Divine Action, Discernment and Predestination 

The ability to point to an event and name it as divine action is a fundamental characteristic of Christian life. To say, “God did this,” is ingredient to the life of one who knows Christ. “God healed my mother”; “God answered my prayer”; “God sent his Son”. Without the ability to utter such statements in knowledge, one could not be a Christian.

Yet the ability to make such statements knowingly is a matter of discernment. The knowledge needed to truthfully name an event as divine action and not, say, chance or nature or, in a different way, human action, is not always readily available. Sometimes it must be discerned.

In some cases, this is simpler. For example, where Scripture speaks of a past event, such as God’s sending of his Son Jesus or deliverance of Israel from Egypt, we have God’s own testimony to his action. Sometimes we are able to extrapolate from testified past divine action to discern God’s hand in the present: the healing of cancer is like God’s past healing of leprous Naaman or Miriam.

Other times, however, discerning whether or not God has acted in a certain way is difficult. This is especially so, it seems, in that particular divine action called predestination, by which God predestines his own in Christ for eternal life. That God has predestined us for eternal life is evident from the testimony of Scripture: “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭1:5‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Who “we” — the object of this divine action — are, however, is ultimately difficult to discern.

In fact, John suggests that the identities of God’s predestined people are sometimes discerned only retroactively. He writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us”‭‭ (1 John‬ ‭2:19‬ ‭ESV‬). This should, of course, suggest that discerning another’s predestination is something from which we should abstain.

It is crucial that Christians be able to confidently and knowingly name certain divine actions, such as God’s creation of the world and salvation of the world in Christ. Others, though, are properly hidden from our discernment, available to our eyes only retroactively, once they have taken place in their full eventuality — once, in other words, God brings all things to completion in Jesus Christ.

What is Spirituality?

What is spirituality? It is often a loose term, whose use justifies a lot of nonsense. Christians, however, have always had a good idea of what could be meant by “spirituality,” even where the word itself was absent. That is because Christians have a very definite idea of what the difference is between the Spirit and spirits. This is perhaps more important for us to recognize than past generations, because one of the effects of secularism is the loss of the sense of “true” and “false,” to the benefit of the “personally meaningful.” This distinction–between “true” and “false”–makes sense of Christian thought. One can’t make sense of the Bible without it: true and false prophets (Deut. 13:1-5); true and false gods (Ex. 12:12; Ps. 96:5; Is. 44:6-20); true and false Christs (Matt. 24:4-5); true and false religion (James 1:27); true and false spirits (1 John 4:1-6).

When Aquinas, then, comes to speak of makes a person “spiritual,” he does so by talking about the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, the true Spirit of God, separates a “spiritual” person from a merely “natural” person, or worse. These are his comments on 1 Corinthians 2:15, “The spiritual person judges all things.”

A person can be called “spiritual” in two senses. In one sense, with regard to the understanding being illuminated by the Spirit of God. For this reason, the Gloss says, “A person is spiritual who, obedient to the Holy Spirit, knows spiritual things faithfully and with the highest degree of certainty.” In another sense, with regard to the will being set aflame by the Holy Spirit. And the Gloss speaks of this sense as follows, “A spiritual life is that by which the Spirit of God has governance, guiding the soul, that is, the natural powers.” (In I Cor. 2.3.117)

Aquinas elaborates on this quite a bit in other writings, particularly in the sections of the Summa theologiae on the theological virtue of faith (2a2ae.1-16). It can put in a much more complicated way, but it can also be put much more simply: a spiritual person is that person illuminated by and set on fire by the Holy Spirit, or even more simply, a spiritual person is that person who has the Spirit of God. Anything else would be a false spirituality.

On Experience

It depends how you define it, but “experience” probably needs to play more of a role in theology than it does. How can it not? Taken at its broadest, “experience” simply means everything that happens, all that occurs, as it enters the field of human awareness. Thus, revelation itself is one particular form of experience–the experience of God showing himself; the reading of Scripture is an experience; praying, being baptized, and thinking about the Trinity are all experiences in this sense.

Typically, experience gets slagged, I think, because of two fears. They are two narrowings of the notion of experience. The first is the fear that granting “experience” a role means granting that an individual’s experiences shape their theology. But of course the individual–along with their experiences–shapes their theology: the real question is whether they are going to shape it apart from Scripture (and the Church and its tradition). So bad theology takes the form: “God for me is more like…” Good theology proceeds in the light of revelation, in the form given to it by particular individuals.

