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I like double entendres and so it was the clever title of a recent collection of essays on Christian spirituality that first caught my eye--Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality. The play on "paying attention to the Spirit" and "thinking critically about the Spirit" is not just clever, though. It goes to the heart of one of the central issues involved in the study of spirituality, namely, that such study is self-implicating. Studying spirituality disturbs the typical subject--object relation often presumed in studying something formally. I put on my white lab coat and under controlled conditions I look at object x under my microscope. I probe it in various ways and make observations on what it does. That is perhaps what some of us think is the normal way of studying things. My cousin is a scientist who does spinal cord research, and he used to work directly across the street from me at the University of British Columbia. I remember thinking about how different his job was from mine when I saw a Post-It note on his bulletin board that simply said "Rats" with a phone number written underneath--the equivalent of 1-800-GET-RATS, I suppose. But I teach spiritual theology at a graduate school of Christian studies. So who are my "lab rats"?
As it happens, most scientists these days, especially physicists looking at the very small and the very big, acknowledge that they are implicated in their own research, a part of the system they study. How much more so when we are studying Christian spirituality. The paradigm of the neutral observer in the white coat looking at the lab rat falls apart quickly. And the sooner the better, I say.
That's why I think the title of this book is so clever: Minding the Spirit. There are echoes here of a deep Christian tradition of religious epistemology, the doctrine of double knowledge that we find all but universally in the history of Christianity from Augustine's Soliloquies to Anselm's Proslogion to the opening words of John Calvin's Institutes. "Let me know myself, let me know thee," prays Augustine. Anselm implicates himself when he says, "I believe so that I might understand." True wisdom consists in "the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves," writes Calvin.
For all these writers, lex orandi (the law of prayer) is integral to lex credendi (the law of belief). Repeatedly, the Christian who seeks to know the mind of the Spirit is told that such "minding" will require self-knowledge and active participation. As the 5th-century monastic founder John Cassian said, spiritual knowledge is "not something to be possessed by humanistic lore and worldly erudition." It is gained only by "purity of heart and through the illumination of the Holy Spirit." Or, as St. Paul wrote, it is a matter of "spiritual things discerned spiritually" (1 Cor. 2: 13).
This raises many questions. How is the study of spirituality not therefore pure fideism? How can such an enterprise be properly public? Minding the Spirit, edited by Elizabeth A. Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows, is a collection of 25 essays, originally written for the periodical of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. Dominated by contributions from Catholic writers, it nevertheless provides a good cross-section of the sort of thinking about spirituality scholars have been doing over the past decade or so. Some of the essays are methodological; others explore the theme of self-implication. Some cover the traditional ground of history and theology, while still others correlate spirituality to themes such as healing and beauty.
These articles do not proceed constructively to build a spiritual theology from direct engagement with biblical exposition in the …