Spirituality for Protestants

by Matthew Fox

Father Fox, a Dominican Priest, is director of the Institute in Creation-Centered Spirituality at Mundelein College in Chicago. His most recent book is Whee! We, Wee All the Way Home: A Guide to the New Sensual Spirituality. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 2-9, 1978, pp. 731-736. Copyright by The Christian Cent

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 2-9, 1978, pp. 731-736. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christians need to get themselves together on what spirituality is and is not, on what false conceptions they carry with them, and on what the spiritual challenges of our time are asking of them.

Recently, when I was invited to speak on spirituality to a Protestant group, one well-intentioned minister objected: "I hope this isn’t going to be an exercise in belly-button gazing." Given the tenor of our times, he had good reason for concern. Tom Wolfe has labeled the ‘70s the "Me Decade," and there is much truth to his criticism. A neognosticism from the secular sphere and a warmed-over Neoplatonism from the Constantinian religious era threaten to torpedo authentic efforts at spiritual renewal.

If we are to be saved from these threats, we Christians need to get ourselves together on what spirituality is and is not, on what false conceptions we carry with us, and on what the spiritual challenges of our time are asking of us. A spirituality that is, in Socrates’ words, "unexamined" -- that is to say, one that is uncritical or ahistorical -- will be particularly vulnerable to the process of spiritualization. (Note carefully the distinction between the two.)

I address myself to Protestant misconceptions not because they are greater than or altogether different from Catholic ones, but because, just as Catholicism today is discovering its latent protest or prophecy, so Protestantism is discovering its latent mysticism. The release of pent-up spiritual forces is one of the graces of the ecumenical movement. No longer need we pretend that Catholicism is about mysticism and Protestantism about prophecy.

What Is Spirituality?

First, let me make some general observations on spirituality.

1. Spirituality is not religion. Today Christian people are eager for less religion and more spirituality. But what is spirituality? Is it what the pop spiritual hucksters, enterprising entrepreneurs and long-famished book publishers are selling us?

A scholar on Jewish spirituality not long ago opened a talk with these words: "Christians need to learn that Judaism is not a religion but a way of life." That is precisely what spirituality is also: a way of living together and in depth (cf. Acts 9:12). It is clear from Acts that the early church understood itself as way rather than as religion. Religion is what empires need to sustain themselves; spirituality is what people need to sustain themselves. The Constantinian era demanded that Christianity be a religion instead of a way of life. The thirst for spirituality today parallels the awareness that the Constantinian era -- God rest its soul! -- is dead. It has been 16 centuries since the Christian church has been so free to be a way. Clearly, a spiritual energy explosion is upon us in the West.

2. Neo platonic versus biblical spirituality. I have called spirituality "a way of living in this world," but Neoplatonists suggest a different definition: that it is a way of escaping this world; putting to death the senses; fleeing the body, history and the body politic. True to its Greek origins, this tradition defines the spiritual as the immaterial -- this world, our bodies and our experiences are only shadows, while the real spiritual world exists someplace else where truth, beauty and justice last forever.

I would strongly suggest that this flight-from-the-world spirituality is a heresy. Indeed, it was condemned as such in its Manichean and Albigensian expressions. Neoplatonism deserves the title of heresy because it is an insult to creation and to incarnation. It strongly suggests that God was mistaken in making us bodily, sensual, temporal and subject to nature’s cycles of life and death, and that Jesus was not made flesh after all. Unless my biology is faulty, the good news of the incarnation is that God became an animal -- a mammal, homo sapiens. The ever-popular spirituality of Neoplatonism has often been condemned, and yet it persists today as the prevailing spirituality of most Christians.

The alternative to Neoplatonic spirituality is biblical spirituality wherein, according to Jewish thought, the human person is not at war, body versus soul; time is not an ugly, degenerative process to flee from but rather an occasion for giving birth -- a birth wherein God’s justice takes flesh in human society’s institutions. "To know Yahweh is to do justice," says the prophet Jeremiah. What a far cry this statement is from a gnostic Neoplatonism wherein to know the One is to huddle alone with the One.