The second fear, closely related to the first, is that “experience” will form some kind of second (or third or fourth) source after and potentially against Scripture. It can. But it doesn’t have to. Certain forms of feminism want to leverage women’s experience against parts of Scripture. But if reading Scripture is itself an experience, then their relationship is a bit more complex. Experience is properly the all-encompassing web–from the human side, for experience too is a creature–within which the reading of Scripture is an event, a particular experience. And further, we should not assume we know what we are experiencing. Only after the resurrection, and then sometimes only gradually, did the apostles discover what they had experienced (John 2:22). Note the past tense. Put starkly, the unbeliever thinks they are experiencing life, but the Christian understands it is really death they know (1 Tim 5:6).

All this is to say: spiritual theology is important. And how did we get here? Well, any spiritual writer worth their salt–Augustine, Merton, those collected in the Philokalia–knows that we are often willing to deceive ourselves about what we experience. We only know in part the realities of which the Bible speaks (1 Cor 13:12). As Merton puts it, “Yet we act as if we understood sin and as if we were really aware of the love of God when we have never deeply experienced the meaning of either one” (A Search for Solitude, 23). And sometimes we know them plain wrongly: in 1966, Merton had an affair with a nurse. At the time he talked of the “mysterious, transcendent presence of her essential self,” but later he was able to see it as “incredible stupidity” (The Intimate Merton, 297, 336). The deception is not always so severe, and sometimes, when we are given the grace, we are able to see with gratitude-inducing clarity the traces of God’s work in our lives.

“Experience,” then, is not something that has to be excluded from theology; rather, it has only to be named. And it can be named as limited, healthy, destructive–more theologically, as “sin” or as “grace,” as “death” or as “life.” Indeed, so objective a thinker as Aquinas can say, that “anyone may know,” at least “conjecturally,” that “he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things” (ST I-II Q112 A5). A theologian who does not experience the realities of which he speaks, who is not “delighting in God,” will write a theology that at best sounds oddly hollow, and at worst is false and destructive of faith.

But we must trust that Paul’s prayer is for us as well: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19a).

The Spiritual Character of Theology

If theology is a spiritual task, then might it not follow the same sort of pattern as the spiritual life? Might spiritual blindness, sin, rebellion, light, faithfulness and fellowship with God not mark the character of a theology? And might spiritual maturity then be a factor in how we present theological knowledge? That is, is the fullness of orthodoxy only to be taught to the “mature” (1 Cor. 2:6)? Love of novelty, for instance, can be a sign of both pride and immaturity, preventing one from accepting the truths of Christian faith in favour of something newer and more appealing–the Fathers always asserted the ancientness of their message over against the innovations of heretics.

Perhaps, then, one’s own development in theology follows something like the classic three-stage model of spiritual progress–though, as Sarah Coakley warns, these are not three discrete stages: “[W]hile the distinction between levels has an important heuristic value, in the messy reality of life the levels may not clearly supersede one another but blend into a continuous whole” (“Deepening Practices,” 79). It begins with the “purgative” stage, the stage of repentance, turning from sin and renouncing the world. Our understandings of God, our persistent tendency to (even conceptual) idolatry and our materialistic thinking all need to be checked. Augustine highlights the latter when he writes of the person who “can only think of masses and spaces, little or great, with images of bodies flitting around in his mind like ghosts” when thinking of the immaterial God  (On the Trinity, 7.11).

The second stage is the “illuminative.” It is characterized by what Coakley calls “a habituating of love” and is less focused on the renunciation of the world as on growth in and imitation “in a more than extrinsic way” of Christ’s life (86). The illuminative stage is one of progressive deepening, of a fellowship with God in which we are shown new truths–or rather, the ancient truths bathed in an ever new light. This may correspond to the ever deepening understanding of God’s revelation which, like a prism, casts light in all directions and invites ever new reflection. As von Balthasar writes, the task of theology “[t]hrough the millenia” has been the “understanding, in ever new and different ways, of the same love of God in Christ” (Glory of the Lord 7, 103 n.12).

The final stage is the “unitive.” Here, depending, I suppose, on one’s theology (!) the person is given, in rare moments–if, indeed, at all–ecstatic experiences where the presence of God is so intimate, so close, so full that the distinction between God and I seems to disappear completely. Merton describes it this way: “If a man who had thus been vindicated and delivered and fulfilled and destroyed could think and speak at all it would certainly never be to think and speak of himself as something separate, or as the subject of an experience” (New Seeds, 248-49). And here is the intriguing pinch for theology: when one of the greatest theologians to ever live, St. Thomas Aquinas, had just such an experience, he ceased writing theology. For he claimed, “Everything I have written seems to me so much straw compared with what I have seen” (After Aquinas, 1).

Christ, Made Without Hands

Christos Acheiropoiētos, Novgorod, Russia, 12th century.

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.'” (Mark 14:58)

“For we know that if the earthly house of our tent is dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1)

Christ, made without hands, ascended to the heavens. Christ, made without hands, ascended to the heavens.
May your body become for us a temple, full of the glory of the Eternal.

