Exploring the concept of spirituality III: Pauline and Christian roots

St Paul in prison by Rembrandt [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Margaret Chatterjee’s writings on the concept of spirituality suggests that Christian thinking on what constitutes spirituality emerge from St. Paul’s thoughts on the matter. If one goes by biblical records, Jesus himself spoke about the Spirit of God less than a dozen times while Paul mentions the spirit over a hundred times.

Jesus did recognize the importance of the body, evident when he healed the sick and fed the hungry. He did not present any apparent dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh but he was certainly concerned with the dichotomy between the present human state and the future of the Kingdom of God that was to come. In other words, there was a contrast between the things of the spirit and mortality. This awareness, Paul addresses, by assigning a new set of roles to the Spirit. It is the Spirit, he says, which reveals, teaches, inspires, strengthens, sanctifies, infuses love, and “sets us free” (from the travails of mortality?).

In this theological treatment, Paul advises the newly formed churches to guard against two enemies to the inner experiences of the Spirit – elements within human nature and powers in the human community. To combat these enemies, Paul tailors a spirituality to test whether their activities are a result of the “indwelling of the spirit of Christ”, the criteria being whether love prevails and whether the benefits of life in Christian love accrues to the community. In summary, love directed towards the here and now implies the indwelling of the spirit.

Yet, this contrasted with the expectation of early (and present day) Christians of a future Kingdom to come. Rather, the early Christians’ commitment to a life in the Spirit led only to persecution. Paul’s guidelines for living in the spirit came to be interpreted in the light of emerging theologies and other sacramental observances. By the 12th century, the Latin word spiritualitas came to be contrasted with materialitas. Further distinctions emerged, contrasting the eccelesiastical with the civil – illustrated in the persecution of St. Joan of Arc by civil and church authorities for following the guidance of her “spirit”.

Other influences stemming from the Eastern Church emphasized the fruit of spirituality in a “transfigured human community” while Protestantism highlighted a sanctified private life. The notion of worldliness further set the stage for the pioneering communities in the 17th century (like the Hutterites) with their own forms of worship, authority and spirituality embedding a strong sense of community. New forms of (Christian) religious experience associated the spiritual not always with the “interior” or the “mystical” but more with the social, evident in Christian philanthropy.

Summarizing the Christian interpretations of the concept of spirituality is easier said than done. What emerges though is a common root associating the inner experiences of Christian life with a certain form of visible living. It would be interesting to see how this contrasts with the concept of spirituality in the Indian group of religions.




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