In-Sight: “Classical” Spirituality

Earlier today, I read Dr. Ben Witherington’s “Bible and Culture” blog for the day.  Using insights from T.S. Eliot, he pondered what it means to call something a “classic.”

Among the things Ben noted, he pointed to the fact that a mature culture is both “literate” and “lettered.”  He used the former word to mean the basic ability to say something, and the second word to mean having something to say that’s worth saying.

I believe Eliot and Witherington have defined “classical” in a good way—a way that can and should be applied to spiritual formation.

For years, I’ve been fascinated with the fact that, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Thomas Merton was already warning about the dangers of technology.  Think for a moment, and you may find yourself wondering if “technology” even existed that far back!  But when you read Merton, you find it not only existed, but also that he believed it posed a threat to human life as God intends for it to be.

How so?  Well…combining Eliot/Witherington and Merton, it has to do with the fact that technology creates a culture that’s literate, but not necessarily one that’s lettered.

By its nature, technology is about speed and efficiency—the ability to “get things done” as quickly and easily as possible.  New gadgets come on the market largely touted by their ability to do more things faster, and people lay down and trade in their “old” machines for new ones.  A whole economy is based on helping our world become more literate—defined as largely being “faster.”

But speed necessarily creates superficiality.  The texting world has proved this with the emergence of a whole vocabulary that “says things” without spelling out a single word using all its letters. Speed means we cannot pause too long over any particular thing.

The point is, literacy alone does not create wisdom.  The ability to send something from one place to another with “lightening speed,” does not mean that what we’re sending is wise or substantive.  Being literate without being lettered leaves us shallow.

That’s why in the spiritual life, contemplation is not a nice “add-on” to the basic model; it is the basic model.  When William Longstaff penned the words, “take time to be holy,” he meant exactly that.  It is the cultivation of meditation, pondering, and contemplating which makes spirituality “classical” (in the way we’re looking at it now), because it is the way we combine being literate with also being lettered—not only having the ability to say something, but also being sure that what we say is worth saying.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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