K:JNWTS 30 (May 2015): 20-23

Book Review

Arthur Holder, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011. 584pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-4443-3765-5. $47.06.

This volume has some basic and useful articles on the history of Christian spirituality. Those familiar with John A. McGuckin and his work in Patristic theology will note that he writes a chapter on “Christian Spirituality in Byzantium and the East”. However, the articles that seek to construct a positive perspective on Christian spirituality leave much to be desired. The study of spirituality advocated here is one promoted at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, a union of schools largely devoted to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. As a result, this volume begins with a discussion of the methods of the study of Christian spirituality by Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita in the Jesuit School of Theology at GTU. In addition, a number of the articles refer to David Tracy, a progressive Roman Catholic theologian who taught for much of his career at the University of Chicago. To give readers a perspective on Dr. Tracy, he wrote a book entitled Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism (1983) with John Cobb, an eminent process theologian who believed that God was in the process of becoming.

This may explain why most of the constructive articles (as distinguished from historical articles) in this volume are vapid and advocate a view of Christian spirituality that is unhistorical and non-descriptive. Or to put it another way, they tend to advocate a form of spirituality that is progressive, mystical and anti-metaphysical (using the term metaphysics as it is used in traditional western philosophy and theology). Admittedly, some of the constructive articles do wish to advocate a form of spirituality grounded in the particularity of history (e.g., David Hay, chapter 24), but the result is still not that descriptive compared to the richness of classic Christian spirituality (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions, et al.). In the midst of this, there are a couple articles that are stimulating and one of these (in our opinion) is constructively helpful in its apologetic against Marx, Freud and Durkheim.

The first of the chapters that I would classify as stimulating, but not constructively helpful in the final analysis, is “Trinitarian Perspectives on Christian Spirituality” (chapter 10) by Mark A. McIntosh. The chapter is stimulating in that it forces the reader to think and is not simply a fog of emptiness like so many of the chapters. But it ultimately arrives at a view of the Trinity which accords with the mystical tradition in theology, and in this sense (in our view) is not constructively useful on the whole.

Janet K. Ruffing’s contribution entitled “Personality Sciences” (chapter 18) is worth reading for the statistical studies she notes which take on Marx, Freud and Durkheim’s views of religion. For instance, Freud taught that religion contributed to neurosis. But Dr. Ruffing shows studies which indicate that religious people are just as psychologically whole (or more so) than non-religious people. Admittedly, these studies involve a large spectrum of the population, but in their own limited sphere they do refute (or seriously question) Freud’s contention. And we might note Marx’s view that religion is the opiate of the people (most notably the poorer members of society). This view is questioned by statistical studies that indicate that religious commitments are found less among groups of people the more they approach the most disadvantaged segments of society. Admittedly such a study is counter intuitive to many and may not provide the final word on the subject. Nonetheless, Dr. Ruffing is to be thanked for assembling some of these studies and raising the question (and perhaps answering it in certain cases) of how statistical studies can be used in response to arguments such as those of Marx and Freud.

At the same time, she uses these studies to prove her own view that religion is a human biological phenomena. Insofar as she may wish to dilute the distinctiveness of Christianity, we cannot agree. However, her biological view per se may amount to nothing more than the classic observation that all human beings are religious, a view traditionally used in defense of God’s existence.

When she verges into economics, she appeals more to her own speculations and is less convincing. She seems to imply that since all humans are collectively religious, one should begin with collectivism rather than individualism in economics. She then claims that Adam Smith promotes selfishness since he argues for a form of economics grounded in the assumption that everyone seeks their own best interests. She presumably wishes economics to be grounded in a form of collectivism advocating selfless Christian love. There are several problems with this view, the most notable being the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian assumptions behind the view. That assumption is that we live in a world where selfishness is not at the core of human moral behavior. In the Augustinian (and we would argue Pauline) tradition of Christianity, all people are religious by nature, but they suppress the true God, fashioning him into an idol. Thus, they do not offer him the thanks and worship he deserves, and as a result, they do not serve their fellow human beings as they ought. Thus, the majority of human beings in this age will never seek the universal good of others above their own self interests. And those who rule the state will be like them. On the other hand, many idealistic economic systems are founded on a this-worldly utopian eschatology, usually wedded with a Semi-Pelagian or Pelagian view of human nature. That is, they envision a broader society that will act unselfishly as a whole. Without this vision socialism cannot flourish. These this-worldly utopian visions are contrary to the semi-eschatological nature of the church in the present world. Such views are Christian heresies (like Marxism) and can be justified in no other way than by appeal to dogmatic utopian fancies. The brakes can be put on this by a careful assessment of biblical eschatology. And this can be gained by looking up all the places the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament and carefully studying the context of each.

