RonRolheiser,OMI

Contemporary Writers in Spirituality

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Among those who write in the area of spirituality today, who’s being read? Here’s my list of spiritual writers who are highly influential today in the English-speaking world:

·         Henri Nouwen- Dutch/American, Roman Catholic, priest. Perhaps the most widely-read and most-influential among all contemporary authors in spirituality.

·         Thomas Merton – Roman Catholic, monk, one of the most influential spiritual writers in the past 100 years.

·          C.S. Lewis – British, layman, Anglican. Well-known across both religious and secular circles. Brought a literary genius to his articulation of the Christian faith.

·         Jim Wallis – American, Evangelical, layman, popular-evangelist, social activist, social organizer. The closest our age has to a “Dorothy Day”.  Widely read and respected across all denominational lines.

·         Thomas Halik – Roman Catholic, priest, Czechoslovakian, recent winner of the prestigious Templeton award.

·         Parker Palmer – Quaker, layman, American, much-respected across all denominational lines. Has written brilliantly on the spirituality of education and on achieving a Christian balance in life.

·         Alan Jones – Episcopalian, priest, American.  Wisdom drawn from the deep wells of Christian tradition. Practical spirituality with depth.

·         Carlo Carretto – Roman Catholic, hermit/monk, Italian.  Carretto spend many years living as a hermit in the Sahara desert and writes out of that experience.

·         Ruth Burrows – British, Carmelite, nun. Deep insights into mysticism, faith, and contemplative prayer. Eminent common sense, blended with a deep knowledge of the mystical tradition.

·         Richard Rohr – American, Franciscan, priest, popular evangelist. Numerous books on prayer, masculine spirituality, addictions, overcoming dualism, overcoming sectarianism, finding balance in your life, scriptural commentary.

·         Wendy Wright – American, lay woman, Roman Catholic. A specialist regarding Francis de Sales and Jane Chantel, but with wider writings, especially about the place of devotions within our spiritual lives.

·         Peter Tyler – British, Roman Catholic, layman. A specialist in Carmelite spirituality. An emerging young voice.

·         Thomas Keating – American, Roman Catholic, monk. The widely-accepted “canon” on contemplative prayer.

·          John Main – British/Canadian, monk, a popular, trustworthy guide on Contemplative prayer.

·          Laurence Freeman – British, monk, another trustworthy guide on Contemplative prayer

·         Kathleen Norris – American, Presbyterian, lay, Oblate of St. Benedict. Deeply immersed in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and equally attuned to our spiritual struggles within contemporary culture.

·         Trevor Herriot – Canadian, layman, Roman Catholic. A powerful apologia for protecting nature, but his more explicit spiritual writing are highly reflective essays apposite the place and role of our sexual energies in either protecting or despoiling nature.

·         Barbara Brown Taylor – American, Episcopalian, priest, popular-evangelist. Strong literary writer with an audience within secular circles. A unique blend of insight, scripture, tradition, and balance. Always a worthwhile read.

·         David Steindl-Rast – American, Roman Catholic, monk, had the distinction of being Henri Nouwen’s spiritual director. Writes with depth, drawing many of his insights from the richness of monasticism.

·         Anthony de Mello – Indian, Roman Catholic, Jesuit. Brings the insights of Buddhism and Eastern spiritualities into his articulation of Christian spirituality.

·         James Martin – American, Roman Catholic, Jesuit. A key, young voice within spirituality today. Widely popular, and deservedly so.

·          Anne Lamott – American, Episcopalian, lay woman. A unique blend of insight, Christian commitment, and blistering iconoclasm.

·         Marilynne Robinson – American, novelist, Congregationalist. Not a spirituality writer per se, but an exceptional novelist whose characters express her spirituality. An exceptionally bright apologetic voice.

·         Simone Weil – French, Jewish, lay woman. Her writings manifest a spiritual sensitivity and depth that includes her in most discussions about contemporary spirituality.

·         Etty Hillesum – Dutch, Jewish, lay woman. Her writings exhibit an extraordinary insight into spirituality. And she backed them up with martyrdom.

·         Scott Hahn – American, Roman Catholic, layman. Very popular, catechetical and instructional.

·         Rabbi Abraham Heschel – American, Jewish, Rabbi. Exceptional spiritual commentaries on the Jewish scriptures. Widely read and respected.

·         Rob Bell – American, Evangelical, popular-evangelist. A brilliant young voice. Good balance, good insights, and an exceptional capacity to speak to a contemporary audience.

·         Rick Warren – American, Evangelist. Stunningly popular across denominational lines. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and is worth the read.

