Dust thou art — quickened by the Spirit

by
08 February 2011

Alec Graham praises a ‘re-founding’ of spiritual theology

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Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian life
Robert Davis Hughes III
Continuum £19.99
(978-0-8264-2843-1)
Church Times Bookshop £18

THIS is a substantial and truly remarkable work, the fruit of an immense range of knowledge. Closely argued, it is demanding for the reader. It needs to be read through in its entirety, however, so that the author’s development of his thesis may be followed. Then the reader will want to keep it to hand for further reading of passages of particular interest.

The simplest way into the author’s thesis is to read the last three pages, where he describes his work as “a constructive proposal for a re-founded spiritual theology”. Over the centuries, he maintains, spiritual theology had gradually become detached from the main stream of theological reflection and become a subsection of moral theology, which had itself been developing a rather separate existence. He seeks to reintegrate spiritual theology with the central theological enterprise, anchoring it firmly in a fully Trinitarian under­standing, with a specific focus on the role of the Holy Spirit.

The title of the book is explained in part by the author’s rejection of the body/soul dualism that had enabled the expression “the spiritual life” to be concerned largely, if not wholly, with prayer and contempla­tion. By contrast, human beings are but dust, as God told Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Eden. We have no life at all except as animated by the Spirit of God, and Christian people are aware that we are both animated and beloved.

The subtitle makes it plain that the author is particularly concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian formation; and the expression “Tides of the Spirit” captures both the flow of the Spirit by which we are carried along and also our experience of the Spirit as ebb and flow within us.

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The tides themselves are described in a complex scheme that builds on the traditional successive stages of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive, associated by the author with the theological virtues of faith, love, and hope. These stages are, however, not only successive; they become recurrent and concurrent. Conversion, too, needs to be renewed, and true conversion must include a radical political and social expression.

The end of it all is a fourth stage when the believer is led along the routes of friendship and love to union, not absorption, in the very life of the Trinitarian God.

The author draws on much basic theological understanding, parti­cu-larly on coinherence, the hypo­static union, and divinisation; on a wide range of authors, patristic and more recent (including John Wesley); on the classic expositions of the mystical way; and on exponents of other disciplines, particularly behavioural science and psycho­logical developments.

He repeatedly emphasises the need for discernment and guidance, but this is a work not just for advanced practitioners, rather one that will be illuminating for all those interested in the interplay of prayer, theology, and action in the Christian life.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle.

MICHAEL RAMSEY’s Holy Spirit: A biblical study was first published in 1977. The Archbishop looked at how early Christians encountered the Third Person of the Trinity, and devoted chapters to Jesus, Luke, Paul, and John, and their thoughts and experiences, besides giving a brief account of the Spirit elsewhere in biblical thought (SPCK, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-281-06223-2).

MICHAEL RAMSEY’s Holy Spirit: A biblical study was first published in 1977. The Archbishop looked at how early Christians encountered the Third Person of the Trinity, and devoted chapters to Jesus, Luke, Paul, and John, and their thoughts and experiences, besides giving a brief account of the Spirit elsewhere in biblical thought (SPCK, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-281-06223-2).

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