What is Spiritual Theology? There is a lot of diverse opinions on this topic. Probably the best explanation is provided by Jordan Aumann, O.P., in his well-known Spiritual Theology. To best understand the conversation that he introduces, it is important to note that all the branches of theology, as a disciplined study of sacred doctrine, constitute just one unified science. This is true even if this single scientific exploration has practical branches that take up moral questions (how we live) and speculative branches that take up dogmatic questions (what we believe). In fact, since they are all animated with the study of the Sacred Page, the various branches of theology have great bearing on one another and cannot be pursued in any atomized fashion. According to St. Thomas, theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God (see Summa Theologica I, q.1, art.3, ad.1). Spiritual theology is integral to this disciplined exploration into the saving truth revealed by God, preached by the Church and known by faith.
Before we go on to define the nature of spiritual theology, we need to address a doubt that many who are drawn to the spiritual life wrestle with concerning the study of sacred doctrine in general. Because of a lack of good teaching, there is a popular notion that we can have Jesus without the Church and spirituality without religion. Those who are enchanted by these ideas see no value in studying sacred doctrine as such, let alone that one branch that is at the service of all the others — spiritual theology. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis illustrates this objection by recalling a conversation with an old army officer who “felt” God in the desert. In comparison to that awesome feeling he had, doctrinal explanations about God all fell short. If such an overpowering experience seems possible without theology, why do we need any doctrine at all?
C.S. Lewis sees in the the officer’s observation something like the difference between merely looking at a map of the ocean and actually going to the beach. Compared with encountering God Himself, the study of theology is more like looking at a map than going to the beach. Yet a map, like theology, has an important purpose. If all one wants to do is gets his toes wet, one certainly does not need a map. But if you are lost and want to get home and home is through the sea, then a map of the ocean is essential. If you really love the Lord and want to know His eternal plan for you and those entrusted to you, then humbly coming together with others who love Him to reflect on what He has revealed about Himself is of the utmost importance. If the mystery of God surges around us like a wild ocean, theological wisdom helps us find the courage to step out in faith and take the plunge.
The point is, through the Church the Holy Trinity has given us a map — one that has been examined and commented on by the greatest spiritual geniuses, poets, mystics and lovers of Christ. As we study this map, we see in it all kinds of sobering and festive opportunities for progress in the journey to our heavenly homeland. While progress is made by means of the Cross, the way of our Crucified Master plunges us into an ocean of sorrow and joy, misery and mercy that only the wisdom of God revealed in the Church can guide us through. More than merely inviting us to dip our toes at the edge of this ineffable Mystery, the teachings of the Church point to a splendor that shines beyond the horizons we can see from the shores of this life.
At the same time, studying theology is never meant to be as non-personal and individualistic as is looking at a map might be. The theological enterprise is something much more alive and solemn. Theology is in the form of a conversation. In this dialogue, all the members of the Church strive to listen in a communion of faith to a great canticle, a sanctus, that resounds in the very heart of reality itself.
The whole body of Christ is taken up in a heavenly melody to which theology humbly attends. If angels and saints in glory share most fully in this new song, the poorest and the least esteemed are the most implicated in its strain. To listen, in the broadest sense, means to open up one’s heart to the heart of another in whom I glimpse the Word made flesh. The effort is to welcome together the excessive love of God that only the Crucified One makes known in the world. We do this personally in holy friendship. By extension, we are engaged in the same task in a more formal way when we take up theology.
Scientific theology strives to raise the mysterious music of sacred doctrine to that level of human consciousness by which we might share the saving truth for the building up of the Church. This science is geared to the strengthening of one another’s faith through the disciplined exploration of the truth. Theology has a special obligation to build up the faith of those who most need a word of hope. When informed with pastoral charity and disciplined by the rigor of reason, the result is to call attention to some as yet unheard movement of the remarkable canticle the Bridegroom sings to His Bride: here, heavenly harmony fills the heart and the whole world echoes with hidden praise.
Spiritual theology is especially concerned with attending to this sacred chorus with an eye to deepening contemplation in the life of the Church. Although our faith is performative, although it must needs be lived, there is a precedence of prayer, the need to behold the mystery before one can act on it. Just as action follows being, only one who abides can be sent. This is why there has never been an authentic renewal of the life of the Church which did not involve a renewal of the practice of mental prayer. Accordingly, the contemplation that lives at the heart of spiritual theology is not principally an individual effort to find God but rather the Risen Lord’s loving gaze on His mystical Bride, the Church – a transformative, creative look that beholds with eyes that have conquered death all that is good, holy and true about humanity.
Is spiritual theology a separate branch of the theological enterprise? In the last couple hundred years, explorations into mystical theology and ascetical theology have been brought together in the discipline now called spiritual theology. A majority of theologians today see this field as a sub-branch of moral theology. As an applied branch of research, the conversation elucidates personal acts required or counseled for the attainment of the perfection of the Christian life. For others, this discipline is primarily dogmatic. They understand this field in terms of an exploration of dogmatic truths in relation to the ultimate end of the divine economy. Yet, whether it takes up practical or speculative questions, spiritual theology can only do so effectively in relation to mystical wisdom, the loving awareness of God’s presence that lives in the heart of the Church as she proposes her teachings to the world. Spiritual theology serves all the other disciplines of theology by keeping the awareness of this wisdom, a kind of foretaste of what awaits us in the world to come, alive in the Church’s dialogue of salvation.
In important ways, true spiritual theology connects with what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls a “kneeling theology.” Just as Jesus emptied and humbled Himself unto death so that we might know the Father, the integrity of the task of spiritual theology demands conversion from those who pursue it. The more it is known, the more set apart for God the student ought to become — because the challenging truths taken up in this exploration demand no less.
In this branch of theology, the queen of the theological disciplines, we find a convergence of word and silence, theology and sanctity, the holiness of the Church and the truth of her teaching, the wisdom of the saints and one’s own need for conversion. For this reason, spiritual theology demands not only a reverent fidelity to the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, but especially a radical receptivity to all kinds of heart-piercing wonders that live in the life of the Church. Indeed, in the inexhaustible riches of Christ, if explored with bold faith and humble reason, there always remains to be found something beautiful and unexpected for our tired old world just when a reason to hope is most needed. The best spiritual theology knows, even after two thousand years of exploration, this treasury of saving truth gushes forth anew, evoking the astonished surrender of one’s whole being again and again in adoration and providing delightful relief to those who hunger and thirst for more.
Art: Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Pietro Novelli, 1641, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.