Part III

Chapter 12
Christianity in the 21st Century

Christianity in the 21st Century

In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in Christian spirituality, especially in its more contemplative aspects. This is an enthusiasm that has a practical more than a theoretical orientation, and is to be found among lay people as well as priests and religious.


Contemporary Christian Spirituality

If we were to survey the contemporary scene today with no pretensions at being exhaustive, we would notice a renewed interest in traditional spiritual paths together with an almost bewildering variety of new developments. For reasons that will become evident in a moment, these developments can be roughly sorted into the following four groups: 1) centering prayer and the work of Thomas Merton, the charismatic movement, fresh approaches to Carmelite, Benedictine, and Ignatian spirituality, the revival of spiritual direction, etc.; 2) dream work, active imagination, focus on mid-life transitions, use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, journaling, the Twelve Steps, etc.; 3) Zen-Christian dialogue, Moslem-Christian dialogue, Hindu-Christian dialogue, Kundalini, the works of Anthony de Mello, etc.; and 4) creation spirituality, Christian ecology movement, the new cosmologies, Native American spiritualities, the simple monastic movement, spiritualities derived from the peace and justice movements and liberation theology, etc.

What we are seeing in this widespread ferment, I believe, is the emergence of what could become a vigorous Christian spirituality for this new century, and these four groups already point to four major characteristics that such a spirituality would have: (1) the rediscovery and reevaluation of the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition, (2) a new psychological awareness born out of an encounter with depth psychology, (3) a living and loving contact at the level of practice with other spiritual paths, and (4) a new sense of closeness and reverence for the earth.

Starting from these four characteristics I don’t think it would be particularly difficult to reach some kind of consensus about what is happening today and what the future might hold. My next point, however, is much more difficult and controversial. There is no guarantee that we will ever see the birth of this spirituality for the twenty-first century. In every one of these four areas we are faced with problems so serious that we might not be equal to the challenges they pose. And these problems are compounded by our slowness to acknowledge that they even exist. As practitioners making our way enthusiastically along these new spiritual paths we often have little inclination to look up and see the storm clouds forming on the far horizons. As professional philosophers and theologians we have our own agendas that have rarely included the specific problems faced by Christian spirituality. Both sides still suffer from the deep divisions that have separated spirituality from theology in recent centuries, yet it is only through a close collaboration of practitioner and theologian that we will be able to overcome the difficulties we face. Let’s look at just one problem related to each of these four characteristics.


Rediscovery of Christian Mysticism

It would be a mistake to think that we are in such firm possession of our own mystical tradition that we can devote all our energy to our partners in dialogue, whether they be Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism or the new cosmologies. For all our interest in and talk about contemplation today we don’t even possess a commonly agreed upon vocabulary; still less have we come to grips with long unresolved problems about the nature and call to contemplation.

The last time we had such a widespread practical interest in contemplation in the Church was in the seventeenth century, and that ended in a disastrous distrust of mysticism that we are only now beginning to recover from. What is to prevent our own mystical revival from ending in a similar manner? We can make light of this possibility by imagining that the failure of the seventeenth century stemmed from the gross distortions of genuine mysticism introduced by the Quietists, and that we are not about to repeat their errors. In actual fact that is an oversimplified view of history, and I would like to sketch a possible alternative.

John of the Cross died in 1591, and it was not until 1618 that his works were published, with alterations and the absence of the Spiritual Canticle. In those intervening years his writings were not hidden away but circulated widely in manuscript and, more importantly, were already being analyzed and interpreted both within and outside his own religious community. The chief place among these commentators must be given to one of the most talented of the early discalced Carmelites, Thomas of Jesus. In the first years of the seventeenth century he had already begun to prepare St. John’s writings for publication, and a little later, after careful reflection upon them, wrote his own major work on the spiritual life entitled The Spiritual Path.1 This work in various ways was to play a critical but often clandestine role in how John of the Cross was understood by later generations, especially on the vitally important transition from meditation to contemplation.

