I have just begin reading for a course titled, “Theology and History of Spiritual Formation.” The texts include Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality. I don’t have a large background in spiritual theology. I have a smattering of courses starting in 1980 with the Church Fathers and then finishing in 1986 with two courses from James Houston. I similarly have a small sampling of books on my shelf, perhaps 24 books including three by Bernard of Clairvaux, three by Thomas Merton, and the rest spanning the Celts to the Brethren of the Common Life and the odd Quaker (Parker Palmer).

I’m interested in comparing and contrasting two texts: Sheldrake and Foster, Streams of Living Water. Each offers something quite different to the student of history and spirituality and apprentices of Jesus. Sheldrake is a solid history, but in the narration the text sacrifices the dynamism and passion of the persons and movements described. Sheldrake is 251 pages including the index. The index is eleven pages.

For comparison, Richard Foster’s book is 422 pages, with twin indices. The subject index is eight pages (longer pages so roughly the same number of entries as Sheldrake) and the following Scripture index is two pages.

The two books have completely different organizing schemes. Sheldrake walks through history systematically and chronologically, with the following divisions:

1. Foundations: Scriptures and Early Church
2.The Monastic Paradigm: 300-1150
3. Spirituality in the City: 1150-1450
4. Spiritualities in the Age of Reformation: 1450-1700
5.Spirituality in an Age of Reason: 1700-1900
6. Modernity to Postmodernity: 1900-2000

Foster organizes the Christian spiritual tradition by movements, so his divisions include the following:

1. Imitatio: The Divine Paradigm
2. The Contemplative Tradition: Discovering the Prayer Filled Life
3.The Holiness Tradition: Discovering the Virtuous Life
4. The Charismatic Tradition: Discovering the Spirit-Empowered Life
5. The Social Justice Tradition: Discovering the Compassionate Life
6. The Evangelical Tradition: Discovering the Word-Centered Life
7. The Incarnational Tradition: Discovering the Sacramental Life

Appendix A: Critical Turning Points in Church History
Appendix B: Notable Figures and Significant Movements in Church History

Foster also includes six charts that detail the personalities and movements explored. I’ve included partial charts here from two chapters: the Contemplative Tradition, and the Holiness Tradition. These two divisions are particularly interesting to me because of my ongoing interest in the Cistercians. Foster includes Aelred of Rievaulx in the Contemplative tradition, but includes Bernard of Clairvaux in the Holiness Tradition.

It would be difficult to surpass the work that Sheldrake has done in his brief history. He includes every name I have ever heard and a few I had not. His method is to skim lightly along the surface of the pond. Or, this is the view from 20,000 feet. If a revision ever hits the market, I would dearly love to see an additional thirty pages of work which would include more samplings from primary sources – the actual work of the personalities discussed.

Foster’s work is difficult to surpass for its passionate engagement with various movements. Foster writes as a pastor and spiritual guide, Sheldrake as a historian and theologian. Foster’s method is to skim across the pond, dipping down and plumbing quickly to the bottom, then rising to fly again. Or, this is the view from 1000 feet. Foster anchors each section with a particular personality. For the contemplative tradition this is Antony of Egypt (c. 251-356), and for the Holiness tradition its Bonhoeffer. Foster then looks for a biblical paradigm for each stream, and then a contemporary paradigm. For the contemplative tradition he chose John (son of Zebedee) and then Frank C. Laubach.

As you can tell, these texts are profoundly different and complementary, and both would be appropriate for use in graduate studies.

4 Comments on history of spirituality: two texts

  1. Paul Fromont says:

    Good (helpful) overview Len. I’d tossed up whether to get Sheldrake’s book (given I’m a fan), but decided against it because it was an overview from 20,000 ft (as you say). I always appreciate Sheldrake more when he immerces himself “in” and develops a theme.

    Nice look for your blog too.

    Did the article arrive in the post?

  2. len says:

    Did indeed, many thanks! Fascinating how McCurry illuminates Williams use of Derrida as a postmodern lens for theological work and application. Interesting in particular because I have done this kind of work but haven’t been able to clearly articulate my approach.

    Glad you like the look.. uncertain if I’ll keep it but change was needed.

  3. Excellent new look, Len. Far more readable and clean.

    At any rate, I am a big fan of “Streams” not only for its positive emphasis within its overview, but also because it is accessible to so many more people who might not be able to handle the more academic works. It is required reading for all of our full-time staff here.


  4. ken says:

    Thanks Len,
    I concur with your assessment of Sheldrake’s book: “in the narration the text sacrifices the dynamism and passion of the persons and movements described.” It’s unfortunate his text doesn’t allow the reader to swim in the spirituality of those he mentions. Only in rare circumstances does he even give a glimpse of a primary prayer or writing or oral tradition. I suppose his purpose was to give an overview of the facts… but in doing so he treats “spirituality” as merely a category in the lists of history… rather than a subject to be understood and experienced.

    ps. i love the new look of the site!