The Language of Religious Experience Is the Native Language of Religion
The year 2003 saw the publication in Finland of a book in the time-hallowed Germanic tradition of “Einführung”, a book with the title Introduction to the theology of Lutheran spirituality (edited by O.-P. Vainio). The book begins with an article by Professor Antti Raunio that bears the bold title Is there such a thing as Lutheran spirituality? Bearing in mind the fact that the book was indeed published, it is easy to predict the conclusions the author will have reached. The question itself as well as its background will be of interest, though, in the context of a conference themed The Nordic Lutheran Folk Churches and New Spirituality. What if there is no “old spirituality”—that is, Lutheran ditto?
A few years later, a book by Dr Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner was published, this one called Christian Mysticism—the Western Tradition From Antique to the Modern Era. After discussing more or less the entire history of Western mysticism and, hence, of spirituality, she contemplates questions of continuity and change in the Reformation period. Lehmijoki-Gardner asks essentially the same question as Raunio; the question itself is probably based on the work of Raunio and other Finnish Luther scholars. Could it be the case that “Luther’s doctrine of justification, which maintains that we are saved by Grace Alone (sola gratia) renders meaningless the ascetic and spiritual preparation so essential to mysticism”?
She continues: “Finnish research has tended to emphasize the innovative character of Luther’s concept of unio. Where mediaeval mysticism saw immediate union with God as the result of arduous training, Luther considered it the point of departure for all spiritual development.” (At this point I can sense a certain restlessness in my audience: has the Bishop really not noticed the theme of the conference? New spirituality, not old! Rest assured, I have noticed.) However, the way I see it, the questions that were acutely asked in the days when “old” Lutheran spirituality—and I do believe there is one—took shape—they were rather similar to the ones we are asking now. In a rather massive simplification, the essential questions then and now hovered around the meaning and justification given to the experiences of individuals and groups and to what kind of articulation these experiences were given.
Nordic Folk Churches Thrive In Bureaucratic Conditions
In the Nordic context, as well we know, Lutheran Christianity has traditionally been the spiritual dimension of social life or the society. Most Nordic Lutheran churches happily assume the identity of “folk church”; how they relate to the state varies from case to case. Traditionally, all these churches have had the character of “established” or “state church”; in the 17-th century Realm of Sweden (and hence, also, in Finland), the established church was an essential factor in the creation and consolidation of the modern state and its structures. And much as the image of Lutheran Orthodoxy as formal, dogmatic, ideological, and fixated on good order is an exaggeration of later centuries, it is no doubt true that—such as it was—it was incapable of quenching the thirst for an experiential spirituality.
It may be the case that Lutheranism inhabits easily the world of the century that gave birth to it; it may have suited the next century as well. It is well suited to a world of a unified Christian culture, where the role of the church is to take care of spiritual matters, leaving the matters of society-in-general to the hands of the Godly Prince. And it is no doubt a correct, albeit exaggerated, statement to say that it is well suited to a kind of bureaucracy; for after all, bureaucracy is, for all its lousy reputation, an organized, rational and consequent way of fashioning and directing a fairly constant and stable state of affairs. Its merits are easier to recognize when one compares it with, say, the kind of “failed state” that Sweden (like many others) was in the 16th century and before the days of Axel Oxenstierna.
From Noblemen’s Pietism to Lutheran Atheists
Sweden’s position as great power and the order based on that position fell with the aftermath of the Great Northern War, 1700-21. Already during the war there were signs of a new kind of spirituality that was less like the earlier, dominant state-ideology type. I find it especially interesting in terms of our own time and New Spirituality that the emphasis on a more personal faith and thus, experience, found its home particularly in the educated classes. Officers and noblemen disappointed by their experiences in the battlefields sought for meaning, for some sense in it all, for explanations—all by themselves. They, after all, were the ones with the intellectual means to do so. This noblemen’s Pietism (or Manor Pietism as we call it in Finland) was not happy with the ready-made religious mould of the past century and of a society that was itself becoming a thing of the past, nor were they happy with the authority underpinning it.
Little in fact has changed since those days. 19th century Pietism was a process within the peasant population that was reaching a new kind of self-consciousness and exploring, with some trepidation perhaps, new and uncharted alternatives. And already by the end of the century a good many of those trying to make sense of the world around them were seriously unhappy with the reality and doctrinal positions of the Lutheran church of the day, to the point of total rupture: the church was incapable of reacting swiftly enough to the challenges of, say, Darwin, Marx, or Freud. Even so, the position of the Lutheran churches remained strong, to the extent that—if the Finnish dictum is to be believed—“a Finnish atheist is always a Lutheran atheist”.
