Arts and Culture

Two Christian Spiritualities

by Father Robert Lauder,

I HAVE COME to identify two different spiritualities that have been part of my experience at least since college years. One I call eschatological Christian spirituality and the other I call incarnational Christian spirituality.

In identifying these two spiritualities I have relied on many authors, perhaps the main one being Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., especially his ideas in his excellent book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. In the book, Father Murray discusses two strong currents that existed in Christianity almost from the beginning. One he called eschatological Christian humanism, the other incarnational Christian humanism. I have borrowed his distinction and applied it to spirituality. By spirituality I mean an image of self, of neighbor, and of God, and living out the meaning of those images. So I don’t think spirituality is the same as a philosophy. Spirituality includes the way you live. Reflecting on these two spiritualities and their implications for action I think can be very helpful in our efforts at living Christian lives. Neither spirituality contains any heresy; a person can be a good Christian embracing either spirituality.

The word eschatological comes from a Greek word meaning last. Eschatological spirituality emphasizes what have come to be called the four last things: death, judgment, heaven or hell. This spirituality stresses that grace and heaven are gifts. No one has a right to either. The only important virtues are religious virtues such as faith, hope and charity. There is strong emphasis on sin and also on the devil or the demonic. The basic vocation of the Christian should be waiting for the second coming of Christ. This world will eventually pass away. Father Murray claims that in the early Church there were some monks who spent their time weaving baskets and when they were finished they would unweave them and start all over again. The basic point was that it really does not matter what you do on this Earth since everything will pass away. The symbol for the eschatological Christian is the Cross. If an eschatological spirituality is pushed too far there is a danger that the person might fall into the heresy of quietism, the heresy which says that we do not have to do anything, that God will do everything.

In the early 1960s I heard a lecture by an outstanding Protestant moral theologian. After his talk I asked him what he thought about Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Mater et Magistra,” in which the pope said that we should help poor countries not just out of charity but out of justice. The theologian made some statement like the following: “It is a great letter but it will not do any good. If you think that the rich countries will help the poor countries unless there is something in it for the rich countries, then you don’t know anything about human nature. People are sinners.” Looking back at that experience, I realize that the theologian probably embraced an eschatological Christian spirituality and had a very strong sense of sin.

An incarnational spirituality accepts that grace and heaven are gifts from God but stresses that within God’s providence we are able to merit them. How we live does make a difference. There is a great difference between weaving baskets and running a business in which hundreds and hundreds can make a living wage. Of course there is a mystery of evil but Christ is stronger than the devil and we are called to cooperate in building the Kingdom of God. An incarnational spirituality recognizes that sin is everywhere, even in institutions, but it emphasizes that God’s grace is everywhere. The symbol for those who embrace an incarnational spirituality is not the Cross but the Risen Christ. If you push incarnational spirituality too far it might lead to secular humanism.

Can someone have both spiritualities at the same time?  Though an individual can incorporate some aspects of  each spirituality in his or her life, I don’t think that someone can embrace each spirituality in its entirety at the same time because each spirituality has such a different emphasis.

I think that the spirituality that was presented to us when I was a student in the major seminary in the 1950s was an eschatological spirituality and that this spirituality was illustrated powerfully in Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ, which the seminarians as a community read every day in chapel. Since Vatican II it seems to me that an incarnational spirituality has been presented in many Catholic books. Since the Council I have been trying to incorporate an incarnational spirituality into my life. There are signs that an eschatological spirituality is becoming popular again among some groups of Catholics.

Whatever spirituality we embrace, it is good to reflect on how it is helping us to live as Christians.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.