"Spirituality" for the Jews comes from the words for life, so that to be spiritual is to be spirited. To have a spiritual experience is to be moved: goose-bumps are evidence of such an experience! Or, one might say, the euphoria perceived by some as drunkenness on the occasion of the church’s birthday, the first Pentecost. In any case, the biblical contribution to spirituality is not to belittle this world in order to indulge in an otherworldly exaltation but rather to keep our feet in the soil of this good earth and our hands in the soiled workings of human culture and history in order to re-create them.

3. Morality contrasted to spirituality. Morality asks the question, What rules do we need to survive together? How shall we survive? Spirituality asks the question, Why survive at all? Morality presumes spirituality and is subject to it in the sense that the "why" precedes the "how." Spirituality presumes some kind of morality, though not necessarily that of the prevailing cultural ethos. For example, a morality of consciousness-raising will nurture a spirituality different from that nurtured by a morality of conscience-formation.

Protestant Misconceptions

A groundwork for understanding the term "spirituality" having been laid, some misconceptions I have observed in Protestant circles can now be explicated.

1. That Augustine was the first (or the last) word in spirituality. While not decrying the stature of Augustine and the immensity of his thought, I do regret his influence. It is due to him, above all, that the albatross of Neoplatonism still weighs so heavily about our necks. His dualistic psychology should be seen for what it is: a put-down of the "inferior" human activities of the body, time and multiplicity by the "superior" activities of intellect, will and memory. Augustine, writing as he did at the collapse of the Roman Empire and the dawning of the church’s empire, removed sin from the body politic (he justified war in the name of the empire) to the body (sex is a duty -- and then only for the weak). He also raised realized eschatology to a political triumphalism: the church was God’s kingdom on earth.

No serious student of spirituality can deny that Augustine’s has been a weighty influence in the spiritualizing of spirituality. There will be no spiritual renewal without going back to pre-Augustiflian sources, especially to Jewish, biblical thinking. Augustine’s psychologizing of love, removing it from biblical, prophetic justice, has done the West more harm than good in the long run. Jose Miranda puts the results bluntly: "One of the most disastrous errors in the history of Christianity is to have tried -- under the influence of Greek definitions -- to differentiate between love and justice" (Marx and the Bible, p. 6i).

I am continually amazed at how many Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) come out of the woodwork at any threat to their Augustinian non-biblical categories. It is almost as though they had taken a vow to remain true to Augustine’s psychology and sociology instead of to the death and rebirth of Jesus. A spiritual renewal requires that we practice some of the detachment that Neoplatonists are so fond of preaching about: in this case, a detachment from the dualisms and Neoplatonic flights of Augustine’s spirituality.

2. That Christian spirituality is a unity. There does not exist just one way to live out the Lord’s injunctions: such was never the case, even in the Gospel traditions or in the early church as reported in Acts or Paul’s letters. Our unity is in faith and love but not in ways. Perhaps our presumptions about there being one (usually eternal) way derive from Neoplatonic suppositions wherein multiplicity is evil and is to be eschewed for the divine One. Or perhaps it derives from our lack of imagination.

Engaged with a team of Lutherans in planning a "retreat," I was asked to devise a "monastic meditation experience" for the participants. I complained: "But I am a Dominican- You should have invited a Benedictine or a Trappist if you wanted monastic spirituality." My Lutheran friends were interested in what for them was a new distinction. The fact is that Dominicans were antimonastic. The order arose in response against the withdrawal of the monks in an age when society was in profound flux. Dominicans are friars, not monks, and there exists a world of spiritual differences between the two.

The differences in spiritualities were profoundly felt at the time when these orders represented living ways: not only did monks fight with friars (symbolically and literally), but among monks varying spiritualities developed as between Benedictine and Trappist, and between Trappists of stricter or lesser observance. And predictably, the friars also split their respective spiritual ways, with Dominicans fighting Franciscans and the Franciscans fighting one another, and later the Jesuits fighting just about everybody.

