Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reflections on 'Spirituality'

From correspondence about the book Beloved Dust:

Thanks for the quotes from Beloved Dust. I certainly agree about the corruptibility of interior life, and it's interesting that Luther's teacher, Staupitz, was already confused about the language of spirituality that, at least in some of the major writers (Aquinas, Bonaventure, Cusa) had been very specific about what was meant by certain words, e.g., excesus mentis meaning/referring to the suspension of self-consciousness.

By Stauptiz' time this language had been corrupted from referring to something actual to being an abstract theological expression. At the same time, the words rapture and ecstasy, never clearly defined but referring to phenomena, also became abstract theological terms, on a par and lumped together with with the abstracted excessus mentis.

Steinmetz, who wrote a rather well-known paper about this (16th c Journal vol. 80) distinguishes Luther's position from Gerson's but doesn't say why, only that it is different. Steinmetz, being Lutheran I'm guessing, doesn't appear to see the psychological shift or why it is so problematical, sowing the seeds of today's problems like dragons' teeth.

Luther, Steinmetz says, wanted to make contemplation something that was not reserved to an elite (a mistaken impression but evidence of how far the knowledge of the work of silence had been lost). But Steinmetz fails to see that by tying it to Anfectung Luther in fact reserves contemplation to a Lutheran elite. One can see in Luther's theology the origins of the Schwarmerei (enthusiasts) and even modern-day pentecostals, but while both groups, along with the illuminati (who influenced Teresa and John through Francisco de Osuna) are collectively regarded with suspicion by both Catholic and Protestant institiutions, their underlying psychologies are very different.

The former are self-authenticating through 'experience' and the latter become incoercible through the work of silence. The former make a lot of noise and—dangerously by any measure—take the subjective self as authoritative, but the latter threaten institutions by understanding more precisely how and why institutions have gone wrong.

By simply condemning (as with Porete who, I am convinced, was not masochistic but outraged to the point that she was willing to be martyred) instead of acknowledging and addressing clericalism and the lust for power, to name a few of many problems; instead of realizing that something had gone missing from the communication of the Gospel, the institutions have made their own beds in which they now have to lie (in every sense of the word lie). Of course, as always, the circumstances are far more complex, but these issues are central.

On the one hand, I think spirituality so-called needs context and discernment; it cannot be authentic in a vacuum. I was shocked when an American publisher, considering Writing the Icon of the Heart , wanted me to remove all the 'socio-political' bits; in other words, the editor wanted so-called spirituality in a vacuum. On the other hand, today's religious institutions are absolutely the last place to go to find that context and discernment.

I refused to delete the passages, of course; in fact, I would not know how to distinguish, much less extricate them. Every spiritual focus has a political consequence, as we have sadly seen in recent days in the tragic events in Tucson, the lethal effects of an atmosphere of self-authentication and the 'spirituality' of cross-hairs; for gun-toting movements are infected with religious zeal, if not in fact trying to justify themselves by what passes for religion. But this is a subject for another post.

In reading Steinmetz I was also struck at how much Luther, in what he created, repeated and passed along the very abuses and attitudes that had brought him to grief in the first place—a classic case of passing on what one has received. Luther is really a very late-medieval character, and in his theology it is possible to see the influence of the pernicious 'humanity of Christ' issue, which went from being a 12th c devotion to being the brickbat of orthdoxy. I have come to think that this so-called humanity of Christ is itself heretical because it is in fact non-incarnational, a humanity without a mind, and excludes 'putting on the mind of Christ', which of course is the whole point of the Christian exercise, not an idolatrous imagining of the physical Jesus or even the glorified Christ, with accompanying manufactured dramatization. St Bernard was quite right in emphasizing the Ascension as the most important doctrine, but ironically, that is not the aspect of his theology that was seized upon or has been emphasized right down to the present time.


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