Four Dimensions of Christian Spirituality for Our Time

About a month ago I wrote this:

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how my spiritual identity is shaped by the contemplative tradition (as exemplified by the Lay-Cistercian community where I am in formation), my Celtic heritage (of which I have written several books and which continues to inform much of my self-understanding as a Christian), my love for mysticism (primarily Christian mysticism, but extending into all the wisdom streams of the world) and the emergent conversation (which is primarily a Christian phenomenon, but which I believe also has significant interfaith implications and in any event signifies the unfolding of a truly loving, hospitable, justice-oriented, postmodern way of doing faith). I won’t go into how I see these four dimensions of spirituality working together just yet; I’ll save that for a future post.

Okay, so now it’s time for that “future post.”

I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity (review coming soon!) and last night I started to read J. Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts. Putting these two books side by side, I thought it was rather obvious that, in many ways, they were saying the same things. There seems to be quite a bit of overlap between McLaren’s “new kind” of following Christ, which of course is linked to the postmodern and emergent conversations, and the Christ that Newell suggests the Celtic people have been following all along. McLaren begins his book by suggesting that we need to deconstruct the Greco-Roman assumptions that color our way of reading the Bible (and, therefore, of understanding Jesus). The Celts, as a cluster of tribal peoples who never lost their sovereignty to the Roman empire, just might be an excellent resource for considering how we can strip Christianity of its Greco-Roman distortions and yet still explore how the message of Jesus remains relevant to all people, across cultures. “Celtic” Christianity may be a culturally specific expression of the faith, but its value lies in how it testifies to the truth of Christ’s message in a way that transcends the particularity of the Celtic experience.

But Celtic and Emergent ways of being a follower of Christ are not the only “alternative” approaches to discipleship. I believe two other categories need to be considered: the monastic and the contemplative. At first blush, this may seem to be a redundancy, so maybe I should expand these two to delineate their distinctions: the monastic/communal/exoteric dimension of discipleship, and the contemplative/mystical/interior dimension. Both are vital, both have both a long tradition and exciting new expressions, and ideally they complement each other in a truly symbiotic manner, as exemplified by the best monastic/contemplatives, like Thomas Merton, Thérèse of Lisieux, Jan Ruusbroec and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

The monastic/communal dimension recognizes that Christian spirituality requires a relational expression. Even those called to the deepest kinds of solitude need some form of community for discernment, support, guidance and grounding. The desert fathers and mothers quickly adapted their life from solitary to monastic expressions of discipleship; the Carthusians who are the most solitary of monks still gather together for worship and for Sunday recreation; great hermit mystics like Julian of Norwich or Merton at the end of his life still engaged in the larger Christian community through their writing and spiritual direction. An important part of Christian discipleship is growth in humility and healthy self-forgetfulness; the experience of community is the single best tool for nurturing this dimension of maturity in Christ.

Monasticism is exciting not only because of its traditional/historical expressions (find a vibrant Benedictine or Trappist monastery and you will find a goldmine of resources to assist you in your own spiritual growth), but because of the exciting new forms of Christian community, or “neo-monasticism,” emerging, with communities like Koinonia, L’Arche, the Simple Way, or the Lindisfarne Community, all exploring new ways to create community and be people of faith and service together.

The shadow side of community is, of course, that it can favor an extroverted, externalized expression of discipleship, so it needs to be complemented by the contemplative/interior expression of spirituality. Historically, Christian mysticism thrived primarily in monasteries, and I predict that mysticism of the future will likewise have a strong connection the community, whether traditional monasticism, neo-monasticism, or other forms. Contemplation is grounded in Christ’s instruction about prayer: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Secrecy, silence, solitude, withdrawal: these are key elements for contemplative practice, in which we seek to encounter the face of God in darkness, loneliness, and stillness. Here we move beyond the certainties of the mind into the paradox and ambiguity of unknowing. Thanks to the cross-fertilization that has occurred between many Christian contemplatives and the practitioners of other contemplative paths, we have begun to see that the path of contemplation is the path of entering into altered or higher forms of consciousness, which in turn can transform how we engage in community and how we relate to the world at large. So while it may be tempting to dismiss contemplative practice as a form of spiritual self-indulgence, in reality it is an essential component to maintaining healthy relationships: with God, with ourselves, and with one another.

So. Here, then, is a diagram I have created to integrate these four essential dimensions of Christian spirituality…

It’s not a perfect diagram, as of course these things never are. But I think it can be a fruitful tool for reflecting on how mysticism, Celtic Christianity, the emergent conversation, and Christian community all can work together in the formation of a mature spirituality.

First, we have the vertical axis: the “love God” axis, with the Body of Christ — Christian community, particularly but not exclusively in its monastic form — forming the foundation. The body grounds us, and anchors us through our DNA to our ancestors and to the physical world. Through the Body of Christ we receive the wisdom of the tradition, the insight of all those who have gone before us and whose efforts to follow Christ are the foundation on which we build our spiritual lives today. But just as the human body needs the mind, so too the Body of Christ needs the Mind of Christ — the expansive, visionary, inclusive consciousness and experience of divine presence that comes to us through contemplative practice and through the guidance of the great Christian mystics. The wisdom of the mystics is the wisdom of growing in conscious love of God, and so it both animates and nurtures our experience as embodied/communal Christians.

