Following the passing of Anglican contemplative theologian Kenneth Leech, I’ve been revisiting several of his books. In the back of his book True God: An Exploration in Spiritual Theology is Leech’s manifesto “Toward a Renewed Spirituality.” It’s an important statement that deserves wide consideration.
Ken offers thirteen points that he considers essential for the ongoing renewal of Christian spirituality. Here are his points with a my reflection on them. Ken’s words are in bold type, my commentary in regular type.
- A renewed Christian spirituality will be concerned with the recovery of the vision of God in the contemporary world. The key phrase here is “vision of God.” It’s not an abstract, cerebral, disincarnate spirituality, but a visionary, relational, practical embodiment of God’s life, ways, and values here and now. It is a spirituality of beholding the Divine Mystery, not as a set of ideas to discuss, but as a way of living.
- It will be a spirituality which is rooted in the experience of God in the life of the Jewish people. Out of the Jewish matrix of western spirituality we discern God’s holiness, God’s passion for justice, God’s desire for mercy and for a covenant relationship with God’s people. It is a spirituality of poetry and praise, of prayer and prophecy, of Sabbath rest and silent reflection, and of community and celebration.
- It will be a spirituality which finds its centre in Jesus Christ, seeing in him the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily. Jesus of Nazareth put the “Christ” in Christian spirituality, and in Him we find salvation (wholeness), forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our devotion to Christ keeps our spirituality embodied, humanist (in the best sense of the word) and grounded in a spirit of repentance (renewed consciousness), service, and healing.
- It will be a spirituality which looks to the faith of the Apostolic Church as exhibited in the New Testament. In the New Testament we learn that we are the Body of Christ, we have the mind of Christ. Our community of faith is meant to be the means by which God’s lavish love and mercy is spread freely and fully to a world that is suffering.
- It will be a spirituality of the desert. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the Desert Mothers and Fathers all turned to the desert for inspiration and formation. The desert teaches us to rely on God, rather than our own ambitions and plans. It teaches us humility, patience, and simplicity. It also teaches us to listen, to trust silence, and to drink deeply from the wells of both solitude and fellowship.
- It will be a contemplative spirituality. In the spiritual life we are called to listen, to be silent, to wait, and to trust, even in the face of mystery, of doubt and darkness, of the cloud of unknowing. We surrender all of our images of God before the silence of the Divine Mystery, trusting in the primacy of embodied love over abstract knowledge.
- It will be a charismatic spirituality. We are called to celebrate, to rejoice, to dance with ecstatic abandon in glad delight over the God who loves us unconditionally. We seek to be healed and then to be agents of healing for others. We offer our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit so that we may be living tabernacles, bringing God to all who hunger for God.
- It will be a spirituality rooted in Word made flesh… a materialistic spirituality. I probably would have said “earthy spirituality” here, but Ken is revealing his political roots. A materialistic spirituality is an earthy spirituality, that loves matter and the body and sexuality and seeks healthy relationships to all of these, received gratefully as gifts from God. To love God means not rejecting the world, but working for its redemption.
- It will be a eucharistic spirituality. This means both a spirituality of sacrament and communion, of God really present in our midst; but also a spirituality of thanksgiving and gratitude. We bow down before the Real Presence in the consecrated host and precious blood, so that we may also bow down before the image and likeness of God in all people (especially the poor, the needy, the forgotten).
- It will be a spirituality of pain, seeing in the passion and death of Jesus the heart of the gospel. Ours is a spirituality of joy and love, but it is not a spirituality which denies the real suffering and tribulation that so many people must endure in our sinful and broken world. When we encounter those who suffer, who are poor, who are handicapped, who are the victims of racism or injustice, we encounter Christ crucified, and our task is to love and minister to Christ whenever and however we meet Him.
- It will learn from the mystical writers to see God as the ground of all reality and of our own beings. It will seek to recover and promote a true Christian mysticism as an integral element in Christian theology. Can I have an “Amen” here? Christian spirituality is mystical at its core. The mystics are our teachers — and they teach us to see what is “hidden in plain sight” — how God, the Divine Mystery, is truly present and we are truly called into Union with God, given to us when we were created in God’s image and likeness.
- It will be a spirituality which will take seriously the experience of God in women’s history; the feminine namings of God in Scripture and tradition; and the forgotten or neglected insights of writers who have experienced and described God in a feminine way. Julian of Norwich said it best, “As truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother.” There is no room for sexism or gender privilege in authentic spirituality. When we listen to the marginalized traditions of our spirituality that embraced the feminine and affirms equality between the sexes — and work to make gender equality a reality in our time — then we are faithful to Saint Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is “neither male nor female.”
- It will seek to know and follow God in the pursuit of justice for all people, in the struggle against racism and other forms of domination, in the movement for world peace and for nuclear disarmament, and in the campaign against poverty and inequality. This is simply restating a theme that shines throughout this manifesto, and indeed throughout all of Ken Leech’s writing: spirituality isn’t really spirituality unless it anchors its contemplative, charismatic, eucharistic, mystical dimensions in a practical, down-to-earth commitment to creating and sustaining a world where freedom, justice, fairness, and equality exist for everybody, not just the privileged few. The heavenly banquet only happens when everyone is invited.
May all of us who seek to embody an authentic Christian spirituality learn to seek and foster each of these characteristics in our own faith, life, practice, and relationships.
Incidentally, True God was published in America under a different (and in my opinion, far inferior) title: Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality. I think the American title reveals much of what is wrong with American (mis)understanding of spirituality and spiritual theology.
When we talk about spirituality in terms of “experience” rather than “truth,” I worry that we may be abandoning objective truth in favor of subjective experience. Which is not to say that spirituality has no place for the embodied encounter with the Living Mystery, but that it is always something much bigger, deeper, vaster, and truer that mere personal “experience.” Let’s go back to the British title of this important book, please.
What do you think of Ken Leech’s manifesto? Is there any other elements of a renewed spirituality that you think needs to be addressed? Please share your thoughts — in a comment below, or on social media. Thank you!