Images-1Dr. William G. Witt has a web page which I recommend highly to you.  Here’s a selection from his article on George Herbert’s spirituality.

The spirituality of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet and priest, has been extolled as combining many of the factors that have become especially associated with classical Anglicanism: the pursuit of the via media (which is supposed to be both Catholic and Evangelical); a this-worldly theology that celebrates creation viewed in continuity with redemption; a corresponding focus on the incarnation of Christ as the prime example of the positive value of creation; an approach articulated not so much by speculative theologians as experienced in Word and Sacrament (in the public worship of the Daily Office and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer).

Such a summary of Herbert’s spirituality is not mistaken, but it encourages us too easily to imagine Herbert as a happy anticipation of the current sacramental and liturgical “experientialism” that passes for spirituality in much of contemporary Anglicanism. This “experientialist” Anglicanism is able to sanction Herbert’s poetry as a forerunner of a primacy of religious “experience” only to the extent that it ignores the actual content of Herbert’s writings. At the same time, there is nothing particularly Anglican about the appeal to the primacy of “experience.” Designated “experiential-expressivism” in George Lindbeck’s contemporary classic, The Nature of Doctrine,(1) variations are pervasive in contemporary Protestant and Catholic spirituality. The primary characteristic of “experiential-expressivism” is the separation of and priority of “religious experience” over linguistic interpretation. “Religious experience” is viewed as pre-thematic, pre-linguistic, and (generally speaking) culturally universal. Religious symbols, practices, narratives, and doctrines are viewed as consequent attempts to express this prior experience linguistically. Hermeneutically, the goal of the contemporary is to peel away the layers of interpretive enculturation to retrieve and reappropriate the original experience.

Despite its pervasive influence, I find the experientialist model unhelpful because it provides a misleading and inaccurate account of the relationship between theology and spirituality; it is inconsistent with the self-understanding and actual practices of what most Christians historically have thought they were doing when they were praying and worshiping; it imposes a paradigm on Christian spirituality that does not fit well with the actual historical texts and studies of Christian spiritual writers.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

In place of the “experientialist” paradigm, I find a “culturally-linguistic” (Lindbeck) or “religious contextual” (McGinn)(2) approach to spirituality to be more faithful to the actual relationship between theology, religious beliefs, and practices, and “spirituality” (which term I prefer to the expression, “religious experience”). Rather than religious practices and beliefs being the expressions of prior unthematic religious experiences, the opposite is the case. There simply are no experiences that are not made possible by languages, narratives and tradition. All experiences (not just religious experience) are epistemologically mediated in complex ways. Particular religious traditions with their accompanying narratives, rituals, and practices, form religious experience and make it possible; Religious experiences are (accordingly) specific to particular cultural contexts. Buddhists have Buddhist religious experiences; Jews have Jewish religious experiences; Christians have Christian religious experiences.

I think the spirituality of George Herbert to be better understood in light of such a contextualist paradigm. Herbert does indeed have much to teach us about a thoughtful and self-critical spirituality that does (after all) value creation, incarnation, sacraments, liturgy, and the Catholic and Evangelical tradition of the Church, but at the same time, Herbert’s spirituality provides a corrective to the dominant paradigm of contemporary spirituality.

In this discussion, I would like to examine George Herbert’s approach to God as he expressed it in his short work The Country Parson and his collection of religious poetry, The Temple.(3) In what follows, I hope to trace the relationship between Herbert’s religious practices, his theology, and his spirituality as that is found both in his prose work and his poetry, leaving the criticism of his poetry—as poetry—to others.

{Read it all}