Dissertation: “Not of This World”: Christian Devotional Literature as Minority Discourse, by J. Stephen Pearson

Pearson’s dissertation draws on scriptural, devotional, and theological texts to argue that the Christian community has historically been a minority within its larger social, cultural, and political context. Here is the abstract:

This dissertation re-reads the history of Western Christianity in order to reconsider notions of Christianized culture and politics. Using concepts from contemporary ethnic studies, I examine devotional works from the Western Christian tradition to expose a thematic thread that depicts the Christian community as a cultural minority: Exile in Patrick of Ireland; Minor Literature in Richard Rolle; Borderlands in Catherine of Genoa; Nationalism in George Fox; Contact Zones in Thomas Merton; and Diaspora in Kathleen Norris. I try to demonstrate that works from mainstream Christian writers can be profitably interpreted using minority discourse: though the authors were not ethnic minorities, their faith gave them a minority position in the world. My analyses are built on scriptural teachings about minority identity from the Book of Daniel, in which the community must learn to live in a foreign culture, and from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus teaches the disciples that they are no longer “of” the world.

Alongside these analyses, I examine the multicultural aspects of Christian missionary work, showing how from its origins Christian history demonstrates a plurality of Christianities, as missionaries adapted their teachings for new cultures and as converts around the globe adopted Christianity on their own terms and developed new forms of Christian theology that use their historical and cultural situations to interpret the scriptures and vice versa. After arising in the poly-cultural Middle East, Christianity quickly spread into Europe, Africa, Asia and, eventually, the Americas, recasting its story for each new cultural context and thereby creating multiple Christianities. At the same time, theologians such as Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard argued for radical distinctions between religious and political communities. For these theologians, the community of believers differs in essence from the secular political-cultural community; as a result, there can be no expectation of a Christian government or of a Christian culture. It can therefore be said that Christians are commanded by their scriptures, theologians and spiritual masters to embrace a minority status within their own cultures so as to minister to the world without being compromised by it.

The dissertation is freely available as a PDF in Athenaeum@UGA, the digital repository of the University of Georgia.

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Dissertation: The Art of Trinitarian Articulation: A Case Study on Richard of St. Victor’s De Trinitate, by Todd Vasquez

In his examination of Richard of St. Victor’s De Trinitate, Todd Vasquez explores the various ways in which the 12th century theologian and spiritual writer expressed his understanding of the Trinity. More than just a straightforward exposition of doctrine, the Victorine’s major work is a complex treatise that calls for a careful reading to appreciate its various forms of trinitarian expression. Here is Vasquez’s abstract:

Richard of Saint Victor deliberately constructs his treatise De Trinitate with trinitarian structures to sustain the hearts and shape the minds of his readers with the contemplation of the Trinity. His work fits within a genre of writing in the Middle Ages where the formation of the theological apprentice was at the heart of crafting one’s theological work. And while probably not unique among other compositions on the Trinity, Richard imbues his treatise with some “trinitarian dimensions” that make us appreciate the level of his creativity as a theologian and the impact these further dimensions had upon his readers’ spiritual formation.

Richard’s work has three major levels. Level one is a linear argument for the Trinity. It begins by establishing that God is one substance, then that God is three persons, and finally how the unity of divine substance fits with the triunity of persons. That is one level. And to read the work the first time is to encounter and be taken by this argument. Level two is the style and structure with which that argument is made. In addition to arguing for the Trinity, Richard argues for the Trinity “trinitarianly”; and to discover Richard’s deliberate use of triads and an organization to his treatise reflective of its main subject matter is to find delight in another dimension of the work. It is to read the work again—a second time—with a view to how this linear argument is designed and organized. Finally, in addition to the linear argument and its structure, there are also “allusions” such as Richard’s attempt to make his triadic structures appropriate to each person of the Trinity. So while at the level of (a) argument/content he makes a case for the Power, the Wisdom, and the Goodness of the Divine, and at the level of (b) structure he builds with triads, he also appropriates the (c) significance for each person of the Trinity: Power of the Father, Wisdom of the Son, and Goodness of the Spirit.

