Fall 1991, Vol.43 No. 3, pp. 271-280.

Michael Downey: Current Trends
      Understanding Christian Spirituality:
     Dress Rehearsal for a Method

Dr. Michael Downey is Associate Professor of Theology at Gwynedd-Mercy College in Philadelphia. He is editor-in-chief of The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (forthcoming, The Liturgical Press, 1992) and a member of the Advisory Board of Spirituality Today. Dr. Downey's most recent publication is That They Might Live: Power, Empowerment, and Leadership in the Church (New York: Crossroad, 1991).

PERUSE the shelves of an large bookseller downtown or at the nearest shopping mall. If your interest is in spirituality, the first stop will be that nook labeled "religion" or "inspiration." There will likely be "slim pickins" there. No doubt there will be a few bibles from which to choose, a sampling of Judaica, perhaps some M. Scott Peck, and a smattering of esoteric Asian philosophy or spirituality. These days it's likely that there will be several copies of Joseph F. Girzone's Joshua and The Shepherd. From time to time there will be a few titles by Gethsemani's most celebrated son, Thomas Merton. If there is time and stamina, a closer look may yield rich fare on some other shelves. Try "history," "self-help," "women's studies," "biography," or perhaps a few of the others.

In much the same way that the bookseller is often at a loss when it comes to knowing just where to shelve books for those interested in spirituality, the meaning of the term spirituality is itself a bit unfocused and its referents quite scattered. For all the interest in spirituality today, there remains a lack of clarity as to what people mean when they speak of spirituality or, for our purposes, Christian spirituality. In academic circles, those who concentrate their energies on the study of spirituality are sometimes viewed by their peers as dabblers and dilettantes who lack the academic rigor required to do "bread and butter theology," i.e., systematic/dogmatic theology.

My purpose in this essay is threefold. First, I would like to bring a little light to bear upon the question of the precise scope and limits of what is described by that slippery term "Christian spirituality." Second, I shall point to significant trends in Christian spirituality today. Third, attention will be given to a method for understanding and studying Christian spirituality.


"Christian spirituality" refers to both a lived experience and an academic discipline. In the first instance, the term describes the whole of the Christian's life as this is oriented to self-transcending knowledge, freedom, and love in light of the ultimate values and highest ideals perceived and pursued in the mystery of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in the church, the community of disciples. That is to say, spirituality is concerned with everything that constitutes Christian experience, specifically the perception and pursuit of the highest ideal or goal of Christian life, e.g., an ever more intense union with God disclosed in Christ through life in the Spirit. At a second level, Christian spirituality is an academic discipline, increasingly interdisciplinary in nature, that attempts to study religious experience and to promote its development and maturation.

Most noteworthy among the contributors to the development of the academic discipline of Christian spirituality are Sandra Schneiders and Walter Principe.(1) It is also important to note here the contributions of several scholars who bring clarity to the discipline of Christian spirituality by making connections between systematic theology and spirituality. The work of Tad Dunne and Vernon Gregson is an example of this effort within a Lonerganian framework, while James Bacik, Annice Callahan, Harvey Egan, J. Norman King, and Robert Masson attempt to spell out in systematic fashion the implications of the work of Karl Rahner for Christian spirituality.


The following survey of the current trends in spirituality today may provide indication of the shape or direction of spirituality on the brink of the third millennium.

      1) Much of the renaissance in contemporary spirituality has been given impetus by the Second Vatican Council. As a result, many of its fundamental orientations and convictions undergird a good measure of contemporary understandings of Christian spirituality, although it must be acknowledged that there have remained all along signs of a defensive reaction to the reforms and renewal occasioned by the Council.