My point is that one of the richest legacies of the church’s historical quest for spirituality is the variety of efforts. As a historian of spiritualities, I tend to see the Protestant split into many denominations as a bona fide parallel to the medieval and postmedieval multiplication of orders and spiritual ways. The lesson to be learned is the value of diversity; our challenge today is to develop, with equal imagination and enthusiasm, a diversity of spiritualities that corresponds to people’s diverse needs, keeping in view the love-justice that unites all of us and a common faith in creation and incarnation.

Ignoring the Past

3. That the Middle Ages were the Dark Ages. I recall from high school days a book on the history of science whose section on the Middle Ages consisted of four blank pages! That kind of ignorance is still all too much with us. To cite one example: in using Peter Berger’s A Rumor of Angels as a text for a sociology and religion course, I was amazed to read that "it was Protestantism that first underwent the onslaught of secularization" (p. 15). Wrong! Precisely what the church of the 12th and 13th century was grappling with -- in spiritualities, church and temporal law, politics, economics, marriage and religious life styles -- was the question of secularization versus sacralization. And the birth of the mendicant orders was one of the church’s all-time creative responses to that crisis.

Prejudice and ignorance about the Middle Ages invite all the disasters that historians warn for those who ignore the past: that they will repeat it. The 12th and i 3th cepturies were a period of remarkable spiritual ferment in society and church, and to be ignorant of that fact is to be out of touch with important roots of today’s society and Western spiritual history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as much:

I wonder whether it is possible . . . to regain the idea of the Church as providing an understanding of the area of freedom (art, education, friendship, play)? I really think that is so and it would mean that we should recover a link with the Middle Ages. Who is there, for instance, in our times, who can devote himself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games, or happiness? [Letters and Papers from Prison].

Seven centuries ago Aquinas, in an age that venerated Augustine as an authority, broke with him on key issues of spirituality such as matter, time, women, history and the importance of the natural sciences. Perhaps if more persons knew this fact, they would feel freer to go beyond Augustine. And, one hopes, beyond Aquinas.

4 That a redemption spirituality is the only option for Christians. One more dubious legacy from Augustine is his preoccupation with the fall at the expense of the creation. It has always struck me as noteworthy that the Jews, who had wrestled with Genesis 800 years longer than Christians had, never found it necessary to speak of -- much less found a spiritual theology on -- original sin. And yet Augustine is so taken with the fall and therefore with redemption as salvation from the fall that I have wondered whether someone tore the first page (Genesis 1) from his Bible!

There is a simpler explanation, however. Neoplatonists are notoriously inept at fitting biblical creation into their scheme of things, because for them emanation (under which they subsume any creation) is necessary. There is little or no sense of the Creator’s theophany in nature or in natural events for such a world view.

Though the fall-redemption spiritual theme has occupied Western spirituality since Augustine, it is not the only option Christians have. Creation-centered spirituality, one that begins with Genesis 1, where God made the universe and the earth "good" and humankind "very good" and in the divine image and likeness, is a far more authentic biblical option. It is also the one that allows us to pass beyond Neoplatonic dualisms to an appreciation of the whole of God’s theophany -- in science and art no less than in life styles, engineering and economics, and it has a long tradition in Western spirituality. This spiritual consciousness emphasizes the creation -- re-creation motif instead of the fall-redemption cycle, and I am convinced that reflective persons are ready for this emphasis today.

The Via Negativa

5. That spirituality is synonymous with mysticism and that Christian mystics were not political figures. A spiritualizing spirituality will define itself only in psychological, mystical terms. Yet mysticism is scarcely half of what spirituality is about -- the other half being prophecy, by which I understand the living out of the grace-experience in the body politic by way of justice. No one has put this point more clearly than the American philosopher William Ernest Hocking, who warns that "there is such a thing as losing one’s soul -- and that is neglecting one’s vocation to prophecy."

