History and Spirituality

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History and Spirituality

Kees Waaijman

History and Spirituality

Kees Waaijman    2010Workspace

Spirituality is an historical phenomenon, and as such object of historical research. Entering this field of research, one may be confronted by a lot of questions. What is the drive behind this enterprise? Is it politics, religion, or ethics: medicine for the sick mind (Livius)? Or is it curiosity and entertainment: seeking to please the ear rather than to speak the truth (Thucydides)? In whose interests is the history contracted? How to gather a trustful documentation? How to select in the enormous amount of data? How to construct an historical ’story’? How to read the ’tracks’ of the past? All these questions are mutatis mutandis relevant for the history of spirituality. Is this kind of research aimed at nourishment, orientation, formation, information? Is it to strengthen the main line and the power centre of a tradition or is it to give voice to the voiceless people (marginalized, oppressed, lay people, women etc)? How to measure the difference between mainstream spirituality and dissidents? All these questions play at the background of the ’history of spirituality’.[1]


Every time shapes its own ’mystical repertoire’.[2] In some periods specific words play a central role, in other times the same words have a marginalized position. New contexts create new meanings. An historical view discovers the referential, contextual and diachronic aspects in spiritual vocabularies.

One of the basic functions of language is its referential or deictic function: words point at reality, the historical reality outside language. Particular in historical critical research this referential perspective is important. All modern reference works give information about the reality words are pointing at. For instance, the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament and the Exegetische Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, and the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité cover almost all words of Christian spirituality. In these words a spiritual world is opened up, spiritual dimensions of our being in the world.

Historical contexts create new words and load old words with new meanings. A good example is the new meaning of ’mysticism’ in the 17th century. In those days, the adjective ’mystical’ turned into the noun ’mysticism’ whith a specific meaning: a distinct area of reality with its own language, its own logic, and its own experts, the mystics.[3] The meaning of words reflects the socio-cultural context in which they are used.

Diachronically seen, the referential and contextual meanings show a history of transformations in the spiritual vocabulary. To give only one example, the word ’spirituality’: in the Benedictine centuries spiritualitas referred to a total transformation in spirit; from the 11th century on spiritualitas was contrasted with materiality; at the end of the 19th century the word had almost completely vanished; at the start of the 20th century ’spirituality’ surfaced, designing the systematic scientific reflection on lived spirituality.[4] From the 1960s on the word became, in almost all languages and for virtually all philosophies of life, the overarching concept for everything that has to do with ’spiritual life’.[5]


Already in the 19th century scholars react upon idealistic interpretations of history. Buckle points at the influences of the material world upon history: the importance of food, soil, and the general aspect of nature upon the formation of society. Marx showed how the evolution of society is conditioned by the economic circumstances of its existence: modes of production and capital. Weber brought to the fore the relation between the raise of Protestantism and Capitalism.

It took more than a century before this perspective broke through in the history of spirituality. The liberation spiritualities in Latin America, Africa and Asia unveiled the socio-economic implications of forms of spirituality. The basic communities discovered the socio-economic dimension of spirituality.[6] Women spirituality pointed at the importance of the material culture (house, clothes, food etc) in the spirituality of every day life and the holiness of human life as it is lived.[7] Ecological spirituality awoke us to the earthy character of spirituality: our bodiliness, our eating habits, the air we breathe, the presence of animals, the pollution of the environment, and so forth.[8]

Needed is an ’archaeology’ of spirituality, not limited to the research of artefacts, remained of man’s past, but an ’archaeology’ in the broad sense of the word: the economic dimension of spirituality, an ’archaeology’ as Levinas unfolds in his Totality and Infinity, part 2 entitled Interiority and Economy,[9] encompassing body, joy, home, work, property, intimacy and so on. The ’archaeology’ of this economic dimension of history of spirituality will throw a new light on primordial spiritualities, such as indigenous spirituality and secular spirituality.

