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Problems with “spirituality” and “apophatic theology”

11 December 2010

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 December 2010 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the link. It’s amazing how many people (including some theologically educated ones) assume that I became Orthodox because I was attracted to “Orthodox (or Eastern, or Byzantine) spirituality”!

    I think that I first started questioning the popular contemporary understanding of apophaticism (which, I cringe to admit, I too once held and invoked) after reading Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God. He’s a western theologian (Catholic) but his work his work helped me to see its rootedness in dogma and a life of prayer, and the misuse of it in contemporary discussions on “mysticism” (another problematic word).

    Last night I was looking a bit at some South African Christian / theological blogs, wondering if I should be more in touch with discussions here (although I’m not sure that I really have the time for that) and I must say I found it rather discouraging as a lot seemed to just confirm that when people react to or reject evangelicalism and/or Calvinism they just seem to end up in what often appears to me to be a pretty contentless “spirituality.” Am I missing something? Any ideas?

    • 11 December 2010 2:54 pm

      No, I don’t think you’re missing a thing.

      Fortyfive years ago when the Broederbond instigated the SCA to split into four separate racial organisations, some of us thought we should revive student ecumenism outside the AB’s control. I attended several meetings to plan this, and I was editor of the Anglican Student Federation magazine Khanya and enjoyed meeting my Catholic opposite number, Carohn Cornell (now teaching at UWC). I went to the UK for three years, and returned to find that the result of our deliberations was the University Christian Movement, which combined mindless political activism with equally mindless talk about “spirituality”, and no dogmatic basis for linking the two. I almost admired the Marxists for seeing the need for a “rigorous theoretical framework”! Eventually the UCM split just as the SCA had done seven years earlier, but claimed that their split would destroy apartheid, unlike the SCA’s one, which was in pursuance of apartheid.

      So it’s been going on a long time.

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