The only Christian mystics for whom a society based on greater love-justice is not a goal are phony mystics. Catherine of Siena was not a mere woman with fantasies but a politician with visions. She told the reigning power of her day, the pope, literally where to go (from Avignon to Rome) -- and he went! A critical examination of the politics as well as the psychologies of Western mystics will, I believe, reveal the truth of the authentic mystic as prophet.

Mystics have been inherently skeptical of any inherited or vicariously received truth, including language about God which they rejected as inadequate. The via negativa is a method of un-naming God, of saying "this God is not God." Thus it is, I suggest, a profoundly political method. For in rejecting a culture’s gods by rejecting the language used to characterize them, a mystic is implicitly rejecting an entire symbol system, including the projection of that system into the culture’s institutions. Thus Meister Eckhart’s preaching that "I pray God to rid me of God" scarcely endeared him to the patriarchs of his culture, who eventually put him on trial. Yet it rings true: Do we pray God to rid us of the all-white God, the all-male God, the In-God-We-Trust God who is on every coin and every dollar bill? The mystic’s contribution is not all nay-saying, however, for the mystic rejects in order to explore a new language for God and culture.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that Meister Eckhart spoke of the death of God 500 years before Nietzsche, 600 years before Altizer/Hamilton and 605 years before Time magazine. I will always consider the abortion that Time and commercial culture in general committed on the death-of-God movement to be one of the all-time mortal sins against the intellectual-mystical life of our nation. For Altizer and Hamilton were on the verge of something powerful -- the introduction of the via negativa into the Protestant consciousness and into an American culture that is terrified by the mystic. It makes all the logical sense in the world that Time, Inc., had to put the movement on its cover and co-opt it, for Time’s investment in the "In God we trust" capitalism and institutions of our political-economic-mythical lives is not inconsiderable.

Sick of Words

6.That a theology of the Word is an adequate pedagogy for today’s spiritual needs. One of Protestantism’s proudest boasts is that it recaptured the "sacrament" of preaching in a context of a theology of the Word. And so it did. This was a profoundly felt need in the age, of the newly discovered printing press, the emergence of lay professions and education for a nonclerical world. But today is not the 16th century, and something drastic has happened to words and to language in the West.

Words today come cheap. When a president can say "I am not a crook" and people learn that that means "I am a crook" and when "peacemaking efforts" mean invasions of war, the people become suspicious of words -- and rightly so. When the most significant psychological thinker of our time, Sigmund Freud, points out that words are very often a cover-up and that more truth is to be learned from dreams or even slips of the tongue than from controlled speech, those who preach the Word are going to speak to ever-dwindling audiences.

I do not deny that a theology of the Word is rich and full of meaning to those who have had the luxury of studying its long historical development. But as a pedagogical method, it begins with two strikes against it because our culture is sick of words. What we want is the nonword, the unword, the silence, the touch, the dance, the music -- in short, a new word and a new language that the mystic who rejects society’s language eventually comes to utter. My well-trained Protestant theologian friends tell me: "But all this is implied in a theology of the Word." To which I reply: "The average person does not know this. Why make your job harder than it need be?" Besides, despite verbal protestations by theologians, many Protestant worship services remain profoundly and dismally wordy, ill at ease with silence, dance, mime and other, deeper words.

Asceticism and Sensuality

7. That spiritual theology is "ascetic theology." I was shocked recently to hear a young Episcopal clergyman repeatedly use the term "ascetic theology" for spirituality. Usage of "ascetic theology" goes back only to the 17th century and for that reason alone clearly does not represent the history of Christian spirituality. What it does represent is what one would expect: the spiritual concerns of the 17th century, when spirituality made its ultimate break with theology and science. It was also the century that gave birth to Jansenism and brought maturity to Puritanism, which, like Jansenism, originally boasted prophetic aspects. When these movements became divorced from their political settings, they became sick. Then their attitudes of fury toward a body politic were introjected onto the body, and asceticism became their way of life, with all the guilt and dualism and violence that a denial of the body implies.