      2) Because the Council stressed the reciprocal relationship between liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and Christian life (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1 and 10), as well as the singular importance of Scripture and its formative role in the spiritual life, contemporary understandings of spirituality rest on the premise that Christian spirituality is a liturgical and scriptural spirituality. In addition, the Council's universal call to holiness (Lumen Gentium, 40-41) has dealt a fatal blow (at least in theory) to the tightly held conviction that the fullness of the Christian spiritual life is reserved for an elite group (usually vowed religious and clergy). All the baptized are called to the fullness of life in the Spirit. Expressions of Christian spiritual life among the faithful cannot be understood or explained simply by extension or comparison to the paradigms of mature spirituality appropriate to clergy and religious.

      3) Since the Council there has been sustained attention to a more holistic understanding of spirituality. Rather than beginning with doctrinal formulations or theoretical explanations of Christian life, contemporary approaches to spirituality tend to begin by stressing the singular importance of the concrete experience of searching for God, and of finding appropriate ways to live out one's response to the divine initiative. This has been coupled with attention to the importance of the specific context within which one lives out one's relationship with the other, others, and God, and the significance of culture as it shapes these relationships. There has been a deepening appreciation for the particular, the specific, and for differences as expressed, for example, in the attention given to the need to retrieve and/or develop approaches to prayer appropriate to persons in a great variety of life forms.

      4) The attention given to the experiential and the contextual has been accompanied by an effort to undercut dualism of all sorts. Hence, there has been a sustained attempt to distinguish rather than unduly separate soul and body, spirit and flesh, church and world, sacred and profane. To this has been joined a concern to focus on the "ordinary" and the "everyday," and the opportunities therein for the baptized to be a corporate witness and sign, or sacrament, in and to the world. With the setting aside of subtle and not-so-subtle dualist convictions, and the embrace of a more incarnational and sacramental approach to spirituality, there has been a deeper appreciation of the value of interpersonal relationships, inclusive of intimacy and sexuality, with particular attention to the sacredness or marriage as the paradigmatic human relationship which discloses the divine. In highlighting the relational as disclosive of the holy, great attention has been given to the significance of life in community, particularly communities of self and mutual help, whether these be parish renewal groups, prayer-study groups, Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, communidades de base or various groups inspired by the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

      5) This focus on the relational, interpersonal, and communal is related to another current in contemporary spirituality which, though certainly not novel in the history of Christian spirituality, has been given unique emphasis in our own day. In the perennial search for the true, authentic self, contemporary understandings of spirituality reflect a reliance on interdisciplinary methods, drawing from biblical studies, psychology (especially developmental psychology) theology, history, and pastoral experience. Resources often extend beyond the author's particular religious tradition, reflective of the ecumenical and interreligious sensibility characteristic of religious and theological studies since the Second Vatican Council. The attempt to bring interdisciplinary and ecumenical/ interreligious insights to bear on the subject of Christian spirituality might be exemplified in the writings of those who attempt to use personality type indicators from the investigations of Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram, which has its roots in the tradition of the Sufis, in the process of Christian growth and development. Such approaches to the quest for true self are grounded in the conviction that human and spiritual development are not opposing, competing dynamics, but are rather interrelated and complementary. The authentic self is one which is given by nature and developed by grace and Spirit. Such development requires commitment to ongoing self-scrutiny and willingness to risk and change. But this self- scrutiny extends beyond the province of the individual to include a mature critical consciousness vis-a-vis the social-symbolic order with its dominant ideology. Without such critical consciousness there is a tendency to overlook the truth that any authentic Christian spirituality is intrinsically relational, social and, indeed, political.

      6) Just as much contemporary spiritual writing assumes that human and spiritual development are interrelated and complementary, so to is there a sustained conviction that prayer and action are two dimensions of the human person that are to be held together in a noble tension in an ever-deepening integration. This must be understood against the background of a long tradition that tended to separate the "active life" and the "contemplative life." Without prejudice to the complexity of the issue, it may be said that there is a deeper recognition today that prayer and action are rooted in one source, the human person, who is called to the prayer of loving attention, gratitude and praise for the presence and action of God in human life, history, world and church, and to the activities whereby God's reign is advanced, especially through the works of prophetic service and the promotion of peace and justice. This is to recognize the importance of praxis in Christian life and spirituality. In contemporary spiritual writing, praxis does not refer to any and all action or practice. It is the practice of the gospel through which persons and communities do the truth in love freely, and in so doing enable others to do the truth in love freely, thereby participating more fully in the mystery of Christ who is contemplated in Christian prayer.