Once the writings of St. Teresa and St. John had begun to circulate throughout Europe they sparked a widespread enthusiasm for the contemplative life of prayer. People of all walks of life felt compelled to ask themselves whether they, too, were being called to become contemplatives. Perhaps one of the earliest and most acute forms of this kind of questioning took place in the desert monastery of Las Batuecas where Thomas of Jesus was devoting himself to the life of prayer, spiritual direction, and the writings of John of the Cross. In order to answer this question Thomas and a long line of spiritual writers after him turned to John of the Cross’s famous "three signs" for judging when it is appropriate to discontinue discursive meditation and pass on to contemplative prayer (see 2 Ascent 13-15; 1 Night 9). The first sign of potential contemplatives, according to John, is their inability to meditate as they were accustomed to do before. This the commentators often found verified, for as John made clear in his writings, the inability to meditate often occurs not long after a serious beginning had been made in the life of prayer. The second sign is the spiritual persons’ lack of desire to turn energy and attention to other things once they can no longer find their accustomed path to God. This sign was to safeguard against sin and lukewarmness. But for St. John the third sign is that the persons in question "like to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations," according to the description in the Ascent was the most crucial of all. The first two signs could come about, John thought, for psychological reasons - a tantalizing lead that most of his readers failed to follow up - so the third sign was crucial because it was the actual beginning of infused contemplation itself, even though this new beginning was sometimes imperceptible (see 2 Ascent 13, 7) to those long used to working with the natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will. And it was around this third sign that various interpretations of what John of the Cross meant by contemplation began to crystallize, starting with Thomas of Jesus. These people, sincerely aspiring to contemplation, reasoned: "I see that I have the first and second signs, for I cannot pray as I did before and I cannot discover any conscious fault to account for the darkness that I find myself in. As for the third sign, when John of the Cross talks of loving attentiveness he must mean trying to be lovingly attentive to God whom I know by faith is present to me. Therefore I am a contemplative in whom, as John of the Cross says, contemplation is imperceptible even to the one who receives it."

This kind of interpretation by those who very much desired to be contemplatives but had not experienced the gift of infused contemplation was to give rise to the theory that alongside of the contemplation that St. John and St. Teresa described there was another kind of active or "acquired" contemplation. In fact, early in the history of the discalced Carmelite school Francisco de Quiroga put John of the Cross forward as the father of this active contemplation.

What is at stake is our very understanding of the nature of contemplation according to John of the Cross, and yet very little has been done to unravel these historical issues. Even the remarkable discoveries of the Carmelite scholar, Simeon of the Holy Family, forty years ago have been almost completely neglected.2 It is only by elucidating such matters that we will be in a position to understand the intimate but distorted relationship that exists between the writings of John of the Cross and writers accused of Quietism like Juan Falconi, Antonio Rojas and Miguel Molinos. These kinds of studies would, in turn, allow us to understand the great decline of mysticism that set in at the end of the seventeenth century. Only then could we put the current revival of mysticism in the proper historical perspective and begin to match this historical work with careful empirical studies aimed at discovering just what passes for contemplative life today and how we should cope if, indeed, we can verify in ourselves the first two signs of John of the Cross but not the third. Our first conclusion is simply that we cannot assume that we are in firm possession of our own mystical tradition, but have to take a long and careful look at it.


Jungian Psychology and Christian Spirituality

Christian spirituality has a tremendous need for a partnership with an empirical psychology, a natural science of the psyche, for where else does the life of prayer take place but in the soul or psyche? Spirituality is in the midst of fulfilling that need in a variety of ways, one of which is by using Jung’s psychology. At first glance this meeting of Christian spirituality and Jungian psychology can appear innocent of complications. Aren’t there a growing number of clergy and religious with a deep grasp of Jungian psychology? What difficulty could there be in the use of a psychological type test and discerning in this way different styles of prayer?

