Friday, August 31, 2012

The Origins of Spiritual Theology

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 full perfection.  (Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, p. 22)

The Nature and Origins of Spiritual Theology
Spiritual theology seeks the connection between the articles of the faith, the perfection of the Christian life, and a kind of knowledge called “mystical,” a kind of knowledge arrived at through an ecclesial and personal encounter with the Living God.   In this sense, it is a part of the science of theology which attempts to bring the mutual relationship of mystical and theological wisdom into rational consciousness and discourse.

To study, to contemplate, to prayerfully reflect, to read (lectio); these activities were not originally distinguished from one another in the writings of the saints and mystics during the patristic era.   They converged on an approach to sacred doctrine rooted on devotion to Christ and dedication to the mission of the Church.  The active presence of the Risen Lord in the life of the Church evoked theological contemplation in which rational discourse, urgent longings of the heart, and the attending of one's whole being to the Word made flesh converged.  An integration of the speculative and the practical, the affective and the intellectual was achieved in the preaching and theological reflection of the time.   Unfortunately, this integration was not maintained and the kneeling theology that produced great saints and theologians became fragmented.  Spiritual theology can be seen as part of an effort to recover and restore an approach to the spiritual life which is rooted in a profound encounter with Christ through sacred doctrine.

After the great scholastics revived interest in a disciplined pursuit of spiritual and theological questions, one of the earliest pioneers of this study was Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris.  He believed that the knowledge which flowed from Christ's presence in the soul or mystical knowledge could not be a direct object of theological research, yet at the same time he acknowledged its importance for the Christian life and attempted to elucidate those parts of the Christian life he believed could be studied. 

He did not assume, as is oftentimes presumed today, that the inability of human reason to understand or manipulate something rendered it outside the range of the truth.  He did not equate fact with truth or product with knowledge.  Like the scholastics, he was the inheritor of a tradition of thinking in being is the object of knoweldge and truth is the adequation of the mind to reality: veritas est ens.  As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, "all that is, is true." 

For Gerson, mystical theology includes both un-demonstable loving knowledge of divine goodnesss arrived at in contemplation and an intellectual understanding of the truths of the faith that can be applied in discerning ones practical experience of God.   He distinguishes practical mystical theology (arrived at in contemplation) from speculative mystical theology (arrived at by study).   He considers mystical contemplation in terms of the transformation of the affections toward the goodens of God.  Although the cause of this mysticism is ineffable (a special work of grace), the effects and the fruits of it can be explored.  Furthermore, (and this is important) he also understood that contemplatives were subject to grave error if they were not rooted in a pure understanding of sacred doctrine.  In other words, mystical theology does not replace but rather requires scientific theology. (See Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1985) 168-173, chapter 7.)

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