Category Archives: Books – Spirituality

Embodied Theology

god sexuality and the selfI was reading God, Sexuality, and the Self by Sarah Coakley today. Chapter Four, “The Charismatic Constituency: Embarrassment or Riches?” reports her ethnographic research of two Charismatic congregations in a University town in England. The chapter itself was fascinating in that it provided a helpful example of how to do Trinitarian theology with social science methodology in local congregations. This is the heart of my research, so it is always beneficial when I can find a respectable example from which to draw precedent.

The bibliographic material at the end of the chapter, however, is the point of this journal entry. It pointed me to Mary McClintontock Fulkerson’s book Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church ((Fulkerson, Mary McClintock. Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.)) Fulkerson’s opening paragraphs are written in an engaging, first-person narrative style that places the reader in the worship center of the church she is about to explore. She described both the physical setting and her own emotional/theological response to the experience in the way a novelist would draw the reader into a story. I found this approach appealing and affirming of how one might do contextualized, embodied theological enquiry. In other words, I might like to engage my dissertation in this fashion.

Additionally, I found Fulkerson’s citation of Tanner helpful. Here she is expounding her use of the term “situation” in the context of her embodied theology.

The task of framing a contemporary situation is not about its every detail, but the identification of certain patterns that characterize it. And not all of the patterns to be found in the phenomenon of faith are pertinent. Systematics, for example, is relevant to theological reflection, but not as a way to frame the complex configuration of the lived situation. Kathryn Tanner rightly observes the ‘belief and value commitments’ are usually left underdeveloped and ‘ambiguous’ in the ordinary practice of faith, and the pattern of a dogmatic system will occlude the contradictory way commitments occur. Nor does this mean the ‘situation is simply chaotic. Rather, situation has ‘structure’ and pattern as ‘the way various items, powers and events in the environment gather to evoke responses from participants.’ ((Tanner quoted in Fulkerson, 8. Kathryn Tanner, “Theological Reflection and Chrsitan Practices,” in Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, ads, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 230.))

Coakley also speaks of the disconnect between systematic theology and the ordinary practice of faith. The following quote is her reflection on interviews she had with “informants” in the congregations:

Likewise, it is worthy of comment that the already noted reference to Romans 8 (in relation to the crucial experience of the Spirit praying in one) did not in general lead to any clear and explicit reflection on the importance of this in trinitarian terms. The informants assumed without question that the Spirit was in some almost inexplicable way experientially distinct from the Son. But the possibility that this starting point might provide some sort of response to certain ‘liberal’ Anglican theologians then challenging the Spirit’s distinct personal existence, or otherwise dismantling the doctrine of the Trinity, was far from their minds. Such matters did not in fact come up in the interviews. Clearly these theological controversies had not consciously impinged on them at all (as indeed would be true in most parish contexts). ((Coakley, loc. 3141))

I have found this to be true in my research as well. The members of the RT were not perplexed by the Three-ness of God in the way that my theological reflection and presentation had polarized them. The RT already understood, coming into the project, that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives and that there was a clear distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They also, however, had a clear understanding that God is one. In other words, they were not perplexed by the seeming contradiction in the way that I had anticipated. Nor did they observe the tension while dwelling in the passages from John in the way that I thought they would (or should). In all honesty, I was often frustrated that the notion of Trinity almost never came up in our Dwelling in the Word exercises. The RT, instead of being perplexed by the discrepancies of the one-ness and three-ness of God, found great comfort in the indwelling presence and hopefulness presented in the pastoral qualities of these texts.

Coakley’s observations, combined with my own, leads me to suggest that it is important for the theologian to acknowledge the lived experience of the practicing Christian community as it embraces the mystery of the Trinity. This acknowledgment will serve as an important corrective to the abstracted polarization constructed within traditional systematics. Perhaps there is a deeper knowing of God, and a deeper experience of spiritual formation than I had originally anticipated. The knowing of God, and the desire to know God and be known by God, extends beyond, and dwells deeper within any attempt to verbally articulate it or systematically present it. I believe this is what Coakley is getting after when she highlights the third category of mystic along with that of sect and church in the work of Ernst Troelsch. ((see Coakley, chapter 3 and 4. See also Parker Palmer on prayer and transcendence.))

Mystic-church-sect from Troelsch

Book | The Social God and the Relational Self by Stanley Grenz

The Social God and the Relational SelfGrenz, Stanley J. The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

AuthorStanley Grenz

Grenz traces the historical backdrop of the concept of self in the West in order to warrant his proposal of the ecclesial self as the best response to the postmodern deconstruction of self.