Yet we have only to remember the story of Victor White, the Dominican theologian, and his close but stormy friendship with Jung to be reminded that the Jungian-Christian dialogue has never fulfilled the golden expectations that its participants often held out for it and, in fact, has often ended in bitter conflict. Out of these struggles has emerged a spectrum of opinions that range from the outright rejection of Jung’s psychology as a danger to Christianity to an identification of the Jungian process of individuation with the Christian mysteries themselves. And these radically divergent opinions have come from people who can claim a more than superficial knowledge of both Jung’s psychology and Christianity.

What is at the root of such short and intractable divergences? We have, in large part, failed to come to grips with the philosophical presuppositions or substructures in which Jung’s psychology is wrapped. Jung set out to create an empirical science of the psyche in which his careful and attentive observation of psychic images would lead him to hypotheses which would attempt to explain the phenomena he was examining. Thus, for example, the observation of recurrent patterns of images in myths and fairy tales and dreams from all ages and from around the world eventually gave rise to his theory of archetypes. All this is relatively straightforward, even when applied to religious matters, for it is legitimate for the psychologist to look at religion from his distinctive point of view. And if this were all there was to Jung’s psychology, the decades of debates about it would be inexplicable. There is, of course, something more, and this something more is quite elusive. Jung at once looked at Christianity from his distinctive scientific perspective in which it became a storehouse of images that illustrated more or less adequately the fundamental process of individuation, but that is not all he did. Then he more or less unconsciously extended this legitimate scientific attitude so that it took on a quasi-philosophical character that said that "Christians may believe that they know something more than what my psychology reveals, but in fact they don’t." In short, Jung denied that philosophy, faith or theology were legitimate ways of knowing; they do not have their distinctive methods and objects, but rather reflect, often deficiently, what Jung’s psychology knows in a more scientific and less pretentious manner. There is, therefore, an ambivalence in Jung’s writings that leaps from its pages once we have become sensitized to it. While it in no way invalidates his properly psychological work, it does wrap it in adventitious philosophical garments of a Kantian variety. What we can know becomes the image that points to the archetype, but never the thing in itself. Theology is, therefore, still living in a pre-Kantian world and presumes to knowledge that it cannot attain. When such an attitude is brought to bear on Christian spirituality it evacuates what is distinctively Christian and retains whatever reflects Jung’s psychology. What is needed, instead, is a genuinely interactive approach in which philosophy, theology and psychology all retain their distinctive natures and make their own contributions. Then the way is opened for an enriched Christian spirituality in which the life of prayer and the process of individuation, while viewed as distinct processes, are also seen as interpenetrating and vitally interacting in the one concrete psyche.

Such an interactive approach could be brought to bear with good effect on many pressing questions in the spiritual life, for example, our understanding of the inner nature of charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues, healing and the falling phenomena. While it would be unfair to fail to recognize the real good that the charismatic movement has done by bringing people to a serious dedication to the life of prayer, it has sometimes suffered from a lack of awareness of the role of the unconscious in these experiences. Another way of putting the matter is that it is by no means necessary to canonize all the phenomena of the charismatic movement as being produced by the direct working of the Holy Spirit. The role of the unconscious immediately leaps out at psychologically trained observers when they witness the dynamics of charismatic gatherings. An interactive approach embracing both Christian spirituality and Jungian psychology would allow us to begin to see the unconscious not only as the locus of natural psychological processes, but also as the arena in which and through which God can act and the life of prayer can manifest itself. Then we would begin to understand why the tongues spoken have no connection with actual languages and why the urge to speak them can diminish and even disappear, matters that would be less comprehensible if we were constrained to admit that these tongues were always a result of the direct working of the Holy Spirit. Such an interactive approach puts the charismatic movement on firmer psychological and theological foundations.

