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Spirituality and History: A Review of Philip Sheldrake

Philip Sheldrake is one of the leading voices in academic spirituality today. His book Spirituality and History (London: SPCK, 1991) is a significant and probing analysis of how records of history, namely the history of spirituality, can be and have been shaped by the needs and interests of the world’s powerful. The resulting distortions have silenced the stories of the powerless and those religious groups on the “losing side” of history, allowing important events and movements to be misunderstood or even forgotten by future generations. Although Sheldrake’s background means that History and Spirituality uses case studies that will be of particular interest to Roman Catholics, all students of Christian spirituality may find its themes instructive, as Sheldrake’s reflections on how traditions are passed down highlight problems common to the process of history in general. Also, the pre-Reformation case studies which Sheldrake discusses (the development of religious life[1] in chapter five and the story of the Beguines[2] in chapter six) are part of the history that led to the emergence of new forms of Christianity in later centuries. Spirituality and History should be read more as a grey collage of historical methodology than as a perfectly logical black-and-white progression of chapters on how to do history. Incidentally, this style rather fits the content of the book, as Sheldrake argues that history itself is also not linear, but is a patchwork of variously interconnected events (99).

Sheldrake begins his book by exploring the variety of ways in which historical enquiry has been mishandled, particularly by people of faith who believe that events of the past, present and future are a progressive sequence under the guardianship of divine providence (25-26). Such individuals and groups are susceptible to turning history into hagiography in order to substantiate their own truth claims (33). Sheldrake notes in particular how history has become a “battleground” for Catholics and Protestants (and all groups) who have manipulated records of events in order to demonstrate superiority over others, either as preservers of apostolic purity (in the case of Catholics) or as rescuers of the same (in the case of Protestants), (34, 76). The following chapters in part one (2-4) further develop the framework laid out in the first chapter, challenging readers to understand the incredible complexity not only of history itself, but of the process of recovering an authentic spiritual history—particularly where the experiences of non-elites (e.g., lay people, the poor, non-Europeans, women, etc.), have been overlooked, or worse, subverted, for the benefit of the powerful recorders and interpreters of history (the educated, the clergy, men, etc.). Herein lies one of the most compelling implications of Sheldrake’s book. Sheldrake succeeds in showing his readers how the recovery of “lost” threads and nuances in church history can move various competing Christian spiritualities into greater self-reflection, which in turn may open doors toward more humble, ecumenical and mutual appreciation as these spiritualities come to terms with the ambiguity of their own origins. This could have significant implications for Adventist readers.

Chapter six of part two considers the beguines as an example of a group that has largely been neglected in the history of Western European spirituality, owing to the fact that it was a movement of the marginalized. The beguines were not only women, but they were women caught up in the contemporary fervor of the vita apostolica embodied by such new religious orders as the Franciscans and Dominicans (143, 145). Sheldrake points out that it would be simplistic to call the beguines forerunners to the Protestant Reformation—that they were instead responding to the issues of their own day (163). In light of this it is especially interesting to note the ways in which thirteenth-century beguines exemplified ideals which Protestant hagiography has claimed did not emerge until practically the sixteenth century with reformers such as Luther, Calvin and others: preaching the word, challenging the institution (if not directly then implicitly), and even reading scripture in the vernacular (145, 155, 159). At the same time, the beguines were noted for their devotion to the sacraments and especially to the Eucharist, making them, in a certain sense, very orthodox (154). Here again Sheldrake demonstrates that it is unhelpful to categorize and draw strict lines around history, as such a practice has the tendency to break down the continuity and interconnectedness of history’s various movements and time periods.

With chapter seven, Sheldrake enters part three of his book, dealing with how modern people can most fruitfully enter into a dialogue with spiritual history today. One of the best methods is via the reading of spiritual texts or classics. Sheldrake notes how easy it is to read spiritual texts in such a way as to “justify the status quo,” or so as merely to reinforce prevailing ideas about what authentic spirituality is by being uncritical and by accepting the point of view of the historical victors (184). Sheldrake reminds readers that understanding the process of spiritual history can actually help believers understand why they are who they are today. Also, by demonstrating how events and thought patterns of the past gave birth to fresh forms of spirituality in their own time, Sheldrake shows how rediscovering lost threads of Christianity can open up new possibilities for spiritual practice and expression now.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Sheldrake reveals how recovering lost spiritual history can make groups and individuals more sensitive to where they have suppressed the weak of the past so that they don’t do it again to the weak of today. This is a moral benefit, and therefore certainly relevant to Christian spirituality. Sheldrake himself appeals to morality as the value that should ultimately motivate Christians to rediscover lost historical accounts, stating that “the equality of all people and of their experience before God… is fundamental to the gospel and should therefore be the bedrock on which the Christian spiritual tradition rests” (225). Significantly, Sheldrake observes that the “standpoint of powerlessness and poverty” is actually implicitly receptive and is therefore less likely to attempt to “dominate [and manipulate] the past” (176). This should make the recovery of history from the perspective of the weak very desirable to students of history and spirituality who value honesty and objectivity.

Although History and Spirituality is a probing and engaging book, it perhaps leans a bit heavy on the pessimistic side. Woven firmly throughout Sheldrake’s assessment of how the elite have exploited history to their own advantage are some very helpful clues about how power itself might be turned around and placed in the service of the marginalized. Power has a unique potential to undo itself in the project of historical reinvestigation. Sometimes the build up of Sheldrake’s outline and the cogency of his examples lead one to think that he is about to articulate a positive new opportunity for the powerful, but then he seems to fall backward again in order to examine the same problems from different perspectives. One is left wondering at the end whether the powerful have any valuable role left to play at all in the historical process. Even in Sheldrake’s conclusion, where he seems to be moving toward some hopeful implications, Sheldrake can’t help but write a negative concluding sentence on how the gospel equality of all people has “often been obscured as the result of conditioning by other social values” (225).

This minor critique aside, however, Spirituality and History is a creative and intelligent work that compels readers to re-evaluate their assumptions not only about the history of spirituality itself, but about how spiritual history should be recorded and transmitted to future generations. By making modern students of spirituality aware of the frailty of received traditions, Sheldrake challenges his readers to deal more humbly with one another, to stop using and manipulating history as a tool for evangelism and self-justification, so that future generations will be able to enjoy the richness of a more fully claimed and diverse Christian spirituality.

Rachel Davies edits the spirituality section here at Spectrum.

[1]The term “religious life” is a category in the Roman Catholic tradition encompassing monks, nuns, sisters, brothers and priests who are attached to specific religious orders.

[2]The Beguines emerged around the thirteenth century as a female lay movement. These women lived alone or formed communities of poverty, prayer and service independent from established religious orders of the day. They were heavily criticized by their contemporaries for their unconventionality.



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