The following sketch attempts to follow his logic.

William James to George Herbert Mead to Pannenberg.
William James to George Herbert Mead to Pannenberg.

In the final analysis, then, the imago dei is not merely relational; it is not simply the I-Thou relationship of two persons standing face-to-face. Instead, it is ultimately communal. It is the eschatological destiny of the new humanity as the representation of God within creation. The character of the triune God comes to expression through humans in community. Wherever community emerges, human sexuality understood in its foundational sense–the incompleteness endemic to embodied existence, together with the quest for completeness that draws humans out of isolation into bonded relationships–is at work. This sexuality gives rise to the primal male-female relationship–marriage. Yet more important is the role of sexuality in bringing humans into community with Christ and with his disciples in the fellowship of his church. This community forms the context for all humans, male and female, to come together in harmonious creative relationships of various types. But more important, it is this connection that will eternally draw humankind into participation in the very life of the triune God, as the Spirit molds humans into one great chorus of praise to the Father through the Son, which in turn will mark the Father’s eternal glorification of the new humanity in the son. (303)

The image of God does not lie in the individual person but in the relationality of persons in community. The relational life of the God who is triune comes to representation in the communal fellowship of the participants in the new humanity. This assertion calls for a relational ontology that can bring the divine prototype and the human antitype together. The conceptual context for such an engagement is the philosophical idea of the social self, which, in turn, can be understood theologically as the ecclesial self. (305)

Book | In Search of Self edited by van Huyssteen and Wiebe

9780802863867Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel and Erik P. Wiebe. In Search of Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011.

The following two paragraphs provide a good flavor for this collection of essays that explore the human self in an interdisciplinary conversation.

“While neuroscientists like Daniel Siegel, Louis Cozolino, and John Cacioppo have argued for a deep neurological basis for interpersonal attachment, neuroscientist and anthropologist Terrence Deacon has take a different direction in developing theories about the emergent self and the symbolic human mind by focusing on the remarkable co-evolution of the brain and language. Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili and archeologist David Lewis-Wiliams each in there own way developed different conceptual frameworks for these neurological processes and their connection to the complex spectrum of human consciousness, embodied emotions, and the unmistakable fact that all humans are significantly ‘wired,’ not only for attachment, but for alternate states of consciousness. In addition, cognitive scientist like Harvey Whitehouse and Justin Barrett focus on the evolution of the human brain’s natural disposition for metaphysical and religious questions, and primatologists like Frans de Waal are specifically looking at emotionally empathetic experiences in primates, linking the emergence of the self directly to the evolution of moral imagination. And as we saw earlier, this conversation gains new depth through the work of constructive psychologists/theologians Pamela Cooper-White and Leon Turner, who want to move away from monolithic notions of selfhood to the malleability of psychological processes that give reality to nonpathological notions of multiple selves. Neuroscientific ideas of spectra of consciousness, combined with the ideas of constructive, multiple selves, indeed pose a very serious but ultimately exciting challenge to Christian-theological notions of person and the imago Dei. This challenge is deepened by evolutionary epistemologists like Franz Wuketits, and archeologists and paleontologists like Steven Mithen, Ian Tattersal, and Richard Potts, who all argue that hominid and human brains, and therefore human selves, have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to make physical, emotional, and spiritual sense of their environment. Scholars like Maxine Sheets-Johnstone have pushed even deeper into the roots of these questions by embedding notions of self, self-identity, and intersubjective communication, in the embodied prehistoric evolution of human sexuality, communication, and morality.

“The interesting question for us, as interdisciplinary theologians, is whether these multiple disciplinary perspectives might afford some degree of convergence on the intriguing, multilayered question of what it means to be human, and what the implications of this for theological anthropology might be. Human nature and the idea of self have, of course, always been at the heart of theological reflection, but these interdisciplinary themes have not yet been dealt with adequately. It is precisely because the horizon of interdisciplinary possibility contains such opportunities for collaborative understanding that we take up their approach in their volume.” (17-18)

I found one article particularly interesting as it related to my research.

Neuroscience and Spirituality” by Eric Bergemann, Daniel J. Siegel, Deanie Eichenstein, and Ellen Streit.

This article proposes that the human brain flows in two directions. The bottom-up flow brings experiential knowledge of the body-in-its environment “up” into the consciousness. The top-down flow brings socially constructed and learned meaning-making symbols “down” to make sense out of the bodily experiences. This convergence of flow is also similar to and connected with the left-brain/right-brian dichotomy in which the left brain sorts through the ephemeral data of the right brain with symbols and narrative connectivity.