A Time Like Nothing We’ve Ever Seen
I am not a specialist in Church History; I have a hunch that church historians on the whole are of the opinion that nothing new ever happens in society, and if it ever does, it has already done so. My meandering journey in the Swedish (and Finnish) past notwithstanding, I have no intention to suggest that our own era and philosophizing around “The Nordic Lutheran Folk Churches and New Spirituality” would be just another phase in an ongoing and perennial conversation. On the contrary, I hold our time to be unique and in many ways a thing like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
First of all: the self-evident position of Christianity, let alone Lutheranism, as the unquestionable frame of reference in spiritual matters is on the wane. Even the Finnish atheist nowadays (or in the very near future, at least) is an Anglo-American Dawkinsian atheist rather than the “Lutheran atheist”. I am of such advanced age that I have observed the process in my lifetime. Just a few decades ago, well over 90 per cent of the Finnish population were members of the Lutheran church; however, the membership losses of the 2000’s, predominantly in the younger cohorts, reflects the fact that Lutheran Christianity is in no way “the Spirituality” any longer, a given like your native language. To the extent that it qualifies at all, it is a spirituality just like the others. Or it may not be “spirituality” at all, just an institutional ideology, leftovers from a pre-modern society. This wasn’t the perception in my youth (which, admittedly, is a long time ago), but it is the perception now.
Secondly—and in conjunction with point #1—a world globalized by the practical means of large-scale movement of people and ideas has seriously relativized what is distant and what is nearby, or what is mine and what is yours or theirs. Unlike perhaps any other period, ours faces the possibility that what is historically and geographically proximate is not experienced as nearby. This is not necessarily a matter of choice, of consciously taking distance; it may be the simple experience of noticing that moving about, physically or virtually, has taken me to all kinds of environments, some of which are such that I feel more at home there than in my actual physical surroundings. Lutheran church qua church building may still be the focal point of the Nordic community, but the mental landscape of the Nordic citizen of the world may very well be focused on something else entirely.
My third point is perhaps not so unique for own time only, but it is one that receives more attention in our time and in our society than perhaps earlier in history. I am talking about the kind of emphasis on personal experience as opposed to and in competition with spiritual authority and religious structures. It looks like The Nordic Lutheran Folk Churches are firmly trenched on one side and New Spirituality equally firmly on the other.
How to Identify and Value Spiritual Experience: Four Approaches
The purple shirt and the pectoral cross are a bit of a giveaway: I am a bishop, not a scholar. My interest in the matter is not so much academic as religious—or spiritual, if that sounds better. I do not see it as my business only to defend The Nordic Lutheran Folk Churches (not even my own) against New Spirituality, for the way I see it, New Spirituality is trying to articulate something that to my mind is essential to the Christian faith. That is—“spiritual experience”.
I wish to take up four points that would make it possible for our Nordic Lutheran Churches to identify and value spiritual experience in a relevant way.
1. You Can’t Repave The Old Road
First of all: restoration is not enough. World is not the way it used to be; hence, renewing The Old Stuff is only a partial answer at best. This has, of course, been our answer. If people no longer read the Bible, let’s retranslate it. If they no longer know the traditional hymns, let’s produce a new Hymnal. If they no longer understand the central tenets of Christianity, let’s write a new Catechism. However, this will no longer be enough, for our experience of the world and the way we understand it has undergone a much too radical change.
In this context, it is interesting to look at Dr Lehmijoki-Gardner’s description of the devotio moderna, an alternative spirituality that was popular in 14th-century Catholic Christendom: “This via moderna consisted of a simple and Christocentric spirituality. Its followers practised free inner contemplation and so-called continuous prayer (oratio continua), which did not necessitate consecrated space, but was possible to practise in everyday life. Liturgical and doctrinal spirituality was referred to as via antiqua.” Thus, restoration is about repaving an existing road, but it will not be enough if the landscapes of our lives are full of new interesting and inviting paths.
2. Lack of Experiential Dimension: A Hole in the Lutheran Firewall
Secondly, Lutheranism is challenged by its unwillingness or even incapacity to recognize and interpret the inner processes taking place within the human person. I still own up to what I have once written: “Is spiritual anthropology, that which happens in the human being and what the human being experiences, the weak spot—or even the blind spot—of Lutheran theology? And is it, thus, a gaping hole in our firewall vis-à-vis Reformed Evangelicalism?”
This gap in information security or whatever you wish to call it is no doubt also gaping in a couple of other directions. Recent decades have seen the publication of (I think) as much as a full cubic meter of good Christian spiritual literature. A significant part of it, however, consists of translations of originals by Roman Catholic authors. One is left wondering with William Johnston, who in his book Mystical theology: the science of love points out that traditional theology of mysticism is almost without exception written for monastics and “professional believers”; whereas, in a new situation, the mystics are married, busy people. Hence, he proposes that a “new” theology of mysticism must ask questions about the role of love in the “worldly” lives of such individuals, including the role of marriage and sexuality in mystical life.
Literature written by Roman Catholic and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Orthodox “professional believers” to other professional believers is nonetheless what gives nourishment to Lutheran spiritual seekers, for the unio with Christ that we receive in our baptism looks