The current interest in ‘spirituality’ is both salutary and alarming. It is salutary because in its best forms it challenges not only the prevalent philosophical materialism of the modern world but also the perfunctory corporate exercises of many Christians. It is alarming because, although spirituality is generally regarded as an ‘applause-word’, it is often so ill-defined that it can mask gross error.
A definition of ‘spirituality’ cannot readily be induced from the NT, despite the use by Paul of words translated as ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’. Rather, the term derives from French-Catholic thought, and approximates to what earlier writers might have referred to as ‘the spiritual life’. Until the Reformation, various elements were prominent at different times: the sacraments, community, prayer, asceticism, martyrdom, vows of poverty and celibacy, images, monasticism, etc. By the time of the Jesuit Giovanni Scaramelli (1687-1752) a sharp distinction was made between ascetic theology and mystical theology, the latter dealing with extraordinary states of consciousness and their manifestations during times of mystical union with God. ‘Thus “spirituality” became a discipline, “spiritual theology,” to be distinguished from dogmatic theology, which tells us what must be believed, and from moral theology, which tells us how we must act.’
For writers such as Pourrat and Bouyer, spiritual theology presupposes dogmatic theology; but this is denied by some today (e.g. Flew, Wainwright), who maintain that spirituality is what shapes our theology; that we must experience something in order to be able to articulate it in dogmatic forms.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy has invested far more heavily in ‘spirituality’ studies than has Protestantism. A major reason is that these are the traditions that have emphasised the pursuit of a high level of spiritual attainment (sometimes conceived as mystical union) by a minority, often monastics.
Writers often give attention to non-Christian ‘spiritualities’ – Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, and so on. Here, mutually exclusive truth claims are not to be ignored. We cannot avoid the question, ‘Is spirituality “all in the mind,” or does it appeal to something/someone ‘out there’. Radical pluralists, of course, would say that any form of spirituality is as valid as any other form, and that all spiritual points beyond the dogma with which it may be associated.
Post Vatican II, spirituality has become less associated with the eucharist and has embraced feminist spirituality, the spirituality of a life of poverty or of social transformation, and so on.
During the last century, ‘spirituality’ has become part of the Protestant vocabulary. Here, it often refers to godliness and the devotional life. One thinks back to the Puritan emphasis on conformity to Christ, self-examination, confession of sin, meditation on the Word, and the use of the means of grace.
Based on Carson, The Gagging of God, 555-562