Issue Date: July 15, 2005
'Doctrines are benchmarks of wisdom'
Amid confusion of spiritual resources, tradition offers guides
By DENNIS CODAY
Spirituality is a hot topic and big business today.
Publishers Weekly found last year that 18 percent of the 10,000 consumers it surveyed had purchased a spiritual or religious book in the past year. The largest group of buyers, 28 percent, were between 25 and 34 years old.
Religious books have emerged as the most impressive growth category in the book publishing industry over the past four years, according to Book Industry Trends 2005, a study released in May by the the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association. Sales of religion and spirituality books grew 11 percent in 2004, the study found, accounting for nearly 6.6 percent of the book industrys $28.6 in revenues last year.
Its a phenomenon noticed by Catholic theologians. And it can be confusing, said Colleen Griffith, director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College.
How does one sort through contemporary best sellers like The Celestine Prophecies, Embraced by the Light and Care of the Soul, which get placed on the same bookshelves as St. Augustines Confessions, Teresa of Avilas Interior Castle and The Cloud of Unknowing? What an odd phenomenon, Griffith said in her talk at Spirituality for the 21st Century: Experiencing God in the Catholic Tradition, a seminar held June 4 in Kansas City, Mo.
What is spirituality anyhow? Griffith asked. The question seems like an existentially urgent one in our time. For we are, as Peter Steinfels said, a people adrift, a people searching.
Simply put, we are getting tired of being harried, hassled and agitated with a utilitarian outlook and having a hard time being centered. Were fragmented enough. Were looking for something else. In that search for something deeper, there is no shortage of resources, she said.
There are options galore for spiritual pilgrims of every stripe. So where does one look for guidance when deciding about spiritual practices? Griffith asked.
When the seminar organizers chose the days topic, said Richard Miller, the principal organizer, they were reacting to the explosion of spiritual resources and the often heard phrase: Im spiritual but not religious.
Miller quoted sociologist Robert Wuthnow saying that because of changes in U.S. culture, the foundations of religious traditions seem to be less secure than in the past. Insisting that old phrases are cant, many Americans struggle to invent new language to describe their faith. As they do, their beliefs are becoming more eclectic and their commitments becoming private.
Miller suggested that perhaps one reason for the ascendancy of spirituality and the decline of religion is that religious traditions have failed to consistently make clear the connection between their doctrine and the spiritual lives of the members of their community.
This conference, Miller said, hopes to clarify the connection between the central mysteries of the Catholic faith and spirituality. The one-day conference featured sessions on spirituality and the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Eucharist.
Fr. Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College, said in his talk, For spirituality to be sane and firmly rooted and for the churchs tradition to be vital and inspiring, it is crucial that the connection be made clear. We must see how our spirituality is grounded in the tradition of Catholic belief.
Miller said the discussion about dogmas and doctrines is not a heavy-handed attempt to prescribe a monolithic spirituality. For as will become clear today, there is not and never has been a single Catholic spirituality. Rather a number of spiritualities have flourished in the Catholic tradition.
Mentioned throughout the day were the spiritual traditions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Sts. Francis and Clare, St. Benedict, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as well as the writings of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Karl Rahner among others.
Miller said, The symbols around which any Christian spirituality is formed, while being true, do not exhaust the ways to God. He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, There are as many ways to God as there are men and women.
Griffith said, Most Christians assume that doctrines are judicial and legislative propositions to which Christians give assent. She said, The primary purpose of doctrines is to be evocative, to nurture the Christian communitys relationship with Christ.
Doctrines are benchmarks of Christian wisdom over time, she said. They are expressions of a Christian communitys insight into the meaning of Christ. As a response to the mystery of God in Christ, no single doctrine, nor all of them cumulatively for that matter, ever exhaust the reality of that mystery.
Proceedings of the seminar are available from Liguori Publications.
Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005
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