Towards kingdom come

17 July 2008

Spirituality must work to create God’s new order, Nick Mercer learns


Christian Spirituality: SCM Core Text
Karen E. Smith

SCM Press £19.99 (978-0-334-04042-2)
Church Times Bookshop £18

WHO WOULD have thought in the 1960s that spirituality would become a buzzword of 21st-century Western culture? From school OFSTEDs to dieting regimes, and among celebrities, cabinet ministers, and terrorists, spirituality is a sine qua non. Of course, its context is usually set within another charac-teristic of our age and culture: individualism. Even in the Church, spirituality is often pursued alongside personal fulfilment.

So what is most refreshing about Karen Smith’s treatment of the subject in this SCM Core Text is that the setting is the community. And not just the community as a place in which to develop one’s own spirituality, one’s own ministry, but a renewed community, a new humanity, a kingdom come. Individual spirituality is only truly Christian, she says, when it works towards a transformation of society in the light of the gospel. Her last chapter encourages us to dream of God’s new order, and to wait and work towards it.

The introduction takes the form of a parable that highlights the difficulties confronting the spiritual searcher: there are many, often competing, approaches to the subject. Smith maintains that these are characterised by the tension between interpreting spirituality through doctrine or through experience; and the six chapters that follow are about the dialogue between these two.

This is not a “teach yourself how” book (such as Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines); rather, it tries to follow threads in Christian spirituality: belief systems, searching, relationships, story-telling, pilgrimage, and, of course, suffering. It is a deeply reflected and Christocentric study, which is likely to resonate more with those of us who have been around a while than with teenagers. Some of the people Smith uses as examples (Dag Hammarskjöld, for instance) raise interesting issues concerning the breadth of “Christian” spirituality, and so-called anonymous Christians.

It’s a comparatively short and expensive book; and although it is aimed at second- and third-year undergraduate students of spirituality, it would be a helpful workbook for leading a course that explored spiritualities in church. Each chapter ends with an invitation to reflect on various questions, and a very good selection for further reading. There is a rather eclectic glossary of Christian writers; and subject and scriptural indexes are welcome. Preachers will be grateful for the many illustrative vignettes and quotations that can be plundered.

Prebendary Nick Mercer is Vicar General of the London College of Bishops.

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