Why Theologians Need Spirituality and Spiritual Guides Need Theology

One of the most tragic dualisms in contemporary Christianity is the separation of spirituality and theology, reflected in the separation of the congregation and retreat center from the seminary. Over the years, I have found only a few theologians who are committed to regular spiritual practices and integrating their spiritual experiences with their research. For many of them, theology is primarily an intellectual practice, aiming at shaping the mind, and not inherently a whole person enterprise. Conversely, I have found that many spiritual guides are weak on theology. Their hearts are in the right place but they lack a consistent and coherent world view within which to nest their spiritual practices. This dualism, reflected in the classroom, pulpit, and retreat center, has been problematic both for theologians and spiritual guides.

Spirituality without theology is ungrounded and aimless; theology without spirituality is abstract and heartless. Joined together, theology and spirituality provide a holistic vision, the promise that we can experience our world views in daily life, and practices that help us discover the God we describe theologically, or inspire us to reshape our images of God.

Overcoming this dualism was at the heart of my writing, “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing.” Process theology has often been far too heady, and this has often rendered it irrelevant to congregational life and social change. Essentially organic and holistic, there has ironically been a chasm between study, pulpit, and practice among process thinkers. Only a handful of authors have tackled the spiritual dimensions of process thought – Patricia Adams Farmer, Martha Rowlett, Jay McDaniel, Carolyn Stahl Bohler, Marjorie Suchocki, Monica Coleman, and I have been pioneers in the field. Apart from a handful of spiritual guides, very few spiritual directors cite process theology as influential in their vision of the Holy.

I believe that this gap can be overcome by a dynamic approach that I describe as “theospirituality” in which spiritual practices and mystical experiences inform our theological reflection and theological reflection shapes our spiritual practices and interpretations. There are many ways to do this, but all of them begin with the interplay of vision and practice. Vision involves two factors: the first is experience itself and then, secondly, reflection on the foundational experiences of faith. All the great religious movements began with mystical experiences, or encounters with the Holy, rather than doctrinal statements – Mohammed in a cave, Buddha under a tree, Isaiah in the temple, Mary encountering an angel, Jesus in the wilderness, Paul on the way to Damascus, and Peter visualizing a banquet table.

Movements that begin with mystical experiences must foster mystical experiences if they are to be true to their origins. Uniquely ourselves, we are challenged to cultivate the Buddha, Christ, and Mary within, in our time and place.

Good theology needs to acknowledge its spiritual and mystical origins, and join its rational approach with appreciation of the mystical and non-rational dimensions of life. Process theology has a head start in this area. It is grounded, as Whitehead notes, in experience, in our observation of the arising and perishing of occasions of experience, all interconnected with one another and connected with the Divine. God is not imported into the world from the outside, according to process theology, God is embedded in every momentary experience as the source of order, novelty, and possibility. God is always present in our sighs too deep for words.

Theospirituality, as I describe it in “Praying with Process Theology” and some of my other books, creates theologically-grounded practices and illuminates theological world views by well-grounded experiences. It looks for divinity in day to day experiences as well as transcendent and life-defining moments. It asserts that every moment can be an epiphany, and every place a sacred spot. Bidden or unbidden, as Jung notes, God is here, and God, according to process theology, is as near as your next breath, the cells your body, or the stranger who approaches you on the street. In the tragic beauty of life, God’s vision moves through moments of joy and sorrow, groundedness and chaos, grace and guilt. When we listen deeply, we encounter a Living Presence in the world of change, drawing us to make the world a sacrament rather than escaping the ambiguities and messiness of embodied history.

Theologians can become spiritual guides and spiritual guides can become theologians, each from their own unique perspective. This will lead to fiery and vital – world-changing theology and to grounded and agile spirituality, ready to move from contemplation to action to become God’s companions in healing the Earth. (For more on this approach, see “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing”; “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God”; and “Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Liv

"We are rapidly reaching the point at which the well-being of the country depends on ..."

Memorial Day and the Spirit of ..."
""Fighting was all he knew, and bluster and bloviation were his meal ticket." I heard ..."

The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth ..."
"You wonder why the USA would accept East Europeans during that time period if Americans ..."

Memorial Day as a Call to ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • James McClymont

    Combining two types of magical nonsense does not make them any less invalid.

    What theologians and spiritualists need is to give up on the magic and connect with reality.

  • I believe that how we define “spirituality” can sometimes lead to a comparative and exclusive definition where we argue for one belief system against another. However, there are many common if not identical psychological experiences which people of belief all share and this is what I believe unites all spiritual or religious practices. But if we get stuck with literal and denotative interpretations, rather than metaphorical and connotative interpretations, then as Joseph Campbell says, we get “stuck with the metaphor”.

    “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.” ~ Joseph Campbell

    The Psychology of Spirituality:

  • Gayle MacDonald

    Thank you. I have been working at integrating the 2 from my seminary days.