·         John Allen – American, Roman Catholic, layman, journalist. Most everyone’s ear-to-the ground vis-à-vis what’s happening ecclesially around the world.

·         Joyce Rupp – American, Roman Catholic, nun. Good, insightful, particularly popular with women.

·         Michael Higgins – Canadian, layman, Roman Catholic. Does a lot of highly insightful journalistic commentary on contemporary spirituality. The official biographer of Nouwen.

·         Joan Chittister – American, Roman Catholic, nun. Powerful social justice and feminist voice. Knows the tradition of monasticism very well and draws key insights out of its deep wells.

·         Paula D’Arcy – American, Roman Catholic, lay woman. Inspires a near-cult following among devotees particularly apposite her spirituality of healing.

·         Annie Dillard – American, Roman Catholic (convert), lay. Her writings invariably articulate an aesthetic and moral insight that is a natural friend of religion.

·         Elizabeth Johnson – American, Roman Catholic, nun. An exceptional mentor for those who searching for a better intellectual apologia for their faith.

·         Bill Plotkin – American, “Naturalist”, layman. Challenging writings vis-à-vis the place of nature in shaping our souls.

·          Belden Lane – American, Layman, “Naturalist”, akin to Plotkin.

My apologies to those whom I didn’t name, particularly those young, emerging voices such as Kerry Weber, David Wells, and Bill McGarvey, among others. Who should be more widely read.

 

Artificial Light

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What’s the use of an old-fashioned, hand-held lantern? Well, its light can be quite useful when it’s pitch-dark, but it becomes superfluous and unnoticeable in the noonday sun. Still, this doesn’t mean its light is bad, only that it’s weak.

If we hold that image in our minds, we will see both a huge irony and a profound lesson in the Gospels when they describe the arrest of Jesus. Gospel of John, for example, describes his arrest this way: “Judas brought the cohort to this place together with guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all carrying lanterns and torches.”  John wants us to see the irony in this, that is, the forces of this world have come to arrest and put on trial, Jesus, the Light of the world, carrying weak, artificial light, a lantern in the face of the Light of the world, puny light in the full face of the noonday sun. As well, in naming this irony, the Gospels are offering a second lesson: when we no longer walk in the light of Christ, we will invariably turn to artificial light.

This image, I believe, can serve as a penetrating metaphor for how the criticism that the Enlightenment has made of our Christian belief in God stands before what it is criticizing.  That criticism has two prongs.

The first prong is this: The Enlightenment (Modernist Thought) submits that the God that is generally presented by our Christian churches has no credibility because that God is simply a projection of human desire, a god made in our own image and likeness, and a god that we can forever manipulate to serve self-interest. Belief in such a god, they say, is adolescent in that it is predicated on a certain naiveté, on an intellectual blindness that can be flushed out and remedied by a hard look at reality. An enlightened mind, it is asserted, sees belief in God as self-interest and as intellectual blindness.

There is much to be said, positively, for this criticism, given that much, much of atheism is a parasite off of bad theism. Atheism feeds off bad religion and, no doubt, many of the things we do in the name of religion are done out of self-interest and intellectual blindness. How many times, for instance, has politics used religion for its own ends? The first prong of the criticism that the Enlightenment makes of Christian belief is a healthy challenge to us as believers.

But it’s the second prong of this criticism that, I believe, stands like a lantern, a weak light, dwarfed in the noonday sun.  Central to the Enlightenment’s criticism of belief in God is their assertion (perhaps better called prejudice) that faith is a naiveté, something like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny, that we outgrow as we mature and open our minds more and more to knowledge and what’s empirically evident in the world.  What we see through science and honest observation, they believe, eventually puts to death our belief in God, exposing it as a naiveté. In essence, the assertion is that if you face up to the hard empirical facts of reality without blinking, with honesty and courage, you will cease to believe in God. Indeed, the very phrase “the Enlightenment” implies this. It’s only the unenlightened, pre-modernist mind that still can believe in God.  Moving beyond belief in God is enlightenment.

Sadly, Christianity has often internalized this prejudice and expressed it (and continues to express it) in the many forms of fear and anti-intellectualism within our churches. Too often we unwittingly agree with our critics that faith is a naiveté. We do it by believing the very thing our critics assert, namely, that if we studied and looked at things hard enough we would eventually lose our faith. We betray this in our fear of the intellectual academy, in our paranoia about secular wisdom, in some of our fears about scientific knowledge, and by forever warning people to protect themselves against certain inconvenient truths within scientific and secular knowledge. In doing this, we, in fact, concede that the criticism made against us is true and, worse still, we betray that fact that we do not think that the truth of Christ will stand up to the world.

