by Allan Hugh Cole Jr., ed.
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 249 pages.
reviewed by KENNETH E. KOVACS
This is a sumptuous banquet offering rich food for our souls.
The gracious host of this feast, Allan Hugh Cole Jr., academic dean and professor of pastoral
theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has assembled 23 gifted
and wise voices who engage in a conversation on the meaning and nature of
the spiritual life. Around the table are people from across the theological spectrum and
from different communions of the body of Christ, pastoral/practical theologians (Donald
Capps, Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Stephanie Paulsell, Richard Osmer), ethicists
(Ismael García and J. Philip Wogaman), writers and novelists (Gail Godwin, Marjorie J.
Thompson), psychologists/counselors (Homer U. Ashby Jr.), seminary presidents (Michael
Jenkins, Theodore J. Wardlaw) and pastors (Deborah Block, Michael Lindvall, William
H. Willimon). This is a sampling of some of the “poets, prophets, and preachers” who
weigh in on the subject with profound humility and honesty.
Cole and many of his contributors acknowledge the word “spiritual” is notoriously
difficult to define. Cole’s introductory essay places the problem front and center: What are
we really talking about when we say “spiritual” and refer to the “spiritual life”? In the end
Cole affirms that the spiritual life ultimately “links to a life in which one seeks to follow
Jesus, and that life begins, at least formally, in the waters of baptism. About the spiritual
life I can say nothing more or less.”
Not surprisingly, many of the contributors do not share a fondness for the word;
some prefer the designation “religious” rather than “spiritual.” I share Deborah Block’s
assessment: “‘Spirituality’ has always been a word with little resonance for me. First, it
is too vague and too varied in meaning, and what it lacks in definition it gains in overuse
by church and culture.” For example, Thompson writes, “The spiritual life is as broad
and deep as the cosmos brought into being by God’s living Word.” Allencompassing
definitions such as this are problematic (if true) because
they hinder theological specificity. As a result, “spiritual” becomes a
synonym for human experiences of profound meaning. Yet how do we
distinguish the human spirit from the Holy Spirit and talk about the relationship
between them? Several contributors address this question, but
a more explicit Christological grounding of the spiritual life is needed.
I read this text while flying back from the Democratic Republic of
Congo, wondering, how would these voices be heard in the developing
world? Discussions about spirituality can sound self-indulgent and
self-focused. To counter this tendency, García remarks that the Spirit
continually seeks to be enfleshed in the world and challenges us to link
spirituality with social justice. Wardlaw, encourages a “spirituality of the
margins” that flows from a relationship with the God of the margins.
Every essay shimmers. I’m particularly grateful for Jinkins’ reflections
on beauty, “an aesthetic spirituality,” and Willimon’s trenchant
(and needed) critique of the Church’s recent emphasis on practice. Both
warrant further reflection and conversation. This volume is a gift to the
KENNETH E. KOVACS is the pastor of Catonsville Presbyterian
Church in Cantonsville, Md.