Arts (Images)

In spirituality images take many shapes and perform many functions. Painting and icons, sculptures and reliefs, architecture and stained glass, music and dance – a great variety of images has been developed in the history of spirituality. Similarly, they performed a multiplicity of functions: in devotional practices or liturgy, in meditation or healing procedures, for animation or comfort, and so forth.

Impressive research has been done by historians to document and to reconstruct the successive periods of spiritual arts. Regarding Christian spirituality extensive studies of almost all periods are available. Moreover, there is the seven volume reference work Lexikon der christliche Ikonographie,[10] not only offering iconographic documentation but also iconological insights. Meanwhile, critical reflections are uttered that these histories ’cannot be retrieved other than through the distorted lenses of contemporary cultural attitudes’.[11]

Challenging for an historical perspective are the limits of the standardized form language: spiritual arts in indigenous spirituality, the meaning of iconoclastic movements, the interpretation of nominally secular art (Friedrich, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Mondriaan, Bacon etc.), the understanding of changing standards (the idea of the sublime in romantic nature painting.

Forms (Histories)

The discipline of forms (histories) is related to the histories of human life in the broadest sense. The history of spirituality is part of this phenomenon. Looking back on the great scientific historiographies in the field of spirituality of the last century we observe a widening of the horizons.

The first great historical survey is Pourrat’s La spiritualité Chrétienne (1921-1930). In four volumes the author treats the history of Catholic spirituality, starting with the Christian spirituality and at the end strongly focussing on French spirituality.

Histoire de la Spiritualité (1960-1966), similarly a work of four volumes, broadens in part II the scope, describing the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, the Protestants and the Anglicans.

Historia de la Espiritualidad (1969), again in four volumes, treats non-Christian forms of spirituality (Judaism, Islam, Gnosis, Hellenism, and so forth) and pays also attention to modern atheism.

World Spirituality (1985- ), presenting itself as An Encyclopic History of the Religious Quest, does not limit itself to the dominant traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so on), but deals extensively with indigenous spiritualities and the secular quest (together 7 volumes). Here the historical discipline has widened its scope to the study of religion.

These successive widenings of the horizons are reflected in unnumerous monographs on periods, currents and persons, and by detail studies in compilations and periodicals. One may say that the scientific historiography in the field of spirituality is flourishing, although studies on primordial spirituality (indigenous, lay and secular spirituality) are still in a beginning stage.

Connections (Relationships)

There cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes’.[12] Historical research of spirituality moves between two extremes: looking at similarities, imagining some genealogy, and looking at differences, stressing the ’otherness’ and the historical concreteness.

At the one extreme, especially in the 19th century, historical theories tried to place the different spiritualities within a historical frame of world history (in fact a Western frame). But also in the 20th century scholars tried to think the togetherness of spiritualities. Franz Rosenzweig argues that Judaism is intrinsically related with Christianity, both going the way to the Kingdom of God.[13] Panikkar sees the different spiritualities as the unfolding of a triadic pattern, mirroring the triune life within the (Christian) Godhead.[14]

At the other extreme, especially in postmodern theories, scholars stress the concrete historicity of spirituality. Spirituality does not exist ’apart from concrete historical life’.[15] Although it is possible ’to posit some sort of common foundation or essence for the religions, to seek out and build on the "family resemblances" between religious traditions’, on closer examination one will discover, ’that the world religions are not discrete versions of some transhistorical essence but complex historical constructions’.[16]

Without harmonizing the extremes, one may agree with Cousins, unfolding his ’encyclopedic history of the religious quest’ as a spiritual journey, a meeting place for spiritualities, ’that the meeting of spiritual paths – the assimilation not only of one’s own spiritual heritage but of that of the human community as a whole – is the distinctive spiritual journey of our time’.[17]