The human brain, the authors also propose, has a natural propensity to construct a sense of the individual self that is cut off from other selves and objects in the world. This individualizing propensity is intensified in the Modern Western Culture which has provided multiple symbols, narratives, and cultural reinforcements that the radical, individual self is the primary reality that must be fostered, and protected at all costs. Spirituality, they propose, is a universally recognizable human phenomenon in which mental disciplines allow the top-down flow to be tempered and brought into balance with the bottom-up flow. This balance helps the individual self recognize that it is actually interconnected to all things in the universe. This spiral discipline of attunement can bring physical resonance between the body and the environment and promote peace.

Select Quotes

“As it turns out, this self-centered view is not solely a product of societal norms, but in fact has a neurological basis behind it. The human neocortex constructs its own vision of reality. And one of those realities is the illusion of a continuers and a separate self. Rather than seeing the interconnected role we play in a larger while—as one specialized cell in a complex living organism where each organ system depends on the others for their survival as a whole—we instead have neural patterns that create a sense of our isolation, independence, andd, ultimately, one-of-a-kind notion of a ‘me.’” (89-90)

“One view of the way the six layers function within the cortex is that incoming data streams ‘bottom-up’ to enable us to have sensations of our outside or inner world. At the same time, memory processes trigger a ‘top-down’ flow in which prior learning influences the flow of data from layer 1 to 2 to 3. As top-down at layer 3 meets bottom-up at layer 4, the two streams collide and the outcome of this mingling directly influences our experience of awareness in that moment in time. How we shape the balance of op-down and bottom-up determines our experience of consciousness. In this way, experiences in our families and our larger cultural milieu will influence how top-down perception shapes and filters our ongoing couscous experience of the world and of the self. As there is no ‘immaculate perception,’ our sense of an ‘I’ will be sculpted by the neural top-down views we’ve learned earlier in our lives.”  (92)

“Spirituality [is] ‘the state of experience in which we are aware of a larger interconnectedness of all things.’ Achieving a degree of spirituality that creates a sense that we are part of a greater whole is directly linked to neural circuits involved with attunement and resonance. When we allow the mind, or the process that regulated the flow of energy and information that occurs within the body and our relationships with one another, to embrace the reality that this flow interconnects us all, we expand our constrained sense of a separate self to an awakened sense of an interdependent whole self.” (94)

“Spiritual practices have the power to reimmerse us in bottom-up processing so that we can become freed from the top-down optical delusion of our separateness. They expose us once again to the bottom-up experiences and feelings of resonance we relied on as children so that we can see the true nature of reality. This is spirituality writ large.” (94)

Book | A Sociology of Spirituality edited by Flanagan and Jupp

imageFlanagan, Kieran & Jupp, Peter C. A Sociology of Spirituality. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2007.

The Editors — Kieran Flanagan and Peter Jupp

from the book jacket:

“The emergence of spirituality in contemporary culture in holistic forms suggests that organised religions have failed. This thesis is explored and disputed in this book in ways that mark important critical divisions. This is the first collection of essays to assess the significance of spirituality in the sociology of religion.”

My Thoughts

This collection of essays explores how and if spirituality, and the emerging prevalence of spirituality that is detached from organized religion, can be studied in the field of sociology. This is an interesting question since much of the impetus behind the formation of sociology as an academic discipline was to dislodge the study of human social/political movement from the dominance of theology and the apparent bankruptcy and Medieval moorings that came with it. This dislodging was considered to be a harbinger of the eventual total collapse of organized religion in the West. Now that more people in Western/Modern culture are expressing themselves as either (a) spiritual but not religious, or (b) finding a deeper spirituality within their organized religion, the challenge is presented to discipline of sociology to figure out how to empirically examine this phenomenon.

This book does not answer the question. The editors admit that “the collection has generated far more questions than it answers. A vista worthy of sociological exploration has been opened out and in the study of spirituality new issues, new interpretations and new characterisations of culture and religion emerge.” (260)

I found three essays particularly interesting and helpful for my research.

“Spirituality: Some Disciplinary Perspectives” by Peter C. Holmes.

He explores how spirituality has become an important part of several academic disciplines: psychology, medicine and healthcare, religion, anthropology, education, and the business world. Ironically, sociology is the slowest discipline to take up the task of studying spirituality.