The dissertation consists of three sections: Section I, “Introduction & Background,” establishes the context for the thesis; Section II, “Articulating the Trinity ‘Trinitarianly’ for the Formation of Souls,” argues the main thesis; and Section III, “Objections & Response,” handles objections and is followed by a brief conclusion. The introductory section answers questions leading up to a detailed study of the structuring of Richard’s De Trinitate. Section II develops the substance of the thesis in chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 argues for the structural dimension of the thesis and is divided into five parts. Part one, “Inventional, Ordering Devices,” shows how Richard structures his written works in accordance with their main objects of study in order to aid his readers’ contemplation. Part two, “Breadth: Beginning with the End in Mind” looks at the broader horizon of Richard’s De Trinitate by showing how the Power-Wisdom-Goodness triad structures the linear layout of the treatise. Part three, “Depth: Richard’s Trinitarian Structures in Book III,” looks at the detail of Richard’s work in book III where his trinitarian structuring is the most ornate. In part four, “Perspective: Additional Trinitarian Structures and Triads,” we show the declining intricacy of these trinitarian structures and triads in the rest of the work. And part five, “Book VI and Discovering De Trinitate in Relief” brings all of these dimensions together to reveal Richard’s treatise as a work of art still attached to the marble from which it was carved and discovers the method by which he “drew out” contemplations from his previous work. Then, in chapter 5, “Forging These ‘Trinitarian Dimensions’ in the Faithful,” we show how Richard uses these forms to shape the trinitarian consciousness of his readers and consummate trinitarian love within his community. Section III takes up objections to the thesis and gives a response, concluding that neither forms of meditative practice in the 12th century nor borrowing paradigms from theological predecessors accounts for the trinitarian structuring of De Trinitate. We fittingly end our work with a summary of our findings and a meditative reflection on the “craftsmanship” and “artistry” of Richard as a “constructive theologian.”

The dissertation is freely available from Loyola eCommons of Loyola University Chicago

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Syllabus: New Testament Spirituality

Describing his recent revision of this syllabus, David Rensberger of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, writes “I did update the structure at a number of points this time around. ‘What to do about Jesus’ is a question in any course that surveys the NT; this time I reformulated that session in light of how Jesus shows up in the spiritual-vs.-religious debate.  I also added a new segment on discipleship and revamped the selection of materials from Paul.” Here is the course description:

The spirituality of the biblical writings has not been the subject of much study in modern times, at least not in critical biblical scholarship. The methodology for such study is thus still in a relatively early stage, and the results that ought to be expected are still an open question. Are we just looking to add one more item, “spirituality,” to the repertoire of critical scholarship, alongside the historical, literary, sociological, and ideological characteristics of the biblical writers? Or are we seeking something more, something that goes beyond the supposed objectivity of critical study to let the subject matter of the text actually impinge on our lives?

This course will work toward the latter of these two possible aims; but we cannot get there without attending to the former. Students will be encouraged to be creative and innovative; to bring all of themselves to the endeavor; to raise questions that are true to the New Testament texts and their writers, but also break through into our lives as readers of the texts today. However, this will not be an inquiry without form or limits, or an exercise in pure subjectivity, simply asking how a text “speaks to my heart.” Critical study of the texts will be presupposed. We will be asking what there is in the texts, as critically analyzed, that raises and addresses issues of spirituality. This course can only provide an introduction to some of the themes of New Testament spirituality in its major writings. Yet we hope to gain a grasp of the spiritual values and transformative potential of the texts, as one possible outcome of studying them critically.

Thus the aims of the course will be (1) to perform adequate exegesis of the texts so as to understand their spirituality; but also (2) to open ourselves to the transformative possibilities of the texts—not just to grasp the spirituality of the New Testament writings, but to be grasped by it.

A copy of the syllabus is available to SSCS members by contacting the blog moderator.

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Syllabus: Contemporary Expressions in Spirituality

Paul Blankenship intends this seminar to be taken by students in a particular masters level program at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, but it’s open to “all graduate students interested in contemporary spirituality.” Here’s the course description:

This seminar is an introduction to the critical study of spirituality. It is a conversation about how and why other people are spiritual, what this means, and whether it makes a difference. Because it is not possible in an academic quarter (or a lifetime) to cover the mélange of contemporary spiritualities in the world, students are encouraged to research alternative spiritualities so that our conversation avoids hegemony. May the wind scatter and confuse us. And help us understand.

A copy of the syllabus is available to SSCS members from the blog moderator.