Normally the historical research of spirituality is hesitating to go further than an accurate description of spiritual forms (lives, movements, schools, figures etc.). Scarcely dares it to enter the interior horizon of these forms, their transformative power, and the way the divine-human relation takes shape in and through a concrete form, notwithstanding the fact that Hausherr already in the 1930s stressed that one should necessary interpret the spiritual dimension, incarnated in this concrete spiritual form of life – of course after the determination of the historical data.[18] More than fifty years later Edith Wyschogrod pointed out that ’saintly’ life is defined as one in which compassion for the Other, irrespective of the cost to the saint, is the primary trait.[19] Von der Nahmer rightly states: ’As truly as the history, and in the case of the vita, especially the personal life history of the saint, is framed in the conditions of history, still there nevertheless are at work in it – in concealed or clearly visible ways but in any case decisively – the will and power of God’.[20] These two dimensions together – the contextual framework and the divine influence – constitute the ’hierophanic history’ that is neither fiction nor history but that participates in both simultaneously, and is mediated by a symbolic process.[21] A complete description of a spiritual form asks for an interpretation of its inner horizon, unfolding its value system, its spiritual practices, its configuration of virtues, its forms of reflection and discernment, and its mystical transformation.[22] It is precisely this ’hierophanic history’ which is contextual in the dynamic sense of the word: ’By "context" I mean not only a framework or external trappings, but the very element from which the experience takes its form and its expression’.[23]

Although the vision is there and some work has been done in this area of the interior horizon of spiritual forms, a substantial exploration of this ’hierophanic history’, precisely in the dialectical tension between spirituality and culture, has to be done.[24]


From a historical perspective professions come to the fore as roles and models against the background of the socio-cultural context. ’Every society may be viewed as holding a repertoire of identities – little boy, little girl, father, mother, policeman, professor, thief, archbishop, general and so forth.’[25] In spirituality roles are permanently changing, because the historical pattern in which they function are in transition.

Historical research of spirituality reflects these processes. The majority of studies are dedicated to traditional models: the roles distributed in religious institutions, church hierarchy and other well established schools of spirituality. The lives of monks and moniales, brothers and sisters, missionaries and founders, priests and bishops are dominating in the historical scene.

Basically after Vaticanum II the distribution of spiritual roles changed dramatically. The new trend became: humans find God through historically conditioned experience, relationship, commitment, over against traditional tendencies of asceticism, removal of the world, prayer.

Historical research has not yet developed the appropriate framework to describe ’secularized spiritualities’[26] and lay-spirituality, ’constantly overlooked and unappreciated’, [27] and roles within forms of liberation spirituality.

In this context a critical eye is needed to discern between different processes of socialization, interiorization and role-taking.[28] This perspective makes understandable, why in some contexts roles are rejected or why there is resistance to some stigmatized roles.


Whatever may be the self-understanding of the historian – history as the representation of facts or the hermeneutic of historical tracks, or something in between – historical research is strongly bound with texts. Of course, there are archaeological sources (seals, coins, bones, building etcetera), but without written documents the history of spirituality cannot be thought. For biblical spirituality, for instance, the historical-critical approach has unfolded a completely new dimension of the Bible. From a historical perspective texts are sources, to be interpreted and evaluated critically. This is the precise point where the history of spirituality interdisciplinarily is linked with literary sciences. It is the combination of literary and historical approaches which brought forth such great historians as Scholem, Dan, Idel, Leclercq, McGinn, Ruh and others.

Interesting is the historical approach of texts itself. As a rule text-critical editions try to reconstruct the so-called authentic text. Recent text-editorial insights however, define, as we have seen, the critical text ’historical’, covering the entire history of the manuscript.[29]


The Benedictine monks of the Congregation of St. Maur were the first to apply John Bodin’s treatise Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566), and to establish the new science of history, including spirituality. At the same time the Bollandists wrote from 1643 on their Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur, an impressive repository of spiritual biographies.

