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Ruth A. Meyers
Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition.
Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.
The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
The foundational materiality in Christian worship is the bodily presence of worshippers. Gender differences—and the manifold ways in which they are embodied and performed in different cultural contexts—are therefore inscribed into the very fabric of liturgical practices, past and present. In Christian worship today, the workings of gender are evident across a broad spectrum of ecclesial traditions. Some churches have authorized rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions; some are ordaining openly transgender priests. Other churches continue to struggle with the ordination of women, while a few aim for explicitly “masculine” worship experiences. Feminist concerns over liturgical language mark some communities, while churches rooted in more traditional contexts maintain seating arrangements that separate women and men. Clearly, the workings of gender in Christian worship today span a broad spectrum of quite dissimilar concerns. At the root of all these concerns, however, lies the same vital reality, namely that worship is an embodied practice and therefore never gender-free.
What often goes unnoticed in contemporary discussions is the fact that gender differences have marked liturgical practices in Christian communities since earliest times. The workings of gender, in other words, have a genealogy in Christian worship. Scholars have only recently begun to map this terrain, by bringing the interpretive tools of gender theory to bear on liturgical historiography. Paramount among these interpretive tools is an understanding of gender as attending to all gendered particularities and sexualities (e.g., eunuchs in Byzantium, ascetic virgins in Merovingian Gaul, transgender people in contemporary North America, etc.). Gender, in other words, is understood to encompass much more than the traditional binary of “women” and “men.”
The emerging gender-attentive insights into liturgical history have been intriguing and at times quite surprising. These insights span the whole of liturgy’s past, from ways in which gender shaped early baptismal practices (e.g., in the choreography of the rite, in questions surrounding the minister of baptism, in the bodily proprieties considered appropriate at the font) to the workings of gender in the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (e.g., its first important text, Tra le Sollecitudine (1903)—usually hailed for its evocation of an “active participation” of the faithful in worship—also sought to discontinue the presence of castrati singers in the Sistine Chapel choir while ensuring that women would not take their place).
In between earliest glimpses of the workings of gender in Christian worship and our own times lie approximately a thousand years of a complex history. Tracing this history of the interplay between gender differences and Christian worship not only constitutes an important task for historians of liturgy, but also provides rich resources for addressing contemporary issues.
American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
The common core thesis contends that mystical experience is an ultimate non-sensuous experience of unity of all things. It can be identified within major faith traditions, whether explicitly religious or not. Its roots are in the work of William James who explored mystical experience outside the limits imposed by what he perceived as only a provisional natural science assumption of the newly emerging discipline of empirical psychology. Following the explicit phenomenological work of Walter Stace, the phenomenology of a universal core to mystical experience has been operationalized and an explicit psychometric measure developed to allow empirical assessment of the claim to a common core to mysticism. It is the linkage of psychometric approaches to the work of James and Stace that is now known explicitly as the common core thesis. The common core thesis needs to be delineated from the perennialist thesis popularized by Aldous Huxley in which there is postulated not only a common core experience, but also values and practices claimed to be associated with this experience if not directly derived from it. Psychometric and empirical evidence for the common core thesis is substantial and continues to accumulate. The common core thesis is restricted to mystical experience and assumes that this experience seeks to express itself in various faith traditions, whether religious or not, but is not restricted to or defined adequately by the culture or language with which this experience is interpreted. Unlike the perennialist thesis, the common core thesis does not assume that any common theology, philosophy, or practice necessarily follows from mystical experience.