When I speak of "sensual spirituality," many literalist Americans can imagine only one thing: sex. As if the earth, music, a bottle of wine, puppies, babies or ideas themselves were not sensual! One Lutheran pastor told me that in seminary he was not allowed to read Luther’s works except in expurgated versions because his Table Talks were "too dirty." Clearly, Lutherans and the rest of us have much to learn from returning to our (unexpurgated) sources.

To pine for this late-arriving and one-sided vintage of spirituality called asceticism is to reinforce a flight from the body and from the senses that is heretical. Creation and incarnation demand a sensual spirituality -- Christians are not free to deny their bodies for the sake of spiritual experience. Masochism is not a Christian love-option any more than sadism is a justice-option. And yet, in the name of Christianity, asceticism has often been the reigning spirituality, so that Norman O. Brown can rightly declare that "Christian asceticism can carry punishment of the fallen body to heights inconceivable to Plato."

This is not to say that practices ascetics engage in cannot be entered into as tactics or methods: fasting, silence, vegetarianism, chanting, formal meditations, and celibacy, if freely entered into as methods (never as "good works" -- for they are not such), may prove helpful for some people bent on self-purification or the unleashing of altered states of consciousness. In this sense, Neoplatonism holds some validity -- but never again as a metaphysic, much less as a spiritual theology.

Protestant Contributions

8. That Protestants have made little or no contribution to spirituality. A gigantic inferiority complex regarding spirituality lurks in the Protestant psyche. I was alerted to this situation when a Lutheran pastor told me: "Spirituality is what all my people are looking for today -- and we don’t even have the word in our tradition." Lutherans and others may not have the word -- but they’ve got the music. No tradition that has spawned Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Norman O. Brown and Eva Leo need be the least bit embarrassed by its contribution to spirituality. What Protestants need to do is to examine why they don’t have the word in their tradition -- for there exist excellent and prophetic reasons.

Number one is that Luther, following the lead of Lorenzo Valla and others before him, threw out Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite as a fraud. The fraud that Luther criticized was the illusion (which Dionysius himself planted in his works) that he was the companion of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. If this were so (and Christian theologians believed it up to the 15th century), Dionysius’ "authority" in an age that loved authorities would clearly carry the weight of apostolic times. In fact, as Luther insisted, Dionysius was a fifth century monk who hailed from Syria, the world capital of docetism and monophysitism. Dionysius is the one who gave Christian spirituality the term "mysticism" and set up a basic symbol-system for the "mystical life." Luther, by rejecting Dionysius, very appropriately, left spirituality free to return to its more authentic sources in the Jewish biblical tradition.

Above all, Luther made the all-important contribution of reinstating biblical social prophecy as an integral element of spiritual consciousness. By declericalizing priesthood he challenged adult Christians in whatever calling they find themselves to make a godly sphere of that arena. Thus a principal contribution of Luther (and Calvin after him) to the history of spirituality has been a theology of vocation. The trouble with merely borrowing their theologies today is that their world view was still one of the Constantinian era. With the recognition now of that era’s death, new questions need to be asked in regard to a spirituality of work: questions of institutionalized unemployment and overemployment, of play and work, of leisure, of workaholism, of noncompulsive work, of art as work and work as art, of industrialization and work, of mysticism and work.

Teaching and Life Styles

9. That anyone with goodwill and a pious attitude can teach spirituality. A pious experience does not a spiritual theologian make. Since Neoplatonism puts down scientific thinking (which belongs to the "inferior reason"), it is notoriously anti-intellectual. This anti-intellectualism was reinforced by the 17th century’s flight from theology (a flight partially justified by the onslaught of rationalism in the schools; good mystics suspected that head trips alone are no exclusive way to truth). It was further reinforced by spirituality’s flight from science (again, partially justified since Newton’s absolute space and absolute time concepts were once again too objective for the mystic’s intuitive life -- an insight that Einstein has since confirmed). An alarming trend in American church education today is the mushrooming of courses and programs in spirituality by untrained persons. These amateurs guarantee a continued spiritualizing of spirituality.

