Theology is "the doctrine of living unto God," wrote the Puritan theologian William Ames. Unfortunately, post-Enlightenment theology has tended to divorce "doctrine" from "living unto God." And to the degree that this split has been deepened and perpetuated, both theology and spirituality have been impoverished.
Spiritual Theology is a rare book. In it, Simon Chan surveys the little-explored landscape where systematic theology and godly praxis meet, highlighting the connections between Christian doctrine and Christian living and drawing out the spiritual implications of particular aspects of systematic theology. Allowing rational formulations to drop into the background, he brings the mystery of the faith to the fore.
Future books that aim at the integration of theology and spirituality will build on the solid foundation Chan provides in this volume. Here is a challenging book that is theologically sound, spiritually insightful, and persuasively argued. We are all richer for this solid effort.
Theology is the systematic study of the nature of the divine and, more broadly, of religious belief. It is taught as an academic discipline, typically in universities and seminaries. It occupies itself with the unique content of analyzing the supernatural, but also deals with religious epistemology, asks and seeks to answer the question of revelation. Revelation pertains to the acceptance of God, gods, or deities, as not only transcendent or above the natural world, but also willing and able to interact with the natural world and, in particular, to reveal themselves to humankind. While theology has turned into a secular field[according to whom?], religious adherents still consider theology to be a discipline that helps them live and understand concepts such as life and love and that helps them lead lives of obedience to the deities they follow or worship.
The study of theology may help a theologian more deeply understand their own religious tradition, another religious tradition, or it may enable them to explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition. Theology may be used to propagate, reform, or justify a religious tradition; or it may be used to compare, challenge (e.g. biblical criticism), or oppose (e.g. irreligion) a religious tradition or worldview. Theology might also help a theologian address some present situation or need through a religious tradition, or to explore possible ways of interpreting the world.
From the 17th century onwards, the term theology began to be used to refer to the study of religious ideas and teachings that are not specifically Christian or correlated with Christianity (e.g., in the term natural theology, which denoted theology based on reasoning from natural facts independent of specifically Christian revelation) or that are specific to another religion (such as below).
The term theology has been deemed by some as only appropriate to the study of religions that worship a supposed deity (a theos), i.e. more widely than monotheism; and presuppose a belief in the ability to speak and reason about this deity (in logia). They suggest the term is less appropriate in religious contexts that are organized differently (i.e., religions without a single deity, or that deny that such subjects can be studied logically). Hierology has been proposed, by such people as Eugène Goblet d'Alviella (1908), as an alternative, more generic term.
As defined by Thomas Aquinas, theology is constituted by a triple aspect: what is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God (Latin: Theologia a Deo docetur, Deum docet, et ad Deum ducit). This indicates the three distinct areas of God as theophanic revelation, the systematic study of the nature of divine and, more generally, of religious belief, and the spiritual path. Christian theology as the study of Christian belief and practice concentrates primarily upon the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament as well as on Christian tradition. Christian theologians use biblical exegesis, rational analysis and argument. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian better understand Christian tenets, to make comparisons between Christianity and other traditions, to defend Christianity against objections and criticism, to facilitate reforms in the Christian church, to assist in the propagation of Christianity, to draw on the resources of the Christian tradition to address some present situation or need, or for a variety of other reasons.
Within Hindu philosophy, there is a tradition of philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe, of God (termed Brahman, Paramatma, and/or Bhagavan in some schools of Hindu thought) and of the ātman (soul). The Sanskrit word for the various schools of Hindu philosophy is darśana ('view, viewpoint'). Vaishnava theology has been a subject of study for many devotees, philosophers and scholars in India for centuries. A large part of its study lies in classifying and organizing the manifestations of thousands of gods and their aspects. In recent decades the study of Hinduism has also been taken up by a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Bhaktivedanta College.
During the High Middle Ages, theology was the ultimate subject at universities, being named "The Queen of the Sciences" and served as the capstone to the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.
In some contemporary contexts, a distinction is made between theology, which is seen as involving some level of commitment to the claims of the religious tradition being studied, and religious studies, which by contrast is normally seen as requiring that the question of the truth or falsehood of the religious traditions studied be kept outside its field. Religious studies involves the study of historical or contemporary practices or of those traditions' ideas using intellectual tools and frameworks that are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition and that are normally understood to be neutral or secular. In contexts where 'religious studies' in this sense is the focus, the primary forms of study are likely to include:
The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.
Spiritual theology is that part of theology that, proceeding from the truths of divine revelation and the religious experience of individual persons, defines the nature of the supernatural life, formulates directives for its growth and development, and explains the process by which souls advance from the beginning of the spiritual life to its perfection.
It may be helpful to understand spiritual theology using practical theological terms. For example, spiritual theology draws upon the experience of Christians seeking union with God. In this light, one might conceive of spiritual theology as a type of normative and confessional practical theology. Much of practical theology is more descriptive than prescriptive while also more suggestive than normative. Spiritual theology tends to be a prescriptive discipline that presents norms for the spiritual life. Like practical theology, it is also possible to think of local spiritual theologies as offering conclusions directed at a specific context and only tentatively suggested for wider audiences. The correlation method between Christian truth and lived experience may be utilized more broadly to create brand new spiritual theologies. However, it is the contention of this article that building upon the classics of spiritual theology, like Walter Hilton, will be a more fruitful and effective approach. To disregard spiritual theology is to dismiss the wisdom, practice, and religious experience of Christians across the centuries. Furthermore, to disregard spiritual theology may be to disregard God. If mystics like Hilton and others have encountered God or helped others to encounter God, to disregard spiritual theology is at the least to disregard the testimony of those who have encountered God.
One way of doing practical spiritual theology would be to do an extensive study of the mystics and spiritual theologians across the centuries. Such a study would include creating a synthesis of their principles and direction for the spiritual life and bringing this synthesis into conversation with the experience of contemporary believers. This could be a fruitful approach and the voluminous work of a scholar like Bernard McGinn could even make such a project feasible. Practical spiritual theology offers a means of retrieving and reviving the writings and teachings of specific mystics for the benefit for those seeking to live the spiritual life today. The advantage of this approach over a larger synthesis is that it takes each voice seriously in its own right, allowing contemporary Christians to relationally encounter another human being as a fellow witness to the faith, rather than simply following a set of abstracted principles. Furthermore, practical theology is oriented toward the particular: focusing on specific contexts versus creating theological systems that attempt to universalize.
Hilton did not engage in a formal qualitative study in his ministry of writing and spiritual direction. Indeed, such methods were unavailable to him or any of the historical mystics and writers on the spiritual life. However, Hilton, like spiritual directors before him and following, did engage in qualitative study in an informal sense, reflecting on his own experience and the experience of those he worked with to gain insight and offer better counsel. This careful praxis, contained in the writings of historical mystics, can be shared and recontextualized for Christians today. 781b155fdc