The Great Texts program here at Baylor, where I teach about half my classes, begins its course of study with a series of periods: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Twentieth Century. Then it diverges into genres, themes, and topics. I’ve just concluded teaching Great Texts in Christian Spirituality — for the third time — and while that’s a very interesting and enjoyable course for me to teach, it’s quite a challenge to design. There are so many texts to choose from that (I tell my class) I could probably teach it five times with five completely different sets of texts and do equal justice to the theme. 

And, of course, it’s very difficult simply to define the topic. What is Christian spirituality, for heaven’s sake? I always start with this: Christian spirituality is the application of Christian theology to the challenge of living — and then we work through various other definitions as the term goes on. But the boundaries between spirituality and theology never can become precise, and indeed, some key Christian thinkers would deny the distinction. As Jaroslav Pelikan has noted,

It was in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon that Maximus Confessor attained his historic importance, both for the history of spirituality and for the history of dogma (a distinction that he would not have accepted since, as every one of these treatises makes abundantly clear, there was for him no spirituality apart from dogma, and no dogma apart from spirituality).

Anyway: when I’m choosing texts, I’m careful to (a) cover the historical ground as best I can and (b) draw upon the three major streams of Christian writing on spirituality: Roman, Orthodox, Protestant. But over my three times teaching the course, I’ve come to think that certain other distinctions are important to acknowledge as well. I think especially of three axes: 

  • apophatic ↔ kataphatic 
  • individual ↔ communal 
  • encounter ↔ obedience 

That is, any given Christian writer might emphasize the apophatic — what cannot be said about God and the experience of God — or the kataphatic — what can and must be said; might emphasize the individual or the communal and ecclesial aspects of the Christian life; might see the Christian life primarily in terms of an encounter with God or obedience to God. And you can sort Christian writers or texts accordingly. For instance: 

  • Julian of Norwich: apophatic/individual/encounter
  • The Imitation of Christ: kataphatic/individual/obedience 
  • Eliot’s Four Quartets: apophatic/individual/encounter 
  • C. S. Lewis’s sermons and talks: kataphatic/communal/encounter 

These classifications are arguable, of course! Also of course: they can’t be strictly distinguished from one another, for example, one’s obedience to God may have a great impact on one’s ability to have a genuine encounter with God. But as indicators of tendencies, as guides to emphasis, I think the categories are useful. 

Some figures are difficult to classify: Maximus tends to cover all the possibilities, which is perhaps key to his uniquely powerful place in the whole tradition. (His Centuries are very much about communal life and obedience within that life, but he also wants to demonstrate the ways that an obedient life can lead to an encounter with the Divine that cannot easily be put into words.) But trying to place writers or books in this scheme has, in my experience, been a great way to generate conversation about them. Maybe some of you will find it useful.