The fact is that there is an intellectual side to spiritual theology, and not everyone with a pious smile is thereby qualified to instruct in spirituality. It came as a surprise to one pastor, when we were talking of our backgrounds, to learn that there even was such a thing as an academic degree in spirituality.

Another consequence of the spiritualization of spirituality has been to make it timid and soft. Persons representing such a tradition today would no more stand up to the Pentagon than those in Ptolemy’s time would have stood up against acceptance of a flat earth -- a scientific world view that Neoplatonism presumes. I would not want to learn my spirituality from anyone who did not in some way live a marginal existence. Affluence and institutional comfort are incompatible with spirituality, whereas risk and spirituality are lovers. Courage, not comfort, is the key to a Christian way, and it is this that the cross signifies in a creation-centered spirituality.

10. That family is the exclusive Christian life style. Anita Bryant notwithstanding, there is no biblical injunction that all of us are to live in family. Jesus did not do so, so far as we know. Rosemary Ruether has wisely pointed out that one of the devastating effects of the Protestant overreaction to a corrupt celibacy was an unbearable burden put on family as the exclusive life style for a culture. Historically speaking, celibacy was a sociological alternative and not merely a psychological ascetic practice for many who entered what Catholics call "religious life." Many sincerely spiritual persons today are pressing for the church’s recognition of their life style, whether that be commune living (singles, marrieds or celibates), single living, gay alliances, celibacy, or trial marriages that might be civil before they are religious.

The irony is that there will be no renewal of family life until authentic alternatives to family exist for persons who are not called to that very special and demanding relationship. The dumping of all adults into a unified life style called marriage may guarantee to a military empire the child-warriors it needs and to an economic empire the consumer-citizens it is greedy for -- but it cannot guarantee the existence of the authentic cell of society which is love-justice. That element can be provided only by a caring and gentleness that a variety of life styles teaches a variety of persons.

A Test of Spiritual Authenticity

If spirituality is a way of living the new life, it is clear that the testing of the spirit is not as simple as invoking rules or categories of old. For the lived life is by definition a diving into the unknown wrecks and the ineffable dreams of our shared pains and desires. Yet we need some testing of the spirits. Where shall we get such a test?

Paul Tillich suggests that creativity is the only valid test, inadequate as it is. I would not disagree, but I would alter his criterion in the following fashion: the authentic test of ours and others’ and our society’s claims to spirituality is creative compassion. By compassion I do not mean the sentimentalized and privatized feeling our aggressive culture defines as compassion. I have in mind the root sense of that word: to suffer with, to stand by, to support, to share solidarity with, to live on the margin with. I mean the burning passion of lived awareness that we occupy a precarious existence on this planet together with the soil and its flowers, the water and its fishes, the air and its birds, the fire and energy sources; that our fellow human beings are truly brothers and sisters with whom it is better always to make love-justice than war; and that gentleness lasts longer and touches more deeply than other kinds of power.

By "creative" I mean the commitment to giving birth to this kind of awareness where we live, work, play and pray. I also mean entering into dialogue not only within religious traditions, but also within the ecumenism of spirituality, dialoguing with Einstein and Freud, Marx and Mary Daly; Gustav Mahler and Marc Chagall; José Miranda and Buckminster Fuller. Such a spirituality demands that we experience passion more and regulate it less, as I understand Martin Luther to have said: "I say die, taste death." To which I add: "Live, taste life."

A spirituality of creative compassion -- no spiritualized spirituality, this, but a way of life and a wisdom wherein we might live shared visions of a "we" rather than a "me" consciousness.