In the nineteenth century the source criticism of Ranke caused a complete transformation of the science of history. As in spirituality, there came a more or less clear distinction between ’history’ as the events of the past itself (what happened; lived spirituality) and ’history’ as the record of events (critical documentation, analysis, reconstruction; the study of spirituality).

Although in the beginning sometimes a strong opposition was felt against the historical approach – legends and myths were unmasked as products of a particular lived spirituality –gradually in the 19th and the 20th century, spirituality has integrated historical research.

One of the most important insights in the history of spirituality was the growing awareness that the historical context itself belongs to lived spirituality. Spirituality does not exist on some ideal plane above and beyond history, as a pure form. Spirituality is dialectically interwoven with the cultural context, in a field of tension between continuity and discontinuity, as Michel de Certeau has strikingly described: on the one hand, spirituality expresses itself in the language of a certain period, in which its search for the ultimate Reality takes form and content, on the other hand, that same spirituality eludes the cultural language in which it expresses itself, it cannot find the words needed, it is ’unsayable’, it cannot express itself in the language of the time.[30]

The consciousness of the contextuality of spirituality has complicated the task of the history of spirituality. Questions about the perspective from which ’sources’ are collected, registered, interpreted, reconstructed and evaluated have brought the historians beyond their own mono-perspectivesness in a ’postmodern’ position of ’tracking’.[31] Paradoxically, the deeper the historicity of spirituality entered in the consciousness of the historian – What is the drive beyond history?[32] How different are the ways of appropriation?[33] How deeply influenced is the perception of history by our own perspectives? [34] – the deeper every overarching pretension looses its inner consistency. ’Indeed, attention to the complexities of history has been a major development in the study of Christian spirituality over the last thirty years’.[35]


Although the discipline of history in the course of the 20th century has become more practical, concentrating itself on concrete areas of research, theoretical questions are still there. The philosophy of history, trying to read and to interpret human history, is confronted with a complex of questions.

Firstly, in days past philosophers and theologians saw it as their task to decipher the ultimate structure and meaning of history, from Augustine’s De civitate Dei to Bossuet’s Histoire Universelle. Particularly in the 19th century philosophers tried to determine the direction of evolution and history (Hegel, Marx, Buckle, Darwin, Comte, Spengler, Toynbee etc.). The question is whether this ambition is realistic.

Secondly, research of other cultures gave historians insight in the different layers of history, each with their own historical consciousness and chronological code (Eliade, Lévi-Strauss, Vovelle).

Thirdly, after the raise of historicism from the 19th century on, stressing the historicity of revelation and faith, some historians explored the limits of this worldview. [36]

Finally, historians are confronted with the tensions between the patterns of regularly recurring historical phenomena and the role of individuals modifying their environment seriously.


