge but, if anything, an increase of ignorance…So it is God’s initiative that is needed. Not that we should speak more about him, but that he should speak to us.”

    What seems to be missing here is the realization that God has already spoken to us (Word, Heb 1:1-2) and continues to speak to us daily (Spirit)—both forms of speech occur regularly within the context of our “ordinary” lives. The problem is not, it seems to me, that “we need God’s initiative” but that we all too often don’t have ears to hear what he is already speaking through Word and Spirit in the context of “ordinary” difficulties: unpleasant circumstances and difficult people that make it hard to “love God and love others.”

    I have no quarrel with the concept of a mutually-informing relationship between spirituality-as-”impression” and theology-as-”expression.” What I see missing from this construct is a cyclical obedience that must necessarily take place on the way from impression to expression, and hearing on the way back again from expression to impression. It is daily trials that catalyze this cycle—so well epitomized in James 1:2-4—and these trials are most richly evocative of our growing theology and spirituality in the context of our most difficult relationships.

    Kyle, you hint at this component of trials in the last sentence of your commentary in your mention of “desperation.” It is precisely this desperation that should trigger our search for the wisdom (and here is where “prayer” fits in) that God is continually attempting to speak into our lives through Word and Spirit (James 1:5). But how often do we embrace the trials that gain our attention and call forth our prayer for that wisdom and the necessary “ears to hear”? And how often do we realize that it is commitment to life-giving relationships with God and others that generates the most challenging trials for our growth in theology and spirituality?

    What we “hear” from God is indeed meant to result in transformation with each “cycle,” but each time it must first force a “theological instability” that begs for our “adjustment” to what we hear. This adjustment then calls forth some type of “obedience” in our words or deeds in relation to others in order to “conform” to what we hear from him. Only with obedience are we then ready to truly hear his speaking again. It seems to me that this also calls for the needed redefinition of hermeneutics that Vanhoozer has offered, elucidating how hermeneutics and theology are related to fitting “performance” (see e.g., Is There a Meaning in This Text; First Theology; and Drama of Doctrine).

    (Perhaps we could pursue this further on another thread; if you are interested in my inchoate thoughts on the issue you can find them in the discussion section of my paper at: http://www.21stcenturypress.com/wisdombook/Words of Truth0001.pdf)

  2. Jim, thanks for your thoughts. I think McIntosh would be weary of such a discursive understanding of revelation that you seem to suggest here. In other words, it isn’t so much that the contemplative has to be abstracted away from ordinary life, but that within the ordinary he has to come into contact with “He who is wholly Other.” Therefore the real issue in life is not based on appropriately acting out the word (in this sense, qua law), but on truly knowing and loving God Himself that results in a life formed by God from the core of one’s heart. Your point then is exactly right, we do not have ears to hear and eyes to see (at least not fully), therefore we cast ourselves to the feet of Jesus and not merely try to mimic the fruit of the Spirit. The answer therefore is not fundamentally revelation as such, or a new way to live as such, but God and God alone.

    In terms of James 1:2-4, I don’t think that James is arguing for some kind of self-help, which is how that has to be read if “endurance” is abstracted away from one’s reliance on God and is oriented towards just “staying strong” or something along those lines. In other words, testing of your faith produces endurance only insofar as it is relying upon God’s gracious action towards us. It is the testing of “faith” after all. Hence James 1:5 – that if we lack wisdom the issue is that we are not turning to God (the One who gives generously and without reproach).

    In terms of Vanhoozer, whose work I think is absolutely excellent, it is his use of performance that I think is unfortunate. The conceptual categories which he ends up having to use to fill out the idea of performance under his drama trope are things like “actors,” which seems to be exactly what we don’t want to say doesn’t it? (The idea of white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones comes to mind here) He tries to utilize “inspiration” in an odd way, but it tends to fail in an attempt to embody that which is fundamentally external to your true self (ontologically speaking), rather than being embodied and redeemed by the true living God from within. I loved Drama of Doctrine, but I found it wanting when he talked about the Christian life and transformation. I think that the drama trope needs to be cast aside for something so sui generis as life in Christ indwelt by the Spirit.

    Likewise, the “hear, adjust, obey, conform” paradigm seems to suggest a similar performance based understanding of sanctification. I guess I am just a bit more reformed than this. I just think that an account of formation should have God’s action through the work of His Spirit as a central defining feature both intrinsic to the content itself as well as the methodology for transformation itself. I think the main difference between how we are conceiving this is whether or not one’s relationship to God and knowledge of Him is transformative through a true personal encounter with God, compared to what you seem to be suggesting (tell me if I am misreading you on this) that if we just try hard to read scripture well and do what it says, being opened nonetheless to having it critically engage our presuppositions, then we will be conformed into his image.

    Likewise, again, from a more reformed angle, I don’t think our action binds God’s ability to allow our hearing. Therefore, our ability to hear is not predicated on our ability to obey. Now, I could be misconstruing “obey. If it was conceived to be something like Calvin’s knowledge of God knowledge of self idea, that obeying was merely hearing and being “naked and exposed before the one to whom we must give an account” (Heb. 4:12) then I would agree. But if it is reading the Bible and acting that out, I don’t see a difference between what the Pharisees were doing and what you are suggesting. Perhaps you could play out the idea of obey a bit more and how that functions within an idea of the Spirit’s work in renovating the will (as the good Puritans used to say). Or, again, it could be that we are speaking of revelation differently, in the sense of what God is revealing in Scripture. I tend to be allergic to the idea that God is just offering another kind of law (do this, don’t do this), but am more inclined to think of God offering us means to turn and trust in His grace and mercy within our seeking to obey, but not predicated upon it. In other words, the great revelatory point in the incarnation is that God is with us, and not that God is giving us new commands; therefore with every command must be heard: Emmanuel.

