After looking briefly at Hans Urs Von Balthasar, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a Balthasar commentator, Mark McIntosh. I 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?