Oftentimes, the spiritual seeker is one who seeks to escape their humanity by way of mystical experience that promises to transcend the reality of the material world. The spiritual seeker often desires to discover a reality that exists behind the mundane normative experience of being human. However, Christian spirituality shatters these misconceptions about the world, humanity, and the transcendent. Because the fundamental truth of Christianity, is that the one infinite God who transcends all categories of human comprehension entered into time, space, and human reality in the person of Jesus Christ. God became fully human while remaining fully God, and therefore bestowed eternal and divine significance upon human experience. God became like us. In his book, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, Rowan Williams describes Christian spirituality as it is incarnated in Christian history by the saints of the church. Williams does not mean to suggest that the spiritual life is only for the few, the heroes of the faith, rather he presents the spiritual life by illustrations and sketches of various saints. Thus, he highlights human experience in the spiritual life. Christian spirituality is inclusive of human experience, because the relationship humanity has with God is one in which God offers friendship with himself to humans by redeeming the human story in and through entering the fray of human existence as the incarnate Jesus.
I will illustrate the place of human experience in Christian spirituality by expounding on Williams’ treatment of the New Testament, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. John of the cross. Though these sources do not provide an exhaustive explanation of the place and importance of human experience in Christian spirituality, they do provide an introduction as to how humanity and all of reality are transformed and brought into union with God by Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.
The New Testament is fundamentally about God’s salvation of humanity from sin and death. Furthermore, the New Testament is about the salvation of particular human beings. Thus, the New Testament while proclaiming that Jesus Christ universally defeated sin, death, and evil on the cross, also proclaims this robust salvation in the lives of specific persons. God’s disclosure of the truth about all creation happens in and through the human story and particular human stories. Williams explains, “If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence, becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s saving work.”1 The human story is, then, to be understood by the hermeneutic of God’s saving work in Jesus. Human experience is necessarily intertwined with God’s revelation of himself by the salvation wrought by the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human; Jesus is, in a theological sense, the first true human being. Jesus’ work of redeeming the cosmos is realized by his full and complete dependence upon God. Williams writes, “Self-dependence is revealed as a mechanism of self-destruction; to cling to it in the face of God’s invitation to trust is a thinly veiled self-hatred.”2 Self-dependence is the attempt to create a reality apart from God. Apart from God there is no coherent truth to reality. Apart from God, humanity is capable of creating false realities based upon the lie of our own self-dependence and self-sustainability. It is possible for humans to create systems of community and interpersonal relationships without acknowledging human dependence upon God. However, these systems end in nihilistic violence, and are characterized by oppression and exploitation of people and natural goods. Thus, self-dependence is not a demonstration of human success and achievement, but a refusal be fully human. Jesus demonstrates by his identity and work that to be fully human in perfect friendship and harmony with God is to rely on God who is the creator and sustainer of all things.
Therefore, human experience is innately caught up in the mystery of God. There is no human experience apart from God but only a privation of human existence. Human existence properly understood is creaturely existence that grows into deeper union with God. Humanity was created for relationship and union with God. Humanity was created to participate in the life of the Triune God. Consequently, the salvation effected by Christ is of a progressive nature. In other words, followers of Jesus are to progress in the Christian life ever approaching God-likeness. Williams states, “Salvation is to be realized in growth, and not to grow is to fall away.”3 Human experience, as properly defined by Jesus’ mission of salvation, is characterized by spiritual growth. Christian spirituality, is necessarily inclusive of human experience, which is human experience of divine salvation effected by Jesus.