      7) The recognition of the demands of justice in the Christian spiritual life has drawn greater attention to the rights of women in church and society, and to the struggle to work for the equality of women in all spheres of life. Indeed the emergence of a specifically feminist spirituality is arguably one of the most significant, albeit unanticipated, results of the Second Vatican Council. The place of women's experience and the significance of women's contributions in Christian tradition has been given a good measure of attention in contemporary spiritual writing, and is undoubtedly one of the most notable developments in the field. Similarly, the struggle for peace and justice has drawn attention to the experience of persons and groups at the margins of social and religious bodies, be they persons of color, the physically and mentally disabled, the divorced and remarried, persons in the Third World, gays and lesbians, or the economically oppressed. The experience of such persons, and of the countless women who have often been invisible and powerless in church and society, has become an increasingly important, indeed indispensable source for reflection on the nature of authentic Christian experience and praxis.

      8) On the brink of the third millennium, there is ever increasing attention to the implications of authentic Christian spirituality for the protection, preservation, and care for the earth and the earth's resources. The threat of nuclear annihilation, and the destruction of the ecological balance through systematic ravaging of the earth's resources, have caused some to highlight the value and dignity of other forms of life, and to invite us to a just and non-violent way of living with other species and the whole of creation upon which humans depend for their very existence.

      9) Contemporary spiritual writings evidence a strong commitment to find solutions to the problems that Christians face today by retrieving the riches of the past. This requires much more than recovering insights from former epochs and applying them uncritically as solutions to current problems. Rather it demands a deep appreciation of the particular historical context within which the formulation of a given insight or truth took place, so that the fundamental orientations and motivations of a given historical age that underlie such a formulation might be brought to bear upon a very different context and set of circumstances marked by very different modes of being and perceiving.

      10) There is increasing attention to specifying the precise limits and scope of spirituality as both lived experience and as an area of disciplined study. As an academic enterprise, Christian spirituality is an emergent and immature discipline. Though scholars have agreed on some common vocabulary, issues of concern, and methods of investigation, there is not as yet a commonly recognized theory regarding the precise limits and scope of this area of study.

In view of these current trends, particularly the last, it may be useful to offer a few reflections on how I understand the nature and scope of Christian spirituality as both lived experience and academic discipline.


In charting the terrain of Christian spirituality it may be helpful to identify seven focal points of investigation. From this vantage point, Christian spirituality is concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit (in itself a rather slippery term!) in persons: 1) within a culture; 2) in relation to a tradition; 3) in light of contemporary events, hopes, suffering and promises; 4) in remembrance of Jesus Christ; 5) in efforts to combine elements of action and contemplation; 6) with respect to charism and community; 7) as expressed and authenticated in praxis.(2)

Such a framework can be used by those who are studying spirituality in a disciplined way, as well as by those who are simply attempting to come to a deeper understanding of spirituality, their own or others', past or present. Whether one examines a scriptural or theological text, a legend of a saint or a painting of her with eyes turned heavenward, a type of religious vesture or sacred music, a kind of church architecture or sculpture, it is useful to consider the object of study in view of these seven focal points. One might ask: What was the culture within which this depiction of the Last Judgment was painted? When considering a treatise on virtue, one might ask: What are the religious and theological traditions reflected, adhered to, departed from in this text? What are/were the significant events, hopes, sufferings, and promises of the age in which this score of sacred music was composed? How does it reflect, nuance or critique them? How is the memory of Christ expressed, or what is the dominant image of Christ being expressed, in this bronze? What is the view of the relationship between contemplation and action expressed in this stained glass depiction of Mary with book-in-hand? Or with Jesus in her arms? Or with hands folded in prayer? What is the understanding of charism and community expressed in the uniform attire of women religious prior to the Second Vatican Council? And what understandings of charism and community are expressed in the variegated attire of women religious today? These are a few of the types of questions that might be raised in trying to uncover the specific spirituality of person or group, past or present.