Soskice on Mystics and Language

Janet Martin Soskice, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, defends the realism behind descriptions of mystical experience:

Consider accounts of religious or mystical experience; the mystic, as we have noted, often feels a crisis of descriptive language because there do not seem to be words and concepts in the common stock adequate to his or her experience. This straining of linguistic resources leads to the catachretical employment of metaphor, of phrases like ‘the dark night’, ‘the spiritual marriage’, and ‘mystic union’. But the significance of these terms can be assessed, even by other theists, only in terms of the contexts in which they arise… Often, too, it will be found that the mystic’s remarks arise from particular patterns of devotional life; hence the common injunction that the neophyte follow a particular course of life, of reading and of prayer so that he may, by God’s grace, be open to this ‘night’ or ‘marriage’. Experience is vital to the mystic, but experience interpreted in the descriptive vocabulary of their particular community of interest and tradition of belief.

This emphasis on experience does not mean that only those privileged with mystical experiences can speak about them. The generality of Christians speak of the ‘beatific vision’ without having had experiences which they would describe as such. They do so because they belong to a community and tradition of faith which contains authoritative members for whom the term does denominate a particular experience. There is an element of trust involved in relying on others who experience is wider than one’s own, yet in almost all areas of life this is the perfectly rational enterprise of using the wider resources of the community to extend one’s own, and necessarily limited, experience and expertise. (Metaphor and Religious Language, 151-2)

These ‘authoritative members’ are, of course, the saints, whose own intimate encounters with God ground our language about him, so many years later or across continents. They also provide a sort of guideline for figuring out how to grow deeply into God, as we may recognize similar experiences of a ‘dark night of the soul’ or an intimate ‘spiritual marriage.’

Von Balthasar and the Reformation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, among the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, unfolds in the early part of his trilogy a theology of Christian experience. Here the saints play a very interesting role as those who exemplify the Christian life which simply is the conformity to Christ’s form (von Balthasar’s first volume is entitled “Seeing the Form”). Between different saints, however, von Balthasar discerns different patterns of experiencing this path. Particularly interesting is his distinction between the experiences of the apostles Paul and John:

If we pass from Paul to John, who constitutes the second classical instance of a New Testament theology of experience, we leave a spiritual world which is impetuous and agitated almost in a violent sense and enter the calm of what “abides.” Paul’s fundamental experience is that of being snatched up by Christ’s dynamis [Greek, “power”] from one aeon and being transferred to the other. Paul overwhelms us because he has himself been overwhelmed. Damascus is a flash of lightning and remains such for the rest of the Apostle’s life. John, on the other hand, has been marked out ever since his first meeting with Jesus at the Jordan… To be sure, John too is one transported by love; but he is so profoundly at rest in this movement that, for him, it becomes the very presence of eternity… (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 232-233)

In this light, it makes sense to see Paul speaking of the battle with the spiritual powers and authorities, the need for spiritual armour, the struggle with the sinful nature so central to his life (esp. Romans 7), and the bitter clashes with his opponents in the churches. From John, however, we are presented with a picture of calm repose, even at those moments in his gospel which in the others are full of agony. On the cross, Jesus’ life ends not with the dramatic cry as in Mark’s gospel (15:34), but with the composed, “It is finished” (19:30). Now, this difference should not be overplayed, but it is striking.

Striking especially in light of the historical circumstances that generated the Reformation. A certain monk, Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order—Augustine’s theology being strongly influenced by Paul—was greatly troubled over his sinfulness and lack of assurance. Luther was continuously plagued by Anfechtung, or “tempting attacks.” Only in reading the first chapter of Romans, with its teaching of justification by faith, did he find himself totally carried away, relieved, transported to a place of comfort and solace. The same sort of pattern is seen in Kierkegaard, perhaps the paradigmatic Protestant, who spoke similarly of Anfægtelse, or “spiritual trials.” (See the excellent article, “The Lightning and the Earthquake,” by Podmore.) This bloomed in Barth’s early dialectical theology of Krisis where Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distance” between God and humanity is unfolded in all its purity.

This genealogy—Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth—suggests a highly significant set of questions, again in light of von Balthasar’s earlier distinction between Pauline and Johannine types of Christian experience or spiritualities: Would the Reformation have occurred if Luther had been formed in a Johannine spirituality of eternal rest? If Luther had been, say, a Benedictine or Franciscan rather than an Augustinian monk? Would it have taken another avenue, perhaps waiting the 20 years for Calvin to begin it? Would it have ended with the Catholics and Reformers so violently opposed? Perhaps most interesting to me, and ecumenically significant: Can the history of the last 500 years between Protestants and Catholics be helpfully read as a history of spirituality? And will this reading allow us to come back to one another once again?