I did my Masters in Christian Studies (MCS) at Regent College from 1979-1981. I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) of Jim Houston, when at Regent, and we had many a lingering and searching discussion about the classics of the Christian contemplative tradition. Jim had lived with Nicolas Zernov (an important leader in Orthodox-Anglican Sobornost dialogue in England), and Jim met often with C.S. Lewis. The broad catholic evangelical tradition that Jim was shaped and formed by was grounded and rooted in the best of the classical and patristic tradition, and it was this sensitivity to both the riches of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions that was at the core of Jim’s commitment to the renewal of Christian spirituality.
I was quite taken, when at Regent College, by the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1978). I avidly read, absorbed and did my limited best to put into practice many of the leads Foster offered in his book. Celebration of Discipline was, in the late 1970s-1980s, one of the more important books doing the rounds in the spirituality circuit. The disciplines, if practiced aright, were meant to renew and deepen the faith journey. The sheer success of Celebration of Discipline launched Foster in a way he probably did not anticipate. I was, when immersed in the insights and recommended practices of the book, doing much study in the Classical languages of the Greek East/Latin West and the contemplative theology and ascetic life style of the Fathers (Abbas) and Mothers (Ammas) of the church. I soon came to see that Foster’s traditions approach to the Tradition had a questionable and most modern and protestant read of the Great Tradition. I will return to this later.
Foster waxed in the 1980s, and by the 1990s his interpretation of Renovare (Renewal) had become a movement. Others had joined the Renovare parade, and Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (1993) had become a primer and text to offer the keeners. The short readings from significant writers on spirituality were much welcome to a generation that had little or no feel for or understanding of the mystical and wisdom tradition of Christianity. Sadly so, many a protestant had turned against the best of the Roman Catholic past and knew little about the fullness of the Orthodox way, so Renovare did much in the 1990s to dig up this motherlode of insight. Spirituality was in vogue, and Renovare provided much needed leadership in the renewal of the spiritual classics. It was just a matter of time before The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (2005) was published.
I was, therefore, when at Regent College drawn to the insights of Foster, but I was drawn further by the deeper, more compact and historically grounded insights of the High Church Anglicans that was emerging in the late 1970s.
The publication of Kenneth Leech’s Soul Friend: The Practice of Christian Spirituality (1977), Rowan Williams’ The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (1979) and Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (1981) held me in a way Foster did not. Why was this the case? Leech, Williams and Louth were close friends, and there was much affinity between the deeper probes they were making and Zernov and C.S. Lewis. I realized that Foster, being a Quaker, had no real understanding of the unified church and the sacramental heritage that bound such a vision of the body of Christ together at a spiritual, material and formal level. There is a sense in Foster in which there are just different spiritual traditions that are adequate and appropriate for different temperaments, moments in history and denominations, The inner light is the bottom line. Such a notion of spirituality, of course, is shot through with all sorts of protestant premises and prejudices. This is why, in many ways, the Renovare movement has a great appeal to postmodern types and protestants. Renovare, to its credit, has relativized protestant spirituality, tapped into an older classical spirituality, but, in the process, subordinated notions of the unified church to diverse and personally chosen spiritual paths. This makes such an approach to spirituality quite attractive to those that are spiritual butterflies and hitchhikers. Although Lewis could speak of ‘mere Christianity’, there is no doubt he had his serious worries and reservations about the fragmentary nature of protestant Christianity. Lewis’s Discarded Image is a sustained reflection on what Protestants have discarded and the implications of doing so. Do Foster and the Renovare movement truly understand the classical contemplative tradition, or are they merely spiritual voyeurs that pick and chose, like cherries on a tree, what they like and dislike, then create a sort of ad hoc spirituality for our time? How are Zernov, Lewis, Leech, Willliams and Louth’s understanding of renewal different from Foster and Renovare and why?
The 1970s was a period of time in which there was a turn yet once again back of the protestant reformation to the classical patristic and medieval view of the soul, church and society. C.S. Lewis, to his credit, was a forerunner of this in the 1940s-1950s-1960s. Jim Houston studied with Lewis at this time, and he lived with Zernov at this time also. So, the 1970s were very much building on the work on Lewis, Zernov and others. When Jim Houston came to Vancouver/BC as the first principal of Regent College in 1969, he brought with him this older and deeper approach. Jim, like the Foster and the Renovare movement, is widely eclectic but most protestant on the ecclesial question---relativism reigns supreme. I’m not sure this would have been the position of Lewis and Zernov. If Christ’s high priestly prayer (John 14-17) was about nothing else, it was about the unity of the body of Christ. As Father, Son, and Spirit are One, so the body of Christ is meant to be One. St. Paul’s image of the church as head-body and bride-bridegroom cannot be missed. The Creedal affirmation about ‘One, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ merely affirms Christ’s high priestly prayer and St. Paul’s high vision of the body of Christ must be front and centre on the spiritual journey. What, then, is the relationship, to spirituality and the church? Is the former a primary and the latter just a matter of private choice, conditioning or whim? I think Leech, Williams and Louth would have definite concerns about the extreme individualism that underwrites a great deal of modern and postmodern spirituality. Is it just a decoy duck? We are in a situation in which spirituality defines ecclesiology rather than ecclesiology shaping and defining spirituality. This is both a product of Protestantism and our heightened liberal times. Both have conspired together to weaken and undermine the unity of the church.