How might one work within this framework when considering a text or life of an individual of an earlier epoch? As an example one might focus on the life and writings of Francis of Assisi. In trying to understand Francis' spirituality, one could consider the way in which Francis remembers Christ, or try to uncover the predominant image of Christ that emerges in early Franciscan writings and devotion, e.g., the poor crucified Christ. By way of contrast one might then focus on what can be known of how Christ was remembered, or what image of Christ predominated, in the legacy of Dominic and his first followers. Whatever similarities there may be, there are significant differences in the way Christ was remembered by Dominic and the early Dominicans on the one hand, and by Francis and his followers on the other. And the praxis (the seventh focal point of the framework) of the gospel appropriate to a Dominican, i.e., preaching, teaching, study, will be somewhat different from the praxis appropriate to a Franciscan. This is due, at least in part, to the way Christ is remembered, or which image of Christ predominates, in each tradition. Said another way, there are distinctively Dominican and Franciscan spiritualities due to the fact that the central understanding of Christ that lies at the heart of each is quite different. One might then juxtapose these insights alongside what may be gleaned from a reading of the Ignatian sources in view of the question of how Christ is portrayed therein, attentive to what have been judged appropriate forms of praxis that result from such a remembrance. The same might be done when looking to the life and writings of some contemporary figures such as Dorothy Day, Roger Schutz, Jean Vanier or Thomas Merton.

If one were to shift attention to a contemporary text such as the United States Catholic Bishop's pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All, with an eye to the spirituality expressed in its pages, it might be useful to consider the understanding of culture (the first focal point) operative therein. How is the Spirit at work within a culture shaped by materialism and consumerism? Where is the work of the Spirit in those economic systems that systematically impoverish one culture to benefit another? How is the Spirit expressed and authenticated in the praxis of the gospel amidst conflicts of impinging cultures replete with economic ambiguities.

As another example of the attempt to understand a contemporary text, person or movement, when considering Christian feminist spirituality one might focus on the role of tradition (the second focal point) in women's spirituality. How has the Spirit been at work in those Christian traditions that have rendered the voices and experiences of women inaudible and insignificant? How has the Spirit enabled women to resist, critique, and/or reject those traditions by which they have been willfully and systematically excluded? Whether the focus be on the past or the present, using this framework enables one to attend to the crucial importance of praxis as the expression and authentication of the Spirit's work (the seventh focal point). The praxis appropriate to a person or group, past or present, will vary due to the way in which the Spirit is at work within a culture, in relation to a tradition, in response to the events, hopes, sufferings, and promises of an age, in view of different ways of remembering Jesus, in efforts to combine elements of action and contemplation, and with respect to diverse charisms and different constellations of community.


My purpose in this essay has been to draw attention to significant trends in the field of Christian spirituality as both lived experience and academic discipline. As lived experience, current trends in Christian spirituality give evidence of vitality, growth, and maturity on the part of those who profess faith in Christ Jesus and live by the power of the Spirit on the brink of the third millennium. As an academic discipline, spirituality is still in its adolescence. But great effort is being made on the part of students and teachers in the field to shape a firm identity by specifying its scope, precise subject, and limits. Central to this task is the work of bringing methodological form to understanding and studying spirituality so as to facilitate its fuller development and maturation.

  1. My own work is greatly influenced by the thought of Sandra Schneiders and Walter Principe. See, for example, Sandra M. Schneiders, "Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners," Horizons 13.2 (Fall, 1986): 253-274; "Spirituality in the Academy," Theological Studies 50.4 (December, 1989): 676-697. See also, Walter Principe, "Toward Defining Spirituality," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 12.2 (1983): 127-141.

  2. I have developed this framework more thoroughly in a work tentatively entitled "Understanding Christian Spirituality: Learning from Life at the Margins" (Forthcoming, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co.).