A subsidiary line of investigation would be to engage the arguments of professional economists without appealing to unproven utopian ideals. Since economics lies in the sphere of mixed articles (in which natural and supernatural revelation intersects), we suggest that those promoting their economic visions should be able to answer the arguments from nature presented by professional economists. This might help them reevaluate their understanding of the Christian Scriptures on their view of economics and thus of their this-worldly utopian eschatologies. But Dr. Ruffing has not taken on Adam Smith’s arguments in this way. And her assumption that Smith promotes selfishness has been denied by writers of economic history like Mark Skousen (see The Making of Modern Economics), who notes that Smith does not make selfishness a virtue like Ayn Rand.

Under this line of inquiry, we suggest that Dr. Ruffing tackle the arguments found in Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics, which is shorter, simpler and perhaps better argued than Smith. If Menger’s arguments are sound, they could be seen to fit with a Christian world view in which a proper form of self-love and liberty contributes to the greatest good of the community. And considering the notion of liberty, Christians who are liberated by Christ are called to extend that liberty to others in their social relationships. However, socialism stifles liberty of economic expression. And if the arguments made by Ludwig von Mises in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth are correct, the socialist constraint of liberty does not lead to the benefit of all, but to their impoverishment. For socialism puts economic planning in the hands of fewer people (central planning) rather than utilizing the specialized knowledge and resourcefulness of numerous individuals as they make individual economic decisions. Thereby socialism stifles the ingenuity of a multitude of minds and the feast they could offer in place of a meager few at the top and their paltry scraps. This diminishes the greater good of all. We now have evidence that this has been the actual historical result of socialism, especially in the Soviet Republic (see Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell). 

Admittedly, an economic exchange that utilizes the ingenuity of the multitude is imperfect in this world. But this is true all the more of the socialist alternative of central planning. The collectivist alternative is usually argued by those who do not recognize the semi-eschatological nature of this era. Instead, they wish to replace it with their utopian visions, which are ultimately totalitarian. These systems have historically tyrannized individuals and have thereby undermined the love command (which Dr. Ruffing thinks she is defending) by criticizing Adam Smith. With all this said, I found Dr. Ruffing’s chapter to be one of the more stimulating in this book, primarily when she dealt with statistical studies which question the claims of Marx, Durkheim, Freud and others.

On the other hand, David B. Perrin’s chapter on “Mysticism” (chapter 25) illustrates regrettable themes that are consonant with this volume as a whole. In this chapter, Perrin blurs the lines that separate the individual from God. The way he argues makes it clear that he advocates a form of mysticism that does not really distinguish the divine from the human. For him, the distinction between the divine and the human fits too much into the mold of Greek dualisms. Thus, he implicitly argues for a Pantheism that is more in accord with thinkers like Spinoza or Hegel, who from the point of view of some modern interpreters, taught that one cannot get outside of oneself and argue for a transcendent being. Thus, it is not surprising that he is against ontic theology, a line of argument that accords with the post-Kantian turn away from metaphysics. Perrin also claims that God is reassessing the situation and presumably changing, perhaps putting himself in the company of Alfred North Whitehead and process theology.

In an article not found in this volume, entitled “Mysticism and Christianity”, the late B. B. Warfield makes a number of telling criticisms of mysticism (cf. Biblical and Theological Studies, 445-62). Besides the fact that it undermines the Creator/creature distinction, Warfield notes that mysticism undervalues the historical grounding of Christianity. The spirituality of biblical characters is grounded in history. For example, we might note that Mary praises God for his mighty acts culminating in the incarnation and kingdom of her Son (the Magnificat of Luke 1:46-55).  Her praise of God is intimately connected to the manifestation of God’s glorious character and saving grace in redemptive history. This is true of Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10), which the Magnificat reflects. In the same way, the song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5) like the Psalms praises God insofar as he has manifested himself in his mighty acts in redemptive history. This biblical spirituality is not primarily an ahistorical contemplation of the divine nature which is divorced from God’s supernatural activity in history. No doubt God is eternal and unchanging, but this one who is eternal and unchanging acts in history, thereby expressing his very life to creatures found in time. And as such he is truly known by analogy to this world and its history. Thereby, God’s revelation to his creatures is not simply an existential encounter (Neo-Orthodoxy) or an exclusively apophatic theology (in the mystical tradition). Readers of this volume who want to give the other side a fair hearing could do no better than read Warfield’s article on this subject together with the present volume.

In conclusion, some of the historical studies on Christian spirituality in this volume, while basic, can be useful. And we have noted our appreciation for the statistical studies in Janet K. Ruffing’s chapter. But on the whole, the constructive articles of this volume are far too slanted in the direction of studies sympathetic to the study of Christian spirituality as we find it at the Graduate Theological Union and to the views of David Tracy. A broader volume would have included more constructive articles from orthodox Christian authors. If this had been the case perhaps union with Christ, the historical God-man who is distinct from us but has brought us into communion with himself by grace, would be highlighted and articulated with greater care, precision, and resounding praise.

—Scott F. Sanborn