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PROTESTANT SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
THEOLOGY HISTORY AND PRACTICE
By Joseph D. Driskill
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1999Joseph D. Driskill
All rights reserved.
A recent conversation with an evangelical African American colleague of mine alerted me to a freedom most mainline Protestants take for granted—the lack of anxiety about whether they are going to heaven or hell. She said, "It was revolutionary for me as an evangelical to realize that mainline Protestants have not lost a single night's sleep in their entire lives worrying about whether they are going to get into heaven." "Honey," she continued, "that's liberation for an evangelical!" A little further in the conversation she noted, "But I need Jesus. I can't get through a single day without Jesus. You white liberals don't need Jesus like I do ... to cope with the racism and gender bias that are a part of daily life for me." Then she smiled her infectious, accepting smile and said, "In a way I feel you are missing something. I just have this sense that you all may not have as close an experiential relationship with God as I do. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be the object of racism or sound presumptuous. But I am grateful that God walks with me each day and keeps me going."
Many mainline Protestants could not speak of God in this way for a number of reasons, among them being the general inability to use theological discourse to describe an experiential or personal relationship with God. As noted in the Introduction to this book, this type of "God talk" has been taboo in many Protestant churches. This discourse is frequently identified with a "me and Jesus" faith paradigm assumed to represent an internally focused concern for individual salvation that ignores social ills and encourages a naive worldview where God's sweetness and light are focused upon, to the exclusion of the hidden, self-serving motivations characteristic of human existence. The ingrained aversion to this kind of "me and Jesus" approach to God has permeated much Protestant congregational life.
As white mainline Protestants increasingly converse with African American Christians in the black church (often in the same denomination), the Caucasians are discovering that having a relationship with Jesus does not necessarily fit the "me and Jesus" stereotype described above. Clearly, the woman who spoke with me—whose relationship with God leads her to work for social justice, to nurture her own growth in faithfulness, and to endure sexism and racism at the hands of others—cannot be described as participating in an experiential relationship with a God interested primarily in personal salvation, sweetness, and light!
As ecumenical and interfaith dialogues increase, many Protestants are discovering that there are a number of ways to speak of an experiential relationship with the Godhead. For example, as noted in this book's Introduction, spiritual directors and retreat leaders in the Roman Catholic Church use theological language to describe an experiential relationship with the sacred. They speak of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit in ways that bring theological reflection out of the realm of abstraction and into the arena of daily life. These examples from an African American Protestant woman and the Roman Catholic tradition make it apparent that many religious traditions have kept alive theological reflections and practices that nurture the spiritual life of their members.
Many mainline Protestants are just now becoming aware of what the Roman Catholics call ascetical theology, mystical theology, and spiritual theology. Ascetical theology is concerned with the spiritual practices that deepen our faith; it focuses on spiritual practices and various forms of prayer that deepen our relationship with the sacred. Mystical theology, on the other hand, deals with the fruits of spiritual practices—the nature of the faith development that the ascetical practices make possible. As Christian mystics gain increasing attention today, the works of Ignatius of Loyola are used to teach methods of prayer, self-examination, and spiritual discernment, whereas those of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are probed for their insights into the fruits of mystical prayer. These rich theological traditions of the pre-Reformation church, especially as they address issues of spiritual development, are being rediscovered and used today by searching, thoughtful, mainline Protestants.
Although the rubrics of ascetical theology and mystical theology were used more prominently earlier in this century to describe this religious literature, since Vatican II such reflection has generally been encompassed by the category "spiritual theology." This area of study deals not simply with asceticism and mysticism, but with a broader understanding of spirituality that brings it into the purview of all of life.
The lack of attention by mainline Protestants to ascetical, mystical, and spiritual theologies resulted in the loss of contact with spiritual practices, including various forms of prayer and spiritual disciplines. As a result, in recent decades many Protestants found they had no avenue of access that opened believers to an experiential relationship with God. Without the benefit of an experiential relationship with God or the theological reflections that inform and sustain spiritual practices, mainline Protestants have been denied an important source of religious insight. It is these disciplines that can provide an experiential relationship with the sacred and a means for deepening one's faith. By not focusing on these spiritual traditions, or even keeping them alive, the experiences that they provided were also lost.
The current interest in integrating intellectual curiosities with faith- transforming practices is leading mainline Protestants to reexamine their history from the lens provided by spirituality. As these seekers within graduate theological programs explore ascetical and mystical theologies of the Roman Catholic Church, many are being inspired to view their own traditions from this perspective. Consequently, a number of characteristics of mainline Protestant spirituality are emerging that have heretofore not been fully explored, in part because they were not identified as the work of the Spirit. It is important to begin this chapter on theological insights with elements of the mainline Protestant tradition that need to be celebrated as gifts of the Spirit.
The Gifts of the Spirit
The Ethical Conscience
The theological affirmations that inform spiritual practices need to be consonant with the Protestant heritage that has brought many blessings to its communities of faith. At their best, mainline Protestant traditions exercise judicious leadership in the arenas of ethical reflection and social action. Those in positions of church leadership frequently feel a sense of solidarity with victims of oppression and work to rectify social, political, and economic inequities. Women's rights and issues, from ordination to the prevention of physical abuse, have become important on denominational agendas; ministries of social justice and economics both domestically and internationally are supported; issues involving human rights and sexuality—abortion, sexual expression, justice for gays and lesbians—are being debated. Although policies related to social issues do not always receive enthusiastic endorsements from all quarters of the church, attention to them is still a defining characteristic of mainline Protestant traditions.
The ethical conscience, especially as it relates to social concerns, is at the heart of mainline Protestant life. Pastoral theologian Seward Hiltner probably speaks for many mainline Protestants when he says that people come closest to God when they come closest to following their ethical conscience. The identification of "
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Table of Contents
1. Theological Affirmations
2. The Development of the Spiritual Life
3. Guidelines for Using Spiritual Practices
4. Spiritual Practices