Completing the diagram is the horizontal axis: the “love neighbors” axis, in which we turn to two alternative/marginal but truly vital expressions of Christian discipleship for guidance and nurture. The Celtic tradition, with its roots in late antiquity but its continuing relevance today, provides a wisdom from the past that is particularly relevant for expression Christian discipleship in terms of the love of nature, of matter, of God as immanent present in our world today. Counterbalancing this ancient/particular expression of faith is the postmodern/universal expression of the emergent conversation, integrating Christian wisdom with the unique concerns and demands of our age in order to equip the followers of Jesus to more fully and authentically love all people, including those who have traditionally been marginalized by the church, those who follow other wisdom paths, and those who stand truly in need of mercy, forgiveness, support and comfort. This encompasses those who have victimized by religion, those who have suffered due to addiction, poverty, disease or other challenges, and those who have danced with the sirens of secular culture only to find their lives hollow and meaningless, but too embittered and cynical to engage with traditional forms of religiosity. I’m sure the list of possible neighbors could go on and on.

So this is a basic overview of how I see my own faith in Christ shaped and formed, nurtured in particular by these alternative or liminal expressions of spirituality and discipleship. I’m not sure if this will work for anyone else, but it clearly works for me. I hope that anyone who shares my interest in mysticism, Celtic Christianity, the emergent conversation, and monasticism (both ancient and new) might find in this diagram a way to put all the “pieces” together into a coherent and unified expression of faith and love and obedience to Christ.

So now for the really interesting question: where will this take us?

P.S. The beautiful Celtic Cross I used in my diagram (which is found on the cover of one of my books) comes from the amazingly talented Cari Buziak over at Aon Celtic Art.

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion


  1. Wow. What a meaty post with much fodder for discussion. :)

    I’ve read The Christ of the Celts and I loved it very much. Newell made me rethink many things when it comes to Christianity (and the influences that I didn’t even realize came from Rome).

    I own and am going to read (soon!) Newell’s “Listening to the Heartbeat of God,” and hope to blog about it. I’d love your thoughts when I do.

    Over the past couple of years as I’ve watched the Emerging / Emergent conversation I’ve wondered when the arguments about ‘how to do church and make it more relevant’ were going to stop and when the conversations about theology and philosophy were going to start. I’m hopeful that McLaren’s book might be the driving force for that.

    I found your diagram very insightful (and beautiful). I admit to being a bit pessimistic about all these streams being able to come together in harmony. Hopeful though. :)

  2. I don’t know much about Celtic Christianity … but I am more and more concerned about the drumbeat I hear recently to “strip Christianity of its Greco-Roman distortions.” Just the other day, our parish priest (Anglican) insisted that we mustn’t think of eternal life having anything to do with some disembodied soul living after death: the very idea of a soul is a “Greek idea,” and quite foreign to the Jewish roots of Christianity. (Yes, yes, I understand that eternity is something to be sought now; but I also cannot accept the notion that after death I simply cease to exist until the resurrection. It may be authentically Jewish, it may have Scriptural warrant, but it is totally in opposition to catholic tradition). I’ve been struck by this same sort of rhetoric in people as ideologically separated as McLaren (whom you cite) and N. T. Wright — the latter also apparently rejecting the “Greek” concept of the soul.

    This seems problematic to me. First, because our religion *is* a Greco-Roman religion (as well, of course, as a Jewish one). Paul was a thoroughly Hellenized Jew. There are echoes of Stoicism in many of his epistles. The writer of Hebrews draws on Platonism (as of course so does the Johannine tradition). Second, I find it odd that Christians should argue along the lines of: “Jesus was a Jew, so he wouldn’t have shared any of these Greek philosophical ideas.” Jesus as a human being no doubt often talked to his fellow Jews using images and ideas already familiar to them — and, of course, the entire prophetic tradition had been a preparation for his coming. But he was also God, and so thought neither as a Jew nor a Greek, but simply thought Truth itself. Whatever any human being, whether Jew or Greek, thought truly, approached what he is and knows. So, if an idea is a Greek idea, apprehended by reason rather than revelation, what of that? If it is true, it is true, whatever its source — and if it touches truth, it touches Him.

    I also worry that in zeal to “dehellenize” Christianity, we may lose an aspect of our faith that is so precious to (I presume) the readers of this blog: the tradition of Christian mysticism itself, which owes so much to Plotinus.

    What do you think?

  3. Robert, as I understand McLaren, the concern about “Greco-Roman” influences have to do with the way in which the Gospel has been reduced for much of Christian history to little more than a project for saving individual souls at some future point, thereby downplaying or ignoring the question of real transformation in the present. As best I can tell, McLaren is not trying to do away with doctrines such as the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, but he is cautioning the Body of Christ to consider how, by adopting the Greco-Roman worldview and privileging it above the kind of cosmology that Jesus himself likely would have espoused, we unwittingly divest the Gospel of its power and promise to bring real wholeness and liberation here and now. Frankly, that’s what I believe authentic Christian mysticism is all about (transformation here and now, rather than just waiting for some sort of beatific vision after death), and McLaren himself says that the mystics have been custodians of authentic Christianity even during the Gospel’s captivity to imperial values. The point is not to entirely banish Greek or Roman thought, but to acknowledge such thought for what it is: extra-Biblical in origin, and therefore not deserving to be unconsciously accepted as equivalent to scripture. I would hope that a truly healthy appreciation of the catholicity of the Gospel would include Greek, Roman, Celtic, and other streams of wisdom, all held in creative tension for the service of helping all people to engage with the Gospel and apply it to our lives — right here and right now.

  4. noel a light bearer says:

    your following post is almost the perfect comment

  5. Great article. Your diagram reminds me a lot of the mandalic schemes in Bruno Barnhart’s ‘The Good Wine’ and ‘Second Simplicity’.

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