  1. P. Sheldrake, Spirituality and history: Questions of interpretation and method, New York 1995; Id., A brief history of spirituality, Malden-Oxford 2007; see also Spiritualität und Geschichte (Ed. B. Berg), Werl 1993.
  2. C. van de Wetering, Met de ogen dicht, Muiderberg 1979.
  3. De Certeau, La fable mystique: XVIe-XVIIe siècle, Paris 1982.
  4. L. Tinsley, The French expression for spirituality and devotion, New York 1953.
  5. J. Heagle, ‘A new public piety: Reflections on spirituality’, in: Church 1 (1985), 52-55.
  6. P. Casaldaliga & J. Vigil, Espiritualidad de la liberación, Santander 1992; Spirituality of the Third World (Ed. K. Abraham & B. Mbuy-Beya), Maryknoll (NY) 1994.
  7. L. Sexson, Ordinarily sacred, Charlottesville 1992 (Orig.: New York 1982).
  8. C. Cummings, Eco spirituality: Toward a reverent life, Mahwah (NJ) 1991; Essays in spirituality and ecology (Ed. J. Snelling), Leicester 1992; S. Jung, We are home: A spirituality of the environment, New York 1993; R. Taylor, The search for a sacred place: Essays toward a spirituality of nature, Ann Arbor (MI) 1992.
  9. Levinas, Totality and infinity, 109-183.
  10. Lexikon der christliche Ikonographie (Ed. E. Kirschbaum e.a.), Rome etc. 1968-1976.
  11. A. Zilberstein, ‘Image and spirituality’, in: The new SCM Dictionary of Christian spirituality, 358-360.
  12. Talal Asad, Genealogies of religions, Baltimore (MD) 1993, cited by M. Barnes, in: ‘Theology of religions’, in: The Blackwell companion to Christian spirituality, 409.
  13. F. Rosenzweig, Star of redemption, London 1970.
  14. R. Panikkar, The Trinity and the religious experience of man, Maryland (NY) 1973.
  15. M. McIntosh, Mystical theology, Oxford 1998, 5.
  16. Barnes, ‘Theology of religions’, 408. See also R. Williams, On Christian theology, Oxford 2000.
  17. E. Cousins, ‘Preface’, in: Christian spirituality: Origins to the twelfth century, London 1986 (World Spirituality 16), xv; see also Id., Christ of the 21th century, Rockport 1992.
  18. I. Hausherr, ‘Biographies spirituelles. II. Époque byzantine’, in: Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 1937, vol. 1, 1634-1646.
  19. Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning moral philosophy, Chicago 1990, xxiii.
  20. D. von der Nahmer, Die lateinische Heiligenvita, Darmstadt 1994, 84.
  21. V. Urubshurow, ‘Hierophanic history and the symbolic process: A response to Ricoeur’s call for a “Generative Poetics”’, in: Studies in Spirituality 7 (1997), 263-291.
  22. For an exploration of this inner horizon see Waaijman, Spirituality, 662-687.
  23. De Certeau, ‘Culture and spiritual experience’, 10.
  24. See J. Corkery, ‘Spirituality and culture’, in: The new SCM dictionary of Christian spirituality, 26-31.
  25. P. Berger & B. Berger, Sociology: A biographical approach, New York-London 1972, 62.
  26. The new dictionary of Catholic spirituality (Ed. M. Downey), Collegeville (MN) 1993, 478.
  27. E. Sellner, ‘Lay spirituality’, in: Ibid., 589.
  28. For this area see H. Sundén, Die Religion und die Rollen: Eine psychologische Untersuchung der Frömmigkeit, Berlin 1966; J. van der Lans, Religieuze ervaring en meditatie, Deventer 1980.
  29. K. Ruh, ‘Überlieferungsgeschichte mittelalterlicher Texte als methodischer Ansatz zu einer erweiterten Konzeption von Literaturgeschichte’, in: Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Prosaforschung: Beiträge der Würzburger Forschergruppe zur Methode und Auswertung (Ed. K. Ruh), Tübingen 1985, 262.
  30. De Certeau, ‘Culture and spiritual experience’.
  31. P. Nissen, ‘De voorlopigheid van de waarheid’, in: Speling 59 (2007) no.1, 16-20.
  32. W. Frijhoff, ‘Religie, geloof en kerk’, in: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Kerkgeschiedenis 6 (2003), 3-13.
  33. W. Frijhoff, ‘Toeëigening: Van bezitsdrang naar betekenisgeving’, in: Trajecta: Tijdschrift voor de geschiedenis van het katholieke leven in de Nederlanden 6 (1997) no.2, 99-118.
  34. Baier, ‘Spiritualitätsforschung heute’, in: Handbuch Spiritualität, 26-28.
  35. Sheldrake, A brief history of spirituality, 5.
  36. See for this field of questions A. Wittkau, Historismus: Zur Geschichte des Begriffs und des Problems, Göttingen 1992; F. Jaeger & J. Rüsen, Geschichte des Historismus: Eine Einführung, München 1992; D. Myers, Resisting history: Historicism and its contents in German-Jewish thought, Princeton-Oxford 2003; F. Ankersmit, Sublime historical experience, Stanford 2005.