  3. Thanks, Kyle, for your very thoughtful response. I am glad you qualified your reply “…discursive understanding of revelation that you seem to suggest.” You identified exactly what I wasn’t intending about the notions of hearing and obedience, but which is all too often the immediate presumption and ever-present danger among those of us who (somewhat cluelessly) seek to please God through prescribed (read “biblical”) behavior. I would say the “knowledge” of God I am trying to articulate is far more “experiential” than many would read into the “functions” of hearing and obedience. When Jesus says in his Revelation to John, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches…”; and when he quotes Isaiah in the first parable of Matt 13…

    “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; For the heart of this people has become dull, With their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes, Otherwise they would see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I would heal them.”

    …I think Jesus is talking very little about discursive “hearing” or “seeing,” which the Pharisees were very good at; he was talking about a response to Word and Spirit that is not mimicking at all (in the sense of Law or, again, prescribed behavior) but rather emulation of the character of a God who indeed can be known.

    The point I was trying to make about Vanhoozer’s term “performance” is that there is a telic aspect to “hearing” that becomes a sine qua non for further theological development; that is what I mean by “obedience,” and I think it’s what the OT authors largely mean by “turning”: Since we can’t predict what God is “up to” (for the most part) in this world, how can we know where he is inviting us unless we “listen” for that invitation? How could move toward him without hearing him through Word and Spirit, as opposed to an “obedience” consisting only of rote “performance”? I am convinced that the former is what Vanhoozer means by his use of the term, but I agree that Vanhoozer’s theatrical analogy and imagery in DoD was lame.

    I did find him to speak clearly in the preceding two works I cited and think he was just trying to expand his audience with this third work. It was a let-down for me, personally, for the reasons you mentioned. (One article that has been somewhat helpful here is Dick Averbeck’s “God, People, and the Bible: The Relationship between Illumination and Biblical Scholarship” which can be found in the 2005 volume Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit?)

    I do not subscribe to the “hear, adjust, obey, conform” paradigm you alluded to. Nor do I fully accept the reformed angle you outlined, “…our ability to hear is not predicated on our ability to obey.” And while I would tend to depart somewhat from the contemplative notion you have underscored of knowing and loving God as “wholly Other,” I completely concur with your last couple of sentences on the Incarnation.

    We are indeed “laid bare” by the Word to the One to whom we must give account (Heb 4:12); the problem is, what does that “accountability” look like? I am postulating that the process of accountability involves God’s conforming us into his image through a daily cyclical process within the context of difficult relationships and circumstances. I would suggest that it looks something like this:

    “My child, I will indeed restore this world but I have chosen you and placed you in it to be my representative, my ‘agent’, if you will. I have spoken my Word to you and now indwelt you with my Spirit so that when I invite you to follow me into places that you don’t want to go I am doing two things: (1) I am asking you in those situations to listen to what I am saying through my Word and Spirit so that you really know where I want you to go; and (2) I am asking you to obey what I want you to do in those situations so that you will be one with me in those redemptive acts that I have designed to restore the world and transform you into my image, the image in which I created you.”

    When we hear well, we have the choice to obey or not—in the sense I have tried to depict above. If we obey, we do indeed obey by faith, as you clarified from James 1. The goal is to be perfected and whole in his righteousness (James 1:20); the wisdom we receive is the knowledge of him in the experiential sense you mentioned (John 17:3), but that simply boils down to the kind of theology that does in fact expand in proportion to our obedience.

  4. Jim, thanks for your response – I was wondering if we were talking past each other somehow. Those semantic clarifications help. Thanks.

    In terms of your response, I guess there is still an element which seems to rub me the wrong way (maybe that’s the point!). There still seems to be an instrumental element to it – a sense of: I want you to do this, now go and do that; rather than, I am calling you to myself, so that in coming to know me personally you will be conformed to my image and able to bear fruit. Therefore we are still listening to law of some sort, and we are still obeying out of our own ability to obey – or that is how I am hearing it. Does that make sense? Am I still hearing you poorly?

    I am just worried about a sense of the Christian life focusing merely on fruit (fruit of the Spirit being a good example), and not on our total inability to produce that fruit, grow or follow on our own accord. My concern is to highlight the necessarily Spirit-empowered nature of the Christian life, and work that into a method and texture of the Christian life. I fear that too often the Christian life gets spelled out in what we need to do, and then the Spirit is just thrown on top of it all, rather than making the Spirit the central defining factor both in goal and method. In other words, I follow you if by obedience you mean something like prayer and contemplation – that being confronted with God’s call we cast ourselves upon him seeking power to follow.

    We could very well be talking around one another, which is guess is part of the blog deal a bit. I agree with a concern to maintain a telic aspect to the Christian life, but I want to also maintain an understanding of the impossibility of the Christian life. I think the two must go hand in hand.

  5. Yes. Precisely.

    Our obedience—if we are truly to participate in what God is “up to”—can only be Spirit-empowered obedience. I didn’t emphasize, that because we were focusing on theology and spirituality, but if I can make any contribution here at all, it would be that our will to obey (not our ability at all) is integral to doing theology: At one and the same time, our Spirit-empowered obedience conforms us more to his image, so formation and theology in this sense go hand in hand.

    Thanks for your patience!

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