The Church: Theology vs Spirituality
This is a letter to you.
To you, the churchgoer, who believes that it’s all about you and your personal relationship with God.
To you, the churchgoer, who believes that it’s all about doctrine and speaking in a convoluted way about God.
I wrote this for you.
Many fear the word theology; it makes some run to the other side of the room. It is a word that has hurt many people and caused damage, even drawing them away from church. On the other hand, it is a word that excites and inspires others.
In our church, there has been a complete divide between theology and spirituality. The theologians often seem to lack interest in having a relationship with God and are more focused on saying it right. Those who want to be ‘spiritual’, at the other extreme, stay far away from theology because to them it’s more about a relationship than a system of laws. This contradiction of world-views creates people with two opposing mindsets.
If we ask the question, “what is theology?” Then we must also ask, “what is spirituality?”
Theology is not a mere narrative of right truths; it is the understanding and declaration of the great I AM, of Beauty Himself.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Genesis 1:3
The Word spoke creation into existence, revealing the relationship between words and created matter. The Source of words is divine since the Logos, the Word Himself, Christ, preceded all of creation.
Christ is Truth, the Logos, the Word Himself.
God is only truly known, revealing Himself through His creation, when there is a right relationship between words.
“Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” These are counter-words, non-words. Words that abuse: God; said; you; eat; tree; garden. The right words, in the wrong order, to the wrong person, at the wrong time. A death of theology, or a theology of death.”
Father Stephen Freeman
Since theology pertains to God, how much then do we need to be careful with our words? Words have power, power to lift up or tear down.
Coherency in expression and carefully thought out words must be the ‘rule’ for portraying theology. As Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, “clarity is a gift from the Holy Spirit, whereas ambiguity and disorder is not.”
We must not be negligent with how we express the Inexpressible. Our language is limited as we use it to talk about the things of this world, but in theology we are using our words to touch the Divine Kingdom. In order to do so, we must speak in a riddling and enigmatic way.
It often happens that those who classify themselves as ‘spiritual’ hate to read. To them the importance lies in prayer and worship without investing time in delving into what our forefathers have preserved for us. What I believe in God will affect my relationship with Him and those around me. The truth is, theology should lead to doxology. A knowledge of the Holy can only lead the heart to sing louder of His praises.
‘God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’ John 4:24
Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian.
Bishop Kallistos Ware
We must acquire the mind of the Fathers in order to live the saintly and glorious life they once lived and taught. We must live by the same spirit in which they lived, and that can only be done by studying the words in which the Spirit Himself inspired them with. It is not by merely quoting them that we acquire their mind, but by sitting daily at their feet, asking the Spirit to illuminate us the way they were.
The beauty of reading is that it shapes the mind. It changes my distorted way of thinking and fine tunes me to the Spirit, which was granted to the Church.
Read often and insatiably the books of the teachers of the Church on divine providence, for they lead the mind to discern the order in God’s creatures and His actions give it strength, and by their subtleness they prepare it to acquire luminous intuitions and guide it in purity toward the understanding of God’s creature.
St. Isaac the Syrian
When I read holy books then the spirit and body are illumined and I become the temple of God and the harp of the Holy Spirit, played by divine power. Through them I am corrected and through them I receive a kind of divine change and I am made into a different person.”
St. Gregory the Theologian (On St. Basil’s books)
The fundamental purpose of the theology of words is to testify to the Mystery of the Living God.
Christos Yannaras defines theology as a “gift from God, a fruit of the interior purity of the Christian’s spiritual life. It is not a hypothetical system or a theory of how the world works. It is the illustration of the construction the Church’s experience through the ages. It is not an academic code of behavior but a partaking, a communion of being.”
An authentic theologian is one who is always taught by God Himself, theodidaktos. This is where Divine meets the material; this is where humans learn how to interact with the environment around them. It is not mere books or words that assist us in making sense of this world but the Word and the Spirit.
Our forefathers never made a clear distinction between theology and spirituality, between doctrines declared by the Church and personal experience. This is because the teachings deposited to the Church are meant to be an expression of revealed Truth, given in different measures to the faithful.
For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Even though the teachings of the Church have revealed Truth they still remain a mystery that we should not try to use our logical way of thinking to understand. Instead, we should ache for an internal change of spirit, allowing us to experience true mysticism. Theology is theanthropic, the cooperation between Divine and man. Not a work between man and his bookshelf or even man and his prayer corner.
There is no discrepancy between theology and prayer, theology and experience. There is no genuine theology without the pledge to holiness. Therefore, there can be no separation between theology and spirituality. Theology is spirituality and spirituality is theology.
Let’s be the generation that marries these worlds together. Let the theologians work with the ‘spiritual’ to bring wholeness to this fragmented world and ultimately to the Church, the hospital of our souls.
There is a vast difference between a teacher of religion and a spiritual servant. The teacher conveys knowledge from a book using a piece of paper, while a servant, out of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, fills others with his faith, love, self sacrifice, humility, and presents spiritual experience and a living example to follow.
The teacher relays the words as he heard or learned them, he prepares a lesson to lead people to an idea. Whereas, the servant, by birth pains, begets children of God.
Thus, a servant is not merely a teacher of lessons, but a savior of souls.
Father Matthew the Poor
Check out Part IV
(Photo courtesy of Maciej Bledowski)
- February 5, 2016
- Church, doctrine, spirituality, teaching, theology
Abigail MontgomeryJuly 5, 2017
Beautifully written and explained. This is a topic I have difficulty relaying to others on my own path - seeking to explain my own experiences and relate or distance them from religious doctrine. Seeking Truth.
B. PolusMarch 21, 2019
Romans 9:16 "So then, everything depends, not on what we humans want or do, but only on God's mercy." Reference: Good News Bible
3200 MaskApril 20, 2020
Wonderful post! We are linking to this article on our site.
Keep up the great writing.