‘Spirituality and Theology’ by Mark McIntosh

Chapter 1 in Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 1998: 3-34)

There is a hightened interest in the ancient wisdoms of Mystical/ Spiritual/ Aesthetic Theology in the Academy just as there is a hightened interest in spirituality in Western cultures. It is instructive that there is a congregation of creative, postmodern theologians and pastors exploring contemplative theology and practice who have previously been formed in a great range of modernist traditions.  Catholics and Evangelicals alike are discovering the passion and possibilities within Mystical Theology.

Mark McIntosh is a prominent Anglican Theologian in this field who is easy to read and inspiring to reflect upon.  The particular task of the Mystic is ‘contemplation’ and hence is the particular method of Mystic Theology.

“contemplation is not like normal thinking only muddled and tentative, on the contrary it is seen as an activity in which the mind is liberated to perceive clearly, freed from the usual constraints of distraction, self-preoccupation or prejudice.”

“the more classical notion of mind [as opposed to Enlightenment preoccupation with linear, empirical rationality] refers to the desire of our whole being for deep understanding and relationship with all that is intelligible.”

what the mind is fixed upon in clear vision by an act of suspended wonder is ‘the manifestation of wisdom’… [Hence] it is in contemplation that theology and spirituality meet.”

These concerns echo a recurring theme in all the theologians I have been reading this year!  McIntosh warns that there is a danger with postmodern fascination with spirituality that is becomes self-absorbed and self-serving.  Wisdom (theology) moves us in a direction away from unhealthy spirituality which, as with everything else human, has the capacity to harm as much as it does to bless.

It is the discussion about definitions of spirituality in this chapter which helped me clarify something that has been slowly evolving in my mind.  First,  McIntosh is particular about a definition of spirituality within the realm of Mystical Religious Experience:

“spirituality… is inherently oriented towards discovery, towards new perceptions and new understandings of reality, and hence is intimately related to theology”

“the spiritual is that dimension of life which is engendered and empowered by God.. [and] is connected with the active presence of God and not primarily with extraordinary inner experiences”

“personal experience is not in itself the goal of spirituality”

He favours a ‘God-centric’ definition of spirituality as opposed to a Human-centric definition.  Contrast this with the opinion he cites from Sandra Schneiders (US spirituality ‘expert’):

“just as one says that a person has a certain ‘psychology’, a shape or pattern to their psychic life, so one could well say that every human being has a spirituality, that is, a ‘fundamental dimension of the human being’ … [i.e.]… that dimension of the human which is oriented towards self-transcendence

“[there is a distinction between] ‘the lived experience which actualizes’ one’s spirituality … [and the] … inherent feature of human existence.”

“[the academic discipline of spirituality is] the experimental and theoretical study of human efforts at self-transcending integration and to the pastoral practices aimed at fostering the spirituality of individuals and groups”.

Personally, I favor Schneiders definition, but the contrast in itself draws an important distinction between the ‘Mystical Experience’ (of particular persons) and ‘Basic Human Spirituality’ which should not be lost as it has important implications for both mission and ministry.  (McIntosh shows how they result in quite different academic disciplines.)   The Christian Gospel contains both particular declarations about God and generic declarations about Humanity.  There is ample ground for working together with others in our community to develop healthy human spirituality without any compromise the particularities of Jesus for professing Christians.

Universal human spirituality, as a definable characteristic independent from ‘The Proclamation Of The Gospel’, is a theological anthropology at the heart of emerging church models of missional community and the Cof E ‘fresh expressions’ and we who consider ourselves proponents of experimental forms of missional church would do well to be more articulate about it.  We might differ on how they go together but I don’t think we will disagree that they are distinct.  I do wonder whether misunderstanding this at the heart of Davison & Milbank’s For the Parish, but that is on my bookshelf waiting for the end of term!

4 thoughts on “‘Spirituality and Theology’ by Mark McIntosh

  1. Why do you prefer Schneiders definition? Is it a personality thing? … a result of your ‘particular orientation/lived experience/actualisation of self transcendence?

    • Thanks for your question Marcus, helps me to be articulate. Here’s some thoughts:
      1. As a sociologist I have to make sense of the indisputable consistencies between religions of different kinds. EG. Muslim Mystics describe very similar spiritual experiences to Christian Mystics. What’s going on there?
      2. If the definition of spirituality is explicit about ‘God’ it gets more difficult to maintain that there is something distinct about the ‘God Whom We Meet Through Jesus Christ’, because it takes us back to problem 1.
      3. I think that there are a number of difficulties with conservative articulations of christianity which play out differently with a more complex understanding of anthropology. That is, it’s not always our conception of God that is problematic in relating to God, sometimes it is our conception of ourselves (as is true in any relationship between ourselves and another).
      4. I favor an approach to christian wisdom which draws on all knowledge of the world and in this sense the various disciplines should be allowed to speak for themselves. They pose the questions for us to take to our sacred texts. The questions have a universality about them, the sacred texts do not. Distinctive Christian thinking/being/doing/feeling/etc comes from our open ended interaction with the bible. The questions can come from any human being.
      5. Hence, I would place the study of human spirituality most particularly in social sciences academic discipline (as Schneider does) and then draw upon those insights in relation to theology. Actually, I think spirituality is a public health issue for society as well as a theological issue for Christianity.

  2. Found another reason today in ‘Neuroscience and Jung’s Model of the Psyche’, International Association of Analytic Psychologists Congress by Arthur Niesser, 2010.
    “‘Neurotheology’ has recently come into focus. This is a field of science, which studies the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. It is based on the observation that people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy frequently reported visions and spiritual experiences. Furthermore, experiments with stimulating the temporal lobes of participants with concentrated magnetic fields evoked a religious experience in about 80% of participants. In a reductionist fashion we could argue that religious experience is nothing else but a quirk of the brain, an epiphenomenon. However, the universality of spiritual experience over the history of humankind indicates that religious experience is a basic human need, which has found its biological substrate in the human brain. In this context we are justified in using the term spirituality in a wider sense as transcendence, as a bond and a connectedness with a force outside our individuality. This idea links up with an experience of meaning for our existence and is congruent with Jung’s observation that symbols of unity and wholeness cannot be distinguished from the imago dei.”

  3. Pingback: The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle « reddresstheology

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