When Is Spirituality Spiritual? Reflections On Some Problems Of Definition -- By: D. A. Carson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 37:3 (Sep 1994)
Article: When Is Spirituality Spiritual? Reflections On Some Problems Of Definition
Author: D. A. Carson


When Is Spirituality Spiritual?
Reflections On Some Problems Of Definition

D. A. Carson*

The current interest in spirituality is both salutary and frightening.

It is salutary because in its best forms it is infinitely to be preferred over the assumed philosophical materialism that governs many people, not only in the western world but in many other parts as well. It is salutary wherever it represents a self-conscious rebellion against the profound sense of unreality that afflicts many churches. We speak of “knowing” and “meeting with” and “worshiping” the living God, but many feel that the corporate exercises are perfunctory and inauthentic, and in their quietest moments they wonder what has gone wrong.

It is frightening because “spirituality” has become such an ill-defined, amorphous entity that it covers all kinds of phenomena an earlier generation of Christians, more given to robust thought than is the present generation, would have dismissed as error, or even as “paganism” or “heathenism.”1 Today “spirituality” is an applause-word—that is, the kind of word that is no sooner uttered than everyone breaks out in applause. In many circles it functions in the spiritual realm the way “apple pie” functions in the culinary realm: Who is bold enough to offer a caution, let alone a critique?

What is quite certain is that the topic currently generates enormous interest.

I. Some Current Definitions, Explicit Or Implicit

Despite the contention of J. W. Conn that originally spirituality was “a christian term—from Paul’s letters,”2 it is nothing of the kind. True, “spirit” and “spiritual” are found in the NT, but very few writers on spirituality begin with inductive study of such terms in order to establish what “spirituality” means. As a term “spirituality” emerged from French Catholic thought, though for the last century or so it has been common in Protestantism as well. Earlier writers could speak of “the spiritual

* D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015.

life” and mean something rather more narrowly defined than Paul meant by “the spiritual man” in 1 Corinthians 2, but it is this focus on “the spiritual life” that ultimately led to Christian coinage of the term “spirituality.”

In fact in the history of the Christian Church until the Reformation there were many ...

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