But, given the penetrating metaphor highlighted in Jesus’ arrest, there’s another way of seeing this: After we have conceded the truth of the legitimate findings of science and secular wisdom and affirmed that they need to be embraced and not defended against, then, in the light of John’s metaphor (worldly forces, carrying lanterns and torches, as they to arrest the Light of world to put it on trial), we should also see how dim are the lights of our world, not least, the criticism of the Enlightenment.

Lanterns and torches are helpful when the sun is down, but they’re utterly eclipsed by the light of the sun. Worldly knowledge too is helpful in its own way, but it is more-than dwarfed by the light of the Son.

Evolution’s Ultimate Wisdom

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Evolution, Charles Darwin famously stated, works through the survival of the fittest. Christianity, on the other hand, is committed to the survival of the weakest. But how do we square our Christian ideal of making a preferential option for the weak with evolution?

Nature is evolutionary and, inside of that, we can perceive a wisdom that clearly manifests intelligence, intent, spirit, and design. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than how in the process of evolution we see nature becoming ever-more unified, complex, and conscious.

However, how God’s intelligence and intent are reflected inside of that is not always evident because nature can be so cruel and brutal. In order to survive, every element in nature has to be cannibalistic and eat other parts of nature. Only the fittest get to survive. There’s a harsh cruelty in that. In highlighting how cruel and unfair nature can be, commentators often cite the example of the second pelican born to white pelicans. Here’s how cruel and unfair is its situation:

Female white pelicans normally lay two eggs, but they lay them several days apart so that the first chick hatches several days before the second chick. This gives the first chick a head-start and by the time the second chick hatches, the first chick is bigger and stronger. It then acts aggressively towards the second chick, grabbing its food and pushing it out of the nest. There, ignored by its mother, the second chick normal dies of starvation, despite its efforts to find its way back into the nest. Only one in ten second chicks survives. And here’s nature’s cruel logic in this: That second chick is hatched by nature as an insurance-policy, in case the first chick is weak or dies. Barring that, it is doomed to die, ostracized, hungry, blindly grasping for food and its mother’s attention as it starves to death. But this cruelty works as an evolutionary strategy. White pelicans have survived for thirty million years, but at the cost of millions of its own species dying cruelly.

A certain intelligence is certainly evident in this, but where is the compassion? Did a compassionate God really design this? The intelligence in nature’s strategy of the survival of the fittest is clear. Each species, unless unnaturally interfered with from the outside, is forever producing healthier, more robust, more adaptable members. Such, it seems, is nature’s wisdom and design – up to a point.

Certain scientists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggest that physical evolution has reached its apex, its highest degree of unity, complexity and consciousness, inside the central nervous system and brain of the human person and that evolution has now taken a leap (just as it did when consciousness leapt out of raw biology and as it did when self- consciousness leapt out of simple consciousness) so that now meaningful evolution is no longer about gaining further physical strength and adaptability. Rather meaningful evolution is now concerned with the social and the spiritual, that is, with social and spiritual strength.

And in a Christian understanding of things, this means that meaningful evolution is now about human beings using their self-consciousness to turn back and help nature to protect and nurture its second pelicans. Meaningful evolution now is no longer about having the strong grow stronger, but about having the weak, that part of nature that nature herself, to this point, has not been able to nurture, grow strong.

Why? What’s nature’s interest in the weak? Why shouldn’t nature be happy to have the weak weeded out? Does God have an interest in the weak that nature does not?

No, nature too is very interested in the survival of the weak and is calling upon the help of human beings to bring this about. Nature is interested in the survival of the weak because vulnerability and weakness bring something to nature that is absent when it is only concerned with the survival of the fittest and with producing ever-stronger, more robust, and more adaptable species and individuals. What the weak add to nature are character and compassion, which are the central ingredients needed to bring about unity, complexity, and consciousness at the social and spiritual level.

When God created human beings at the beginning of time, God charged them with the responsibility of “dominion”, of ruling over nature. What’s contained in that mandate is not an order or permission to dominate over nature and use nature in whatever fashion we desire. The mandate is rather that of “watching over”, of tending the garden, of being wise stewards, and of helping nature do things that, in its unconscious state, it cannot do, namely, protect and nurture the weak, the second pelicans.

The second-century theologian, Irenaeus, once famously said: The glory of God is the human being fully alive! In our own time, Gustavo Gutierrez, generally credited with being the father of Liberation Theology, recast that dictum to say: The glory of God is the poor person fully alive!” And that is as well the ultimate glory of nature.