Holmes asks preliminary questions before discussing the particularities of each discipline. He says,

“we must decide whether we believe in the existence of spirituality, and if we do then the academic question is whether it is possible to study it at all. Many have traditionally seen spirituality as a mystery. If we do see spirituality this way, then we have a choice. Either we acknowledge we cannot study it directly because of its intangibility. Alternately, we accept the study of spirituality at a corporeal level, but only through its outcomes and symptoms. In accepting this latter option we are also acknowledging that current academic tools are unable to study the incorporeal essence of spirituality.” (23)

Holmes also provides a provisional definition of spirituality. Spirituality is “the human search for meaning, particularly relationally, and that for many today this incorporates a supernatural/corporeal dimension that suggests many of us have discovered we are more than our physical biology.” (24-25)

“Georg Simmel: Religion and Spirituality” by Ivan Varga.

This essay explores the sociology of a somewhat neglected pioneer in the field: Georg Simmel. Varga begins the essay with an observation and question:

“Why does spirituality occupy an increasingly important place in people’s lives, whether they belong or not to a church? In my view, this is mainly because in modernity or postmodernity the individual is increasingly de-rooted, that is, deprived of the traditional cultural significants; the individual is–to paraphrase Sartre–‘thrown into choice’, and collective memory is becoming ever more fragmented. In order better to understand these developments, in particular the development of new forms of spirituality, Simmel’s ideas on the distinction between religion and religiosity are of paramount importance. His views on the role religion plays in society and in the life of the individual were shaped by his social theory.” (146)

Varga proceeds to offer a concise overview of Simmel’s social theory. I found this interesting because I think it relates to relational ontology, the both/and of individual and group, and the development of my own MeWe Principle. Varga states,

“In Simmel’s view there is a tension between the individual and the social. Sociation (Vergesellschaftung) is the process through which an individual becomes a member of society. In this process the individual recognises the other and through the other his or her self. Sociation as a process includes individuation. But it also involves a tension between association and dissociation whereby the individual, who belongs to a group or to several groups, asserts his or her individuality thus counteracting the tendency towards homogenisation. Simmel admits that there are a few exceptions to this process, such as monks in a monastery. For him, society was neither an entity in itself nor a sum total of individuals. Rather, he viewed it as specific interactions of individuals who create the forms in which they constitute the groups that make up society. Thus society is a dynamic process involving individuals in their interactions within and amongst groups.” (147)

Simmel distinguishes between religion and religiosity. Varga picks up on this distinction and names it as a possible reason for the recent growth in spirituality and its detachment from organized religion. Simmel says, “Life wishes to express itself directly as religion, not through a language with a lexicon and prescribed syntax. One could use an apparently paradoxical expression and say: The soul can find faith only by losing it. To preserve the integrity of religious feeling, it must shake off all determined and predetermined religious forms (Simmel 1968b (1918): 24).” (155)

Varga concludes,

“Simmel anticipates not only the changes in the dynamic of religion but also of the human condition in postmodernity. The spirit or ‘soul’ of modern culture, with its open-endedness and at the same time restrictive nature, places a burden on the individual who must navigate between the Scylla of rapid technological and social changes and the Charybdis of finding a meaning of life amongst the competing worldviews. Simmels’ emphasis on spirituality and quest of an overarching meaning also explains the stubbornness of religiosity in a world that is secularised in its institutions.

“The Zeitgeist of the postmodern culture fosters the individual’s striving for ‘self-realisation’, but it is discordant with the constraints created by the irreconcilable conflict of objective and subjective culture. Simmel, however, acknowledges that this polarity is an essential element of the progress of culture. His analysis of the possibilities of the individual’s potential within the asymmetry of the objective and subjective culture helps us to understand the role of spirituality and its relation to church-oriented religion.” (158)

“The Embodied Spirituality of the Post-Boomer Generations” by Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller.

These authors interviewed over 100 members of congregations that represented two types of Generation Xers who were finding their spirituality within an organized religious expression. The first kind they labeled “reclaimers” because they have abandoned the symbol-less religion of much the mega-church evangelicalism and are finding deep spiritual meaning in the older, traditional, liturgal spaces and practices. The second group they labeled “Innovators” because they are creating their own forms of liturgical practices within organized communities.

Both groups hold certain things in common. First, they betray the predictions of Bellah, et alia, that the spirituality of this generation is individual and nomadic. These post-boomers are finding their spirituality as a journey, yes, but a journal embodied in community. Secondly, this community is not limited to the introspection and individualization of other forms of spirituality. Flory and Miller call their spirituality an “Expressive Communalism.” The individual finds oneself in community, but the purpose of the community is for the good of the larger, “other”, community through acts of social justice and communal participation.

I found this interesting because I believe this is a good picture of what a missional community could, and possibly should, look like. Spirituality is the purpose of the church as it expresses the imago Dei of relationality. This relationality is the missio Dei as the particular individuals are formed in the Expressive Communalism of the journeying community.