Spiritual Theology: The Theology of Yesterday for Spiritual Help Today
Author: Diogenes Allen
THIS book is an insightful analysis of spirituality which helps readers to know what is meant by awareness of God and the way of achieving it.
Diogenes Allen, the Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, an influential theologian and an author of several books on spiritual life, draws from the Christian spiritual tradition – the early Church fathers and Christian mystics, both men and women.
One of his peers commented that he “excels in joining what we too often keep separate: doctrine and life, philosophy and poetry, head and heart. This splendid guide to the classic spiritual way offers spirituality with substance and theology with soul.”
The purpose of the book is “to offer help to those people who cannot find what they are looking for in academic theology as it is practised today, and for whom neither church worship nor the major activities of church life provide enough explicit spiritual guidance”.
Allen outlines three stages of the spiritual journey. The first is the active life or practice of overcoming evil thoughts and actions. The second is the indirect contemplation of God discerning God’s presence in the whole created universe, human relationships and the Bible. And the third is the direct contemplation of God or meditation in silence when God meets us face to face.
The goal of spiritual life is loving God and loving our neighbour. When we do so we are fulfilling the two great commandments, and our will becomes one with God’s will. The important consideration is that spiritual life is connected with daily life and actions in the world. Love of God and love of neighbour lead us to the ultimate destination, which is the vision of God where we are fully present to God and God is fully present to us.
The devout life is for all people. Every person can lead a spiritual life in the church and in the community.
The entrance to the path of our spiritual journey is through conversion. There are different experiences of conversion and it is more than just an emotional one. A thinking, properly educated person is convinced that conversion is more than an emotional experience. It is life-changing and the experience is not necessarily a dramatic one. More importantly, it is the change of direction in a person’s life.
People turn to Christianity because they need help, they want justice, they desire mercy and forgiveness. What is more important is to turn towards a spiritual perspective of life that could satisfy both the heart and the head.
The hindrances in our spiritual journey as taught by the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th Century are common and basic: food and drink, sexual desires, material goods, the need to compare ourselves with others, resentment, failure, success and self-centredness. They are traditionally known as the eight deadly thoughts. They were codified by a monastic scholar by the name of Evagrius. In the 6th Century, Gregory the Great revised them and called them instead the seven deadly sins – pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, covetousness and sloth.
The remedy to overcome these obstacles is to focus our attention on divine things. “To those who have come to dwell in God, God is patient and kind. If we continue to open ourselves to God, sooner or later we will find that things we once did we now gladly relinquish, and that many things we once feared to do we now do gladly.”
The active aspect of spiritual theology deals with overcoming the obstacles like the eight deadly thoughts or seven deadly sins. This involves vigils, prayers, retreats and divine reading of Scripture leading to kind and compassionate acts in love to neighbour. It calls for serious study of the faith so that the enlightened mind can lead us to the knowledge of God and the teachings of Christ. In this form of contemplation we think and reflect upon nature and Scripture so that we are motivated to increase our love of God and love for our neighbour.
Spiritual theology reaches to the silent meditation mode. “Some Christians have the urgent desire to know God’s presence not only through nature and Scripture, but directly, without any intermediary. They seek to be ‘nakedly’ present to God; that is, without anything between them and God, including any thoughts and images.”
The goal of the Christian life is union with God, which is characterised by experience of ecstasy or inner stillness and an awareness of God’s continual presence. We meet God face to face not in fleeting moments of ecstasy but in habitual presence and union with Him. This experience of meditation in silence is available to all Christians.
Allen, in his concluding chapter, emphasises the relationship between intellectual inquiry and spiritual formation. There is a tendency to separate doctrine and spirituality. One deals with the head and the other with the heart. There are those who want to suspend theological inquiry in order to devote all the time to spiritual experiences. Beliefs determine the kind of spirituality. Spirituality informs the kind of beliefs. “For most of Christian history, intellectual inquiry and spiritual aspiration towards God has gone hand-in-hand.”
‘Too many so-called spiritual people are just not interested in studying Christian faith and doctrine … When teaching is neglected our spirituality is meaningless and even dangerous.’
Allen fears that there is too much spirituality today that is not based on sound doctrine or beliefs. In fact the approach is to stimulate feelings of power, laughter and sorrow and other unusual emotional states as signs of the spirit’s presence. People are more interested to find help than truth – the truth that will set them free. Too many so-called spiritual people are just not interested in studying Christian faith and doctrine. They want to satiate their heart but starve their head. When teaching is neglected our spirituality is meaningless and even dangerous. When we look only for help and not the truth we will not find the help we need when we face the battles of life and death. Beliefs and spiritual experiences lead us to have a greater knowledge of God and help in time of need.
Allen concludes that “people who try to understand and live in accordance with Christian teachings often find that their outlook changes. Both their hearts (what they treasure) and their minds (what they find important) are transformed as they rise to a new awareness of themselves, the world and God”.
The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore.