When I studied theology, much of what is now classed as Christian Spirituality was considered ‘devotional’; it was respected and valued, but not explored in depth. Over the last twenty years or so, this has rightly begun to change.
Christian Spirituality sits alongside many theological disciplines, especially Historical Theology and Church History, but explores how the customs and practices that developed over centuries (and have since often become overlooked) can be relevantly applied and practised today.
It also looks at the human relationship with, and experience of, God – how this relationship can be developed and expressed, and also how sure we can be that any such experience is genuine.
While McGrath’s book is now twenty years old and possibly going out of print, it remains an excellent introduction to the subject. Alister McGrath is now widely published, and a very readable author, and ‘Christian Spirituality’ both covers the basics and whets the appetite to explore the subject in greater depth.
As spirituality has become popularised, it has often become indiscriminate and often, arguably, lacking in any form of quality control; and in deference to personal autonomy, resistant to any such evaluation. Spirituality has also often been seen as antithetical to religion, Christianity in particular (not least due to the power games that Churches have played over the years). Much of the spirituality research that has emerged from within healthcare, certainly in the UK, has reflected these assumptions.
By contrast, McGrath presents Christian Spirituality as having both wisdom and relevance. He first explores the relationship between spirituality and theology; how the two have diverged within Western scholarship, and the advantages and difficulties in reintegrating them.
He then identifies some of the spiritual themes that run through the Bible, giving particular attention to its symbolism and imagery.
Next, he looks at how Christian spirituality has been expressed down the centuries; with particular attention to meditative, contemplative and various other spiritual disciplines; he looks at the role of the Sacraments and the Church Year; and finally at a representative selection of thinkers, from Gregory of Nyssa to James Packer. McGrath examines a full range of Church traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed Protestant, and Evangelical.
McGrath re-introduces us to wisdom and practices that were developed, refined and tried, tested and proven over centuries, and which have much of value to offer to today’s spiritual seeker.
The subject is explicitly Christian, and other traditions would warrant similar exploration, but for Christian chaplains, providing spiritual care, it’s a useful re-examination of the grounding and spiritual resources that we have, and perhaps often overlook and neglect.
There are now other books on Christian Spirituality, but I still see McGrath’s being one that I could return to, dip into, use as a resource, or pass on to others who are new to the subject.