The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit. Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect. The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society. Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom. Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
This article details spirituality and the three main approaches that are found in academic and popular literature—theological, historical-contextual, and anthropological. It traces the etymology of the term and how thinking on it has developed. It offers carefully chosen case studies that show its use in the anthropological approach—the largest and fastest growing category.
Baptism opens a window to the heart of Martin Luther’s 16th-century theology. It offers a perspective for how Luther understands the impact of grace and its channels, as well as the nature of justification in an individual’s life. In his teaching about baptism, Luther demonstrates the vital working of the Word and lays a foundation for a Word-centered and faith-oriented spirituality. With baptism, Luther articulates his vision for the purpose of the Church and the rationale for sacraments. Baptism reveals different sides of the theologian: one who argues with a zeal on the “necessity” of baptism and its meaningful God-mandated practice in Christian communities and another who imagines God’s saving grace too expansive to be limited to any ritual. The apparent tensions in Luther’s articulation can be understood from his overlapping agendas and different audiences: in his baptismal talk, Luther is both processing his own Angst about salvation and negotiating his developing position in relation to the medieval sacramental theology and other emerging reform solutions. While feistily refuting his opponents, he is also speaking from his personal religious experience of being as if reborn with the encounter of the Word of grace and passionately extrapolating his most foundational conviction: God’s unconditional promise of grace as the ground of being for human life, given to humanity in the Word. The matter of baptism leads to the roots of different Christian “confessional” traditions. The format of the ritual has generated less anxiety than differing theological opinions on (1) the role of faith in the validity of baptism, and (2) the effects of baptism in one’s life. Whether infant or adult baptism is favored depends on whether baptism is primarily understood as a sign of faith, a cause of forgiveness and transformation, or an initiation into the Christian community—or all of the above. Baptism is at the center of Luther’s theological nervous system; it connects with every other vital thread in the theological map. Baptism is a mystery and a matter of faith; it calls for a philosophical imagination and mystical willingness to grasp the questions of reality beyond what meets the eye. “I study it daily,” Luther admits in his “Large Catechism.” “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life. Christians always have enough to do to believe firmly what baptism promises and brings.”
The definition and meaning of mysticism have been the subject of debate for decades within academia. While in a colloquial sense its referent may be readily apparent, there is no one existing definition of the term that adequately captures the multiple, diverse phenomena that have been termed “mystical.” Genealogical studies reveal its origin in the Greek mystery religions (muo; mystikos), later taken up by the early Christian Fathers (mystical theology; mystical contemplation) to denote the effects of God’s presence as granted through grace and accessed through participation in a total religious matrix. Starting in the 17th century, one finds the beginning of the modern uses of the term as it became deracinated from a total religious matrix. In its new incarnation as a noun (la mystique), “mysticism” was utilized in the service of multiple academic methods designed to analyze religious phenomena. The implications of this trend were numerous: the democratization of mysticism, its rendering as an “experience” (e.g., William James’ pivotal analysis in The Varieties of Religious Experience), and its “modern” form as nontraditional or “unchurched” (e.g., the “spiritual but not religious movement”; “psycho-spiritualities”). In this latter sense, mysticism became linked to a cousin term, spirituality, which followed a parallel historical trajectory. The Western origins of the term evoked consternation from comparativists who accept using “mysticism” as a “term of art” only after shearing it from its theological echoes and possible orientalist and colonialist uses, further qualifying it relative to similar terms (e.g., moksha, nirvana, fana) as they accrue specificity in their particular socio-historical and religious contexts. This new, modern rendering of the term also gave rise to additional, sometimes incommensurate academic adventures (e.g., historians, theologians, philosophers, and a wide range of social scientists) into the “what” of mysticism. Such investigations have had the advantage of obviating the idealizations that may blind one to the more problematic formulations and implications regarding, for example, gender, sexuality, and race that can be found in tradition-based forms of mysticism. In turn, they helped facilitate the move to nontraditional forms of spirituality and mysticism while ushering in a new series of debates that currently occupy the field.