The comparative study of mysticism began in the mid-19th century, with the development of the modern meaning of the word, which had begun to be used as a substantive, with the classification of “mystics” in the 17th century. This differed from the traditional Greek Christian use of the adjective mystikos, to qualify rituals, scriptures, sacraments, and theology as “mystical” contexts of the human encounter with the Divine. This modern shift highlighted the personal experience of ultimate Reality, rather than the sociocultural context. Certain individuals claimed to encounter the Divine or spiritual realities more directly, separate from traditional mediums of religious experience. The study of this phenomenon tended in the early 20th century to focus on the psychology and the phenomenology of the personal experience, generally described as an altered state of consciousness with specific characteristics, processes, stages, effects, and stimulants. This emphasis on common features influenced the development of perennialist and traditionalist theorists, who saw evidence of the same experiential origin, fundamental principles, or epistemology among major world religions. Some essentialist views of mysticism argued that a pure consciousness-experience of undifferentiated unity or non-duality is the core feature of all mysticism, in contrast to other religious experiences. Reaction to these positions led to contextualist or constructivist views of mysticism, which presume the sociocultural character of mysticism. In its most extreme form, the contextualist perspective suggests that all mystical experiences among traditions are different, given diverse socio-religious categories that overdetermine the experience. In turn, some critical scholarship has proposed qualifications to contextualism within the context of a general acceptance of many of its tenets, even among many theorists with essentialist tendencies.
Up to the late 20th century, much scholarship in the area tended to downplay the sociocultural features of mysticism, emphasizing the psychological dynamics and an individual, disembodied, and radically transcendent ideal. This brought into question the relationship of morality to mystical experience and raised concerns about the status of entheogens—the use of psychoactive drugs in religious contexts. Interest in the comparative study of mysticism has also extended into the area of neuroscience, where researchers explore electro-chemical brain states associated with mystical experience, in proposing evidence of a mystical neurological substrate. But the essentialist/contextualist debate also moved the comparative study of mysticism beyond issues of epistemology, consciousness-states, ontology, and cognitive neuroscience, broadening the field to include other aspects of religious experience. Some studies have brought feminist concerns to bear on the discussion, insofar as women’s mysticism has been overshadowed and even repressed by men, and was seen to preclude legitimate experiential possibilities of a more embodied character. Related scholarship in history and depth psychology has focused creatively on the nature and significance of erotic elements of mysticism in comparative studies, with special attention to associated physical phenomena and their transformative dynamics. Similarly, more embodied features of comparative mysticism are the subject of transpersonal psychology, which draws on many humanistic disciplines and supports participatory approaches to the field. Transpersonal psychology remains open to claims that the ego can be transcended in movements into higher states of being that ideally involve personal/spiritual enhancement and integration. Also, some more recent proponents of new comparative theology advocate methods that engage the scholar in specific beliefs or practices of another tradition, and include subsequent clarification and elaboration of one’s own perspective in light of such comparative study, in exploring phenomena related to comparative mystical experience.
Chas S. Clifton
Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.
A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.
Mickey L. Mattox
Martin Luther was not an original contributor to the study of cosmology, and if one were to judge only by his explicit remarks on the matter, it would seem to have been of little interest to him. He was, however, every bit a man of his times, and as such he assumed what educated people of his times assumed, including in the matter of the nature and structure of reality. The world in which he came of age was informed by a compelling vision of the universe as a whole. Astronomical observation and mathematical calculation in the traditions of Aristotle and Ptolemy had long since combined with philosophical and religious speculation to render Luther’s world a coherent “cosmos” (Gk. kosmos, “order” or “world”), at the center of which reposed a stationary sphere, the earth. This world was surrounded at ever-increasing heights by the heavenly spheres, each of them thought to be wheeling in at tremendous rates of speed that increased as one moved up through their heights: first the moon, then the planets, the stars, and ultimately the prime mover. This long-traditional view of the cosmos rendered reality itself an arena of intense motion and beauty.
Taken in a broad scientific and aesthetic sense, cosmology provided not only an interpretation of the heavens but also an imaginative lens through which to experience and understand one’s self and one’s world. Though he quibbled over some of the details, Luther clearly viewed himself and his world through that very lens. During his university studies in Erfurt for the bachelor and master of arts degrees, he read cosmology as a subject covered in the integrated approach to learning set forth in a curriculum based on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). In combination with other later medieval notions—such as the understanding of the human body and its four humors or the sublunar sphere and its four constituent elements (earth, water, air, fire)—cosmology became for Luther what it was for all his educated peers, that is, a world view. Thus, while Luther was not a cosmologist per se, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos provided a set of background beliefs that informed his theology and world view at every level. He also developed a distinctive understanding of the reality and exercise of power and authority, both on the earth and in the heavens.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.