I lived with Kenneth Leech for a short time when I was in England. Kenneth lives in East London where the poorest of the poor live, and his spirituality is grounded in the Sermon on the Mount and street life and work. This is not a safe middle class spirituality----it is in the thick of the fray and trenches in a desperately poor area of London life. Leech, like Williams and Louth, were part of the renewal of spirituality in a much more integrated way than Foster. There is a sense in which, for Foster, prophetic spirituality, is just one form (like different denominations), and each and all can pick and chose what suits and serves them the best on their personal and private journey.
These radical Anglo-Catholics had a serious and substantive commitment to the Classical vision of the church as the unified body of Christ, a high sacramental theology of the presence of Christ in the people of God, and a realization that faith, as embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, was the primary way to live forth the faith journey. The public witness was a highly charged public and prophetic life style.
There emerged in the 1990s a movement that ran parallel to Renovare but had its differences from it. The near historic roots of this turn can be found in the work of Jaroslav Pelikan, and his appealing primer on the topic, The Vindication of Tradition (1984). I had the great fortune of corresponding with Pelikan before his death, and we exchanged some rather fine letters on how Tradition is defined, interpreted and used in the contemporary setting. It was Pelikan’s many superb books that were the backdrop for the turn to ‘The Great Tradition’. I was quite interested in this movement when it began and as it took greater shape and form, but I had my concerns about it. Thomas Oden was a precursor to it with his book, Agenda for Theology: After Modernity...What? (1990). J.I. Packer, who I had studied with at Regent College, wrote a laudatory ‘Foreword’ to Oden’s primer. It was, though, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) that appealed to those that were seeking to overcome centuries of ecclesial separation. The publications of Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (1995) and Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue (1997) congealed much in this neo-ecumenism. Liberals were seen as the corrosive acid in the life of the church, and by turning to an older and deeper ecclesial unity, the unified church could once again oppose the liberal ideology. The problem, of course, with this turn to ‘The Great Tradition’ was that it tended to be a republican read and interpretation of ‘The Great Tradition’. It is virtually impossible to miss this fact when reading the ‘whose who’ of this new ecclesial Sanhedrin.
The interest and commitment, though, in Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox working together for a common mission did stir some simmering embers. There had been, in the Roman Catholic tradition, an interest in Ressourcement. There are, in short, ancient sources in the church that can offer much insight and guidance for the future of the church. There has been a tendency within the protestant tradition to ignore this goldmine. But, no more. Both the Roman Catholic and the Evangelical traditions realize that the deeper we go into the Tradition, the more soul, church and society will deal with the faith journey at a deeper level. We have, therefore, the Renovare movement, the republican ‘Great Tradition’ movement and a contemporary convergence of Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox in Ressourcement.
We do need to ask ourselves, though, this simple question: whose definition of renewal should we accept and why? Whose interpretation of ‘The Great Tradition’ should we accept and why? Which resources are we drawing from the well of the Patristic era and why? There are, in short, different ways to read, interpret and apply these sources. Leech’s Subversive Orthodoxy: Traditional Faith and Radical Commitment (1992) is at the opposite end of the political spectrum than the more republican leanings of Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Together (ECOT). Ressourcement can become, when applied in the contemporary context, pietist (retreating into a sort of personal, academic and ecclesial shell), politically right of centre, centrist or left of centre. Much hinges on how the sources are mined, interpreted and applied.
Renovare tends to see the public and prophetic form of spirituality as a sort of option for those inclined in such a direction. There is, in short, not a strong, solid or pronounced core of spirituality within Renovare. There is a much more definite and compact centre at a personal, ecclesial and public level in the ECOT –liberals must be opposed, and this can only be done by healing the denominational divisions of the past as a means of halting the liberal agenda. Renovare is, in many ways, at the opposite end of the spiritual journey than ECOT. The most creative possibilities seem to be in the direction of the Ressourcement movement. Ressourcement has a Biblical spiritual, theological, ecclesial, intellectual and political depth to it lacking in Renovare. Ressourcement is as committed as ECOT to ‘The Great Tradition’, but those engaged in Ressourcement are definitely not republican interpreters of ‘The Great Tradition’. This is why, I think, the future of a more meaningful approach and turn to ‘The Great Tradition’ (and its relevance for our time) is, at the present time, with those engaged in the Ressourcement approach. I will, in my next article, do a book review of Hans Boersma’s book, Nouvelle Theologie & Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (2009), and Hans’ turn to ‘the theology of the ressourcement movement’.