Williams uses Augustine of Hippo to explain how Christian spirituality is inclusive of the finite human situation. As finite beings, humans are not objectively in control of their reality. Williams notes, “Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting.”4 As finite beings, we are located in time, space, relationships, proclivities, and aptitudes that are not necessarily of our own choosing. We do not choose to exist, nor do we exert control over our lives in an autonomous, objective, or linear fashion. Rather, we come to exist in the middle of narratives that are much larger than our individual lives. We are born and mature in the midst of familial, socio-cultural, and theological narratives. Augustine is perhaps the first great theologian to grasp the significance of our personal narratives in our experience of the transcendent God. Williams explains, Augustine “confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalizingly obscure to reason.”5 Our human relationships with God and our spiritual growth are not merely about what we conceive objectively about God. Christian spirituality is as much about the heart as it is about the head. “The heart is moved, drawn, tossed about by impulse and desire, and ‘will’ has less to do with reason than with passion.”6 The Christian’s relationship with God, then, is as much, if not more, about simply being with God as it is about rational or intellectual conceptions of God.
Human experience entails emotions, relationships, and desire as much as rationality. The spectrum of human experience is not an encumbrance to relationship with the divine. Human embodiment is not an impediment to the God who is spirit. Williams says, “Human beings are naturally passionate, vulnerable, mobile, and if their humanity is to be saved it must be without loss of all this.”7 We are saved in and through our human experience. We meet God and grow into his image and likeness in and through our human experience. “Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart’s longing to what has been revealed as the only finally satisfying object of its desire.”8 Our confidence rests not in our knowledge of God but in our faithfulness to desire and love God above all else. Prayer is the language of the heart, and it is by communing with God regularly in prayer that we ensure the fidelity of our desire for God.
In the work of St. John of the Cross, Williams demonstrates how embodied knowledge and desire draw us deeper into a participatory relationship with God and eventually draw us into union with God. Embodied knowledge distinct from pure reason is to know in a holistic and experiential way rather than in a merely intellectual way. Union with God is not an escape from our creatureliness or human experience, but preserves every aspect of human existence thought by Augustine to be saved in Christ, yet now existing in a transformed and higher way. John of the Cross teaches us that human knowledge and love must be transformed and reordered. Williams explains, “To be determined by knowledge and love of creatures, to have that as the decisive reality of one’s inner life, is to be able to know and love God.”9 Our inner lives are shaped by what we know and what we love. “Knowledge unifies; knowledge is participation, in which the knower is molded to take the form of what is known.”10 Knowledge unites us with God when our knowledge is shaped by prayer and permeates every aspect of our human experience.
For John of the Cross, the knowledge gained in prayer is not “rare mystical trances, visions or ecstasies, but the sense of being drawn into a central magnetic area of obscurity.”11 In other words, we know God when we cease to know by human means. We know God when we know that it is more important that we are known by God. St. John of the Cross refers to this knowing as illumination. Williams describes illumination saying, “Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus.”12 Thus, illumination is apophatic by nature. However, neither St. John of the Cross nor Williams intend for growth in union with God to render our human experience of God’s creation meaningless. Rather, “Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Jesus on the cross.”13 Illumination is experience of the infinite God becoming a finite human in the person of Jesus Christ so as to unite the totality of human experience eternally with the life of the Trinity. The apophatic moment of illumination does not abolish the world, but so transforms who we are that we receive ourselves and all of creation again, but now as a gift born out of the excessiveness of God’s love. We receive ourselves and all of creation as a gift of God which directly participates in the being of the divine.
Therefore, Christian spirituality is not about an escape from the material-physical world, nor is it about an escape from our finitude. The Christian spiritual life is about growing towards union with God in such a way that the totality of human experience is transformed, saved, and of eternal significance. Rowan Williams tells the history of Christian spirituality as the story of individual Christian lives being redeemed and brought into deeper and fuller relationship with God in and through prayer. The New Testament assures us that we are saved in our particularity. God entered the world in Christ not to save humanity in abstract terms, but to offer individual Christians relationship with God mediated by the Church. Augustine of Hippo brilliantly describes salvation in a way that is inclusive of all human experience. And, St. John of the Cross explains how we in our humanity are brought into the life of the Trinity. Christian spirituality, then, is about how God meets us in our humanity, and transforms “humanity” into a category capable of cooperating and participating in the divine life of the Trinity.
- Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publication, 1991), 12.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 175.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid., 181.