From storybooks to spirituality
April 18, 2019
My first love was literature, novels and poetry. As a child, I loved storybooks, mysteries and adventures.
In grade school, I was made to memorize poetry and loved the exercise. High school introduced me to more serious literature – Shakespeare, Kipling, Keats, Wordsworth, Browning.
On the side, I still read storybooks, cowboy tales from the old West, taken from my dad’s bookshelf.
During my undergraduate university years, literature was a major part of the curriculum, and I learned then that literature wasn’t just about stories, but also about social and religious commentary – as well as about form and beauty as ends in themselves.
In classes then, we read classic novels: "Nineteen Eighty-Four," "Lord of the Flies," "Heart of Darkness," "The Heart of the Matter," "East of Eden." The curriculum at that time in Canada heavily favored British writers. Only later, on my own, would I discover the richness in Canadian, American, African, Indian, Russian and Swedish writers. I had been solidly catechized in my youth and, while the catechism held my faith, literature held my theology.
But after literature came philosophy. As part of preparation for ordination, we were required to do a degree in philosophy. I was blessed with some fine teachers and fell into first fervor in terms of my love of philosophy. The courses then heavily favored Scholasticism (Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas), but we were also given a sound history of philosophy and a basic grounding in Existentialism and some of the contemporary philosophical movements. I was smitten; philosophy became my theology.
But after philosophy came theology. After our philosophical studies, we were required to take a four-year degree in theology prior to ordination. Again, I was blessed with good teachers and blessed to be studying theology just as Vatican II and a rich new theological scholarship were beginning to penetrate theological schools and seminaries.
There was theological excitement aplenty, and I shared in it. In Roman Catholic circles, we were reading Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Schnackenburg and Raymond Brown. Protestant circles were giving us Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, and a bevy of wonderful Scripture scholars. The faith of my youth was finally finding the intellectual grounding it had forever sought. Theology became my new passion.
But after theology came spirituality. After ordination, I was given the opportunity to do a graduate degree in theology. That degree deepened immeasurably my love for and commitment to theology. It also landed me a teaching job, and for the next six years I taught theology at a graduate level. These were wonderful years; I was where I most wanted to be, in a theology classroom. During those six years, however, I began to explore the writings of the mystics and launch some courses in spirituality, beginning with a course on the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross.
My doctoral studies followed those years and while I focused on systematic theology, writing my thesis in the area of natural theology, something had begun to shift in me. I found myself more and more, both in teaching and writing, shifting into the area of spirituality, so much so that after a few years I could no longer justify calling some of my former courses in systematic theology by their old catalogue titles. Honesty compelled me now to name them courses in spirituality.
And what is spirituality? How is it different from theology? At one level, there’s no difference. Spirituality is, in effect, applied theology. They are of one and the same piece, either ends of the same sock. But here’s a difference: Theology defines the playing field, defines the doctrines, distinguishes truth from falsehood, and seeks to enflame the intellectual imagination. It is what it classically claims itself to be: Faith seeking understanding.
But, rich and important as that is, it’s not the game. Theology makes up the rules for the game, but it doesn’t do the playing nor decide the outcome. That’s the role of spirituality, even as it needs to be obedient to theology. Without sound theology, spirituality always falls into unbridled piety, unhealthy individualism, and self-serving fundamentalism. Only good, rigorous, academic theology saves us from these.
But without spirituality, theology too easily becomes only an intellectual aesthetic, however beautiful. It’s one thing to have coherent truth and sound doctrine; it’s another thing to give that actual human flesh, on the streets, in our homes, and inside our own restless questioning and doubt. Theology needs to give us truth; spirituality needs to break open that truth.
And so I’ve come full circle. From the storybooks of my childhood, through the Shakespeare of my high school, through the novelists and poets of my undergraduate years, through the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, through the theology of Rahner and Tillich, through the Scripture scholarship of Raymond Brown and Ernst Kasemann, through the hermeneutics of the post-modernists of my post-graduate years, through 40 years of teaching theology, I’ve landed where I started – still searching for good stories that feed the soul.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. Contact him through his website: ronrolheiser.com.