Our second conclusion is that we have only just begun to enrich Christian spirituality with the fruits of a natural science of the psyche, and this process will greatly accelerate if we can see the promises and problems of the partnership between Christianity and psychology more clearly.3

Zen Enlightenment and Christian Contemplation

Christian spirituality is already being deeply influenced by contact with other spiritual paths like Hinduism and Buddhism. The Zen-Christian dialogue, for example, has advanced to the point where priests and sisters have completed training under recognized Zen masters and have been authorized to teach. Many of the Catholic Zen teachers were students of the late Koun Yamada, heir to a Soto Zen lineage that blended with it many elements of the Rinzai school.

As the process continues of bringing Zen and Christian spiritual paths together, the question of how they relate to each other will become more acute and inescapable. When David Loy, himself a student of Yamada Roshi, wrote to Yamada’s Christian students concerning this coming together, the replies, though few, were highly intriguing: "The most interesting result of my inquiries was a division among Christian Zen teachers (most of them in Europe), between those who want to maintain a strong distinction between Zen practice and Christian practice, and those who see them as the same thing and therefore to be united-which seems to mean using mostly Zen practice with Christian terminology."4

This divergence is quite similar to the one that can be found in the Jungian-Christian world, and I believe it points to the same kind of deep unresolved issues, in this case the difficulties that Christians have in understanding the nature of Zen enlightenment. A certain reticence may mark the first generation of Christian-Zen teachers stemming from the very nature of Zen practice, or the fear that too forthright a statement of the relationship of Christian prayer to the Zen journey might call forth a repressive response from the powers that be, or even because they are not yet sure of what this relationship is. But Zen practice is spreading widely in the church and meeting a real hunger among Christians for deeper spiritual lives, a hunger that has long gone unfilled in many places. And as Zen spreads, the question of its relationship with Christian prayer will loom ever larger.

It is here that the split between philosophers and theologians and spiritual practitioners makes itself felt again. Christians vacillate about what to draw from the storehouse of Christian tradition in order to compare it to Zen. Should it be monasticism, or mysticism, or something else again? One popular choice by people on both sides has been Meister Eckhart. But why Meister Eckhart? Is it because of his Christian mystical doctrine that he shares with the church’s mystical tradition? I don’t think so. There is something in Meister Eckhart that resonates with Zen practitioners, and if we could focus upon it, it would give us a clue to the nature of Zen enlightenment and point to the one choice that is almost never considered as a suitable partner for the Zen-Christian dialogue, which is the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. It seems almost incomprehensible that a dynamic Zen Buddhism would have anything in common with a Thomism already in eclipse. Yet Zen is highly metaphysical, not, of course, in the traditional Western philosophical sense, but as a deep metaphysical insight into the ultimate nature of reality, an insight that is not turned to subsequent conceptual elaboration, but is geared to liberation or awakening from our delusive existential state.

This kind of metaphysical insight finds a counterpart in the living heart of the metaphysics of St. Thomas, in what Jacques Maritain called the intuition of being. Maritain, in fact, has already given us a penetrating explanation of Hindu mystical experience that could be adapted to help us understand the nature of Zen enlightenment. Its initial formulation was born out of discussions he had with Olivier Lacombe, who presented him with the facts of the mystical experience of India. Maritain first formulated his ideas in the fifth appendix of his Degrees of Knowledge, and later in an essay entitled, "Natural Mysticism and the Void.5 This theme was then developed by Lacombe and Louis Gardet and found a fine articulation in their jointly written, L’Expérience de Soi.6 Unfortunately, this vital current of thought has remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world and its application to the current Zen-Christian dialogue unexploited and, incidentally, the riddle of Meister Eckhart unsolved.

Our third conclusion: important philosophical and theological issues need to be resolved if Christian spirituality is ever to benefit as it could from Zen Buddhism. We need to situate Zen enlightenment in relationship to the metaphysics of St. Thomas and the mysticism of John of the Cross. This will allow us to avoid seeing Zen as a threat to Christianity, or facilely identifying Zen practice with the Christian life of prayer.


