Spiritual Theology

Spirituality is a Container Term

Those who decide and want to study spirituality have to reckon with skeptical questions from the scientific community and finally from their closest colleagues. What is it really all about? How does one define spirituality? What is the research subject? It almost appears that the term spirituality has such a giant connotative aura that it is a sheer impossibility to make a denotation. The word stands for too much and much more that is conflicting. Spirituality is a container term. When practically everything is in it, in the end, there is nothing to study. Thus, it is better not to touch it!

In discourse analysis, container terms are actually terminology with different attributes and are precisely therefore meaningfully used for abstract critiques. These summarize observations and make overarching interpretations possible. Such terms are problematic when they are inconsistent and ambiguous. The term becomes a "false friend" that one thinks to understand what he or she says, but understands them wrong. With a view to the ambivalent spirituality construct, the danger is certainly virulent and certain wariness is justified. If the subject of research is a container term, then it can surely also be understood as a possible approach to research. The potential of misunderstanding abets to an exacter study of the bifid usage of the word.

Whoever pays attention to the discussion will recognize two foundationally contradictory positions in contemporary spirituality discourse. On one hand, the notion marks the phasing out and liquidation of the religious – a process that is characteristic of the postmodern. For the other, it denotes precisely the opposite –namely, the spiritual life of the member of a faith community, who is following one certain religious practice and bound to religious practices. The two using this term – let's call one a science of the sociology of religions and the other theology – collide. When spirituality in the sociology of religions or religious science discourse means precisely the non-religious, the theological or historical discussion of a Christian or Muslim spirituality is similar to black mildew. Conversely, the theological side asks the question, what can "spiritual" mean when it is not allowed to be religious. Do religious exist that are not spiritual? Is spiritual religiosity white mildew?

The conflict might be defused in that one discerns between religious and non-religious spirituality. Something that sounds absurd for those who do not know their way around this debate is a serious matter of discussion. The talk does not help to clarify the terms and is more likely to add to the confusion. Viewing the conflict from a discourse analytical lens, however, is instructive! The matter has to do with different usages of the same term, which makes sense in the respective referential system of the disciplinary perspectives, but makes inter- and trans disciplinary agreement more difficult. In other words, we are struggling for the power of definitions. Must one recommend that theology focus and be limited to research on piety and leave the field of spirituality research to the science of religions as a matter of compromise? Does this counsel lead to a forward moving strategy on a scientific strategic level? Or would it serve everyone better, were we all to eschew the "false friend"?

Whoever argues thus, has not understood that there are no true friends. "Religion," "faith," or "piety" have all lost their innocence. In a certain sense, we only have "polluted terms." The notions are all culturally contaminated and no longer useful for objective descriptions. Such and other principally difficult or terminological limitations have long been objects of the philosophy of religions and hermeneutical meta-discourse. Whether black mildew or white mushrooms, exclusive demands to use terminology have more to do with black and white thinking than scientific reflection. For the subject of spirituality there is one simple rule: whoever is conducting research in this field and does not want to stumble around in fog must say what he or she is looking for and hopes to find.

The Center for the Academic Study of Christian Spirituality, therefore, connects the demands of the scientific community with a clear positioning and limitation of a particular religious praxis. The research focus is Christian spirituality – not because this is higher, or the Christian religion can claim an exclusive right to the spirit (lat. spiritus) without landing in a self-contradiction. It is pragmatic because it possesses expertise in this field; because it is oriented on a value cosmos that is normative throughout the Christian tradition in terms of content. Spirituality circumscribes a basal dimension of faith praxis and is concerned with practices that faith as a habitus forms, teaches, and expresses.

By singing, praying, blessing and reading and listening to the Holy Bible, what the teachings postulate are updated: a holy way of life. What spirituality is within these frames of reference cannot be secured because what is holy is not fixed. The term thereby remains a container inside of a container, but it is not a black box. The Esprit of a spiritual heritage lies within spirituality, and this calls for research. The historical terminology of the spirit provides points of reference and gives us clues due to which the theological study of spirituality advances. These traverse the sub-disciplines that have been established in the encyclopedic differentiation of the theological sciences. In light of this, the container metaphor has a second meaning. When a term stands for too much or everything, it could also mean the one and universal. Then one could aim from the clue to the goal, which the academy disposes; however, what moves people who practice faith is investigating the unfathomable depths of God.