Psychology and Theology

Exploring Contemporary Christian Spirituality: Origins & Diversity

Course Description

This course explores some of the diversity of contemporary Christian spirituality. Contemporary Christian spiritualities will be contextualized historically in terms of their development: from pre-Christian Greek philosophy and Old Testament prophecy through their theological-practical elaboration from the Desert Fathers & Mothers to monasticism, and across the Middle ages as mystical theology. Discussion will aim to balance the threefold branching of Christianity into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Our contemporary pluralistic globalizing context will situate current interest in and the formation of Christian spirituality today. 

Course Objectives

This course explores, rather than surveys, a number of forms of contemporary Christian spirituality. It is selective, not exhaustive; students are to gain an appreciation of the diversity of Christian spirituality as well as a better understanding of the origins of this diversity in the rich and deep (diversity of!) spiritual traditions of Christianity. Much of contemporary spirituality in western Christianity is experimental: this course approaches such experimentation critically, i.e. appreciating what is authentic and good while criticizing what is inauthentic or misguided in such experimentation. On the one hand, we want to be wary of “experimenting” with faith, as if it is one more commodity to be consumed for our personal interest, instead of taken deeply and seriously as a commitment of one’s whole being and as embodying our relation to God. On the other hand, we do not want to minimize the mysteriousness of how God works, nor let beliefs, doctrines, or fear rule out the living experience of the spirit in our lives, and in these respects we should be open to the experiential-within-the-experimental. Note that this tension – between suspicion and openness – might well be taking new forms today, but the tension itself is as old as Christianity, whether Jesus debating the Pharisees on how to interpret the law, or systematic theologians accusing “mystical theologians” of heresy.

The openness to the experiential aspect within spirituality, and thus a focus on spirituality as felt, practiced, and disciplined, rather than as belief system, metaphysical theory, or doctrine, is also why the course is cross-listed as a psychology course. Much of “ancient spirituality” is being revisited, appropriated, re-examined, and newly appreciated for its profound psychology. In addition to academic study of texts to inform and contextualize contemplation, this course emphasizes the experiential aspect of spirituality as practiced (and therefore, necessarily, as contemporary!). Psychological research documenting the effects of spirituality will be examined and discussed, the relationship between contemplation and other forms of spiritual discipline will be considered, and contemporary psychological understandings of motivation, consciousness, the ego and ego-development, will be incorporated into our study of Christian spirituality. Students will be required to engage in some type of experiential practice as part of the expectations of this course.

Required Texts:

Nataraja, K., (Ed.). (2012). Journey to the heart: Christian contemplation through the centuries – an illustrated guide. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Recommended Texts:  

Bourgeault, Cynthia. (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications. 

Ware, K., & Leclerq, J. (1985).Ways of prayer and contemplation: Eastern & Western, in Christian spirituality: origins to the twelfth century, edited by Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff, pp. 395-426. New York: Crossroad.

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