Christian Spirituality and the New Cosmologies

A new awareness of the earth is beginning to enter into Christian spirituality. One aspect of this development is the increasing utilization of the new cosmologies that have been one of the finest creations of modern physics. What could be the problem here, we might ask, in making use of the hard-won insights of modern science, from quantum mechanics to cosmic strings? These theories are certainly fascinating and stimulating, and deserve our careful attention. But modern physics is what Maritain characterized as an "empiriometrical" science. It gathers physical facts through its measuring devices and then submits them to the formal rule of mathematics. The results are physico-mathematical constructs of undeniable operative power and efficacy, but these concepts do not aim at a point-to-point correspondence with reality, still less an explanation of the inner nature of things. In short, they do not have ontological pretensions, but issue rather in hypotheses that will help us predict further physical results inasmuch as they are measurable. Maritain spent a great deal of time and energy trying to define precisely the epistemological type of modern physics, and this accomplishment ought to be considered as one of the most important and definitive results of the twentieth century Thomistic renaissance.7

But what has this to do with contemporary spirituality? There is no way to erect a philosophy or theology directly on the foundation of modern physical theories because these theories are physico-mathematical constructs whose ontological implications are not readily discernible. Even when these highly mathematized theories give rise to accompanying images and stories, we cannot unreflectively turn to them in order to draw philosophical and theological conclusions. They have no more directly readable ontological content than the measurements and mathematical theories they are based upon.

More concretely, the central importance of quantum mechanics does not mean that our traditional notions of causality have been overturned and now we must grope about for various sorts of acausal or synchronistic explanations. Nor does the facility with which the modern physicist talks of multiple dimensions and the interconnections between space and time mean that our traditional notions of space and time no longer have any validity.

It is going to be an extremely delicate job to penetrate the hypotheses of the physicist and discern their ontological and theological implications. If we erect a spirituality directly upon these physical theories it is liable to have no more permanence than many of these theories themselves. The actual road stretching from the new cosmologies to Christian spirituality is much more difficult. It demands the resurrection of a genuine philosophy of nature. Unfortunately, our traditional philosophy of nature has been in decline and on the defensive from the days of the birth of the modern sciences when it failed to grant them the autonomy they needed to develop. On the other side, many scientists during the course of the twentieth century have been led by the inner direction of their explorations to the frontier their science shares with the philosophy of nature, but deep-seated misconceptions have prevented them from realizing this fact; even if they had, the weakness of the philosophy of nature born out of centuries of isolation would have prevented real dialogue. Our fourth conclusion: The scientific cosmologists of today are hardly aware that philosophical cosmologists exist, still less that they could have something important to say. It will be unfortunate if the architects of the dialogue between Christian spirituality and the new cosmologies come to share that same blindness.



These four problems can serve as examples of the kinds of challenges that exist in each of the four areas that are converging to create a Christian spirituality of the future. It would be possible to arrive at this same point by means of other examples, for example, an evaluation of the mystical elements in early Ignatian spirituality, or an examination of the Enneagram, or the Hindu-Christian dialogue, or the difficulty in integrating a practical ecological awareness into a mainstream, middle-class American Catholic Church. But it is more important, I think, to carry our analysis further and see what these problems have in common.

First of all, they share a climate in which the old structures of authority and the transmission of ideas are being transformed. The initiative in the field of spirituality is no longer just in the hands of church authorities or a relatively cohesive group of theologically trained priests and religious. Creative impulses are coming from all parts of the church community and from beyond its visible boundaries. This has the good effect of drawing on a wider range of talents, but it presents its own particular kind of difficulties. It is possible for a new development to sprout and grow for a considerable period of time without any serious sustained interchange with the riches of Christian philosophy, theology and spirituality, or even sustained contact with the very discipline that practitioners would like to see integrated into Christian spirituality. The use of the Enneagram is, for example, expanding rapidly in Catholic circles, but its psychological foundations remain unclarified and its theological implications are only beginning to be explored.

