Problems with “spirituality” and “apophatic theology”
A few months ago I wrote that I felt uneasy when people talk about “spirituality”, and “being spiritual but not religious”. Not that I think “being religious” is a good thing, but I do think that making a verbal separation between them is something of a cop out.
I’ve also found that quite a lot of people are referring to “apophatic theology” in blogs, and at first I was quite hopeful when I read it — “apophatic theology” is a pretty technical term in Orthodox theology, and used to be one of the things that Western Christians had never heard of, just as most Orthodox Christians don’t have the slightest idea what “preterism” or “the cultural mandate” mean. So to find Western Christians discussing “apophatic theology” got my hopes up, and at first I thought that perhaps there was a possibility of some real inter-Christian dialogue. But I usually discovered that those who used the term hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant, and just thought it sounded nice, and attached an entirely different meaning to it. So instead of facilitating dialogue, its increased use by Western Christians is actually likely to impede dialogue, because Eastern and Western Christians might think they are talking about the same thing, and sooner or later will discover that they aren’t.
I was glad to discover that Macrina Walker shared my uneasiness about these terms, and for very similar reasons, and she has now written an excellent blog post about it More on the “spirituality” confusion – A vow of conversation:
a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.
I commend it to anyone who is concerned about dialogue between Eastern and Western Christians.