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Essay: Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and Contemporary Mystical Theology, by Andrew Prevot

Appearing in A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism, Andrew Prevot‘s essay argues for the presence of a mystical theology throughout much of Henri de Lubac’s writings even though he never devoted a work exclusively to it. Here is Prevot’s concluding paragraph:

This chapter has shown that de Lubac deserves to be read alongside Rahner and von Balthasar as one of the great Jesuit, Catholic theological voices in the conversation surrounding Christian mysticism in the twentieth century. De Lubac’s essay “Mysticism and Mystery” gives us a glimpse at certain arguments that might have appeared in the fuller treatment of Christian mysticism he proposed to write but never completed. By taking this essay as a hermeneutical key for his other writings – on knowledge, the human being, Christ, the Eucharist, the church, interreligious encounter, atheistic humanism, and gender – one can discover just how central mystical participation in “the Mystery” is to his thought as a whole. His theology is mystical through and through. Although there may be good reasons to question it on this or that point (particularly with feminist theological consciousness), the synthetic nature of his theological interpretation of Christian mysticism is an unquestionable achievement.

Here’s the bibliographic data for the essay:

Prevot, Andrew. “Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and Contemporary Mystical Theology.” In A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism, edited by Robert A. Maryks, 279-309. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017.


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Syllabus: History of Christian Spirituality

This course, taught by Paul Blankenship, uses seven of the Classics of Western Spirituality series from Paulist Press as well as secondary sources by SSCS members Philip Sheldrake and Bradley Holt. Here is the course description:

Through the study of selected texts and visual images, this course introduces students to the rich variety within Christian spirituality. In addition to a general overview of the major movements, concerns, and personalities, students examine experiences of conversion and spiritual growth, mysticism and prayer, community and compassion. This course focuses on the wisdom of the ancient, medieval, and reformation traditions as resources for contemporary spirituality.

A copy of the syllabus is available to SSCS members from the blog moderator.

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Dissertation: Friendship with the Saints: A Practical Theological Reading of Teresa of Avila as a Spiritual Companion, by Tara Soughers

Combining the approaches of practical theology and spirituality studies, Tara Soughers explores the writings of Teresa of Avila on spiritual companionship. When understood within their historical contexts, the writings of the saints can offer a great deal to contemporary practice of spiritual companionship, and Sougher’s analysis of Teresa’s texts provides a case study of how that might be so. Here is the dissertation’s abstract:

This dissertation is a practical theology study of spiritual companionship with the saints, working with Teresa of Avila as a case study. Teresa’s writing reflects a robust understanding and practice of spiritual companionship with saints. While contemporary literature on spiritual companionship exists and the notion of friendship with saints can be found in some theological works on the communion of saints, practical theology studies that attend to the rich potential and theological meaning of friendship with saints have been lacking. This dissertation seeks to fill that gap, arguing that the relationship of saints to contemporary Christians is one of companionship within the communion of saints. This allows saints to serve as spiritual companions to contemporary Christians in ways that are analogous to contemporary personal relationships of spiritual companionship. This is an interdisciplinary study, working across disciplines of practical theology and spirituality studies while deeply engaging historical studies. Due to the importance of historical context in spirituality studies and concerns with issues of appropriation, the practical theology methodology is modified, strengthening the historical theology movement. The dissertation provides a textual and historical-contextual analysis of Teresa of Avila’s understandings and practices of friendship, including friendship with the saints. Current literature on spiritual companionship is explored and brought into a mutually critical dialogue with Teresa’s own descriptions—demonstrating common themes of journey and intimacy, affirmation and challenge, and personal transformation and growth in relationship with God. These themes are placed in dialogue with two contemporary understandings of the communion of saints, Anglican theological reflections based on liturgical practice and Elizabeth Johnson’s systematic treatment, yielding a model for companionship with saints that is grounded in norms of mutuality, deep knowledge, mutually critical dialogue, and living with differences. These norms suggest personal practices of companionship as well as contemplative pedagogical techniques for teaching the saints in an academic setting. The dissertation thus presents a practical theology study of spiritual companionship with the saints, rooted in a deep historical-contextual dialogue with Teresa of Avila. It seeks also to demonstrate the value of increased attention to historical studies in practical theology methodology.

The dissertation is freely available in Boston University Libraries’ institutional repository, OpenBU.

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