This is certainly not a plea for the reinstitution of some sort of centralized control, but simply a statement of what is actually happening. And why it is happening is significant. It happens in part because of the wider freedom given to creative impulses from all directions, as I mentioned before. It happens, as well, because a certain expertise is necessary in things like the Jungian-Christian dialogue, or the Hindu-Christian one, and this reduces many people to silence, even church leaders, even when they are confronted with something that rubs them the wrong way. New channels are not yet in place that would allow a free and open interchange between the people on the cutting edge of these developments and those in traditional positions of leadership. And breaking silence without truly understanding what is going on is no remedy either.

And finally it happens because we imagine that we are in firm possession of our metaphysical, theological and mystical heritage, because we have grown up hearing about it or have studied it in the classroom. What we often lack, however, is the living, experiential possession of our own Christian tradition, and this kind of orientation to experience is what we admire so much in our various partners in dialogue.

The failure to assimilate our own wisdom traditions in this living way leads to another characteristic that these various problems have in common: our genuine discoveries overwhelm us. If we have emerged out of a narrow Christian practice that we have seen damage people psychologically, and have found the health and freedom that can come from Jung’s psychology, we will be tempted to swallow Jung’s psychology whole, including its philosophical presuppositions, and feel justified in allowing it to devour and transform Christian theology into its own image and likeness. In a similar way, if our life of prayer has become dark, arid, and seemingly impotent and dead-ended, then the discovery of Zen meditation can appear as the next and contemplative step on the Christian journey of prayer, a step that Christianity itself had not been able to provide. Once we have this sort of experience, then it is not a great step to begin to equate Zen enlightenment with Christian contemplation. A similar process takes place when we flee the uncertainty and torpor within our own tradition’s approach to creation, find hard answers and bright vistas in modern physics, and then want to make them the foundations of a new theology and spirituality. Etienne Gilson was fond of delineating this kind of process in the history of philosophy, and it is certainly operative here in our nascent Christian spirituality of the future as well. But when it gains the upper hand the possibility of genuine dialogue fades and the Christian message begins to be emptied of its distinctive meaning.

It is a poignant experience to attend a Hindu or Buddhist event and find that perhaps half the people there are at least nominally Catholic, and they have come out of a spiritual hunger that has not been filled in their own communities. We need the Christian spirituality that is beginning to take shape, but we will only create it by the long and difficult process of awakening the various degrees of Christian wisdom from their sleep and learning how to "distinguish in order to unite" so that the treasures of our own spiritual path can meet the riches of other traditions and the discoveries of modern science.




1. Thomas’ El Camino Espiritual remains unedited (see following note.) For a fuller presentation of the historical situation see my St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung and From St.John of the Cross to Us. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books, and Jean Krynen, Saint Jean de la Croix et l’aventure de la mystique espagnole. Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1990.

2. Simeon de la Sagrada Familia, "La Obra    Fundamental del P. Tomás de Jesus,  Inedita y Desconocida," Ephemerides Carmeliticae 4 (1950): 431-518, and "Un Nuevo Códice Manuscrito de las Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, usado y anotado por el P. Tomás de Jesus," Ephemerides Carmeliticae 4 (1950): 95-148

3. See James Arraj, Jungian and Catholic? Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books, 1991, Part 1.

4. David Loy, "Comparing Zen Koan Practice with The Cloud of Unknowing" in Buddhist-Christian Studies. 1989: 59, note 2.

5. Jacques Maritain, "L’Experience mystique et le vide," in Quatre essais sur l’esprit. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1956. The first edition appeared in 1939. See also Jacques Maritain, Distinguish to Unite, or The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. from fourth French Edition by Gerald B. Phelan. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.

6. Olivier Lacombe and Louis Gardet, L’Experience de Soi. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1981. For an application of  Maritain’s mysticism of the self to Zen Buddhism see my God, Zen and the Intuition of Being. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth  Books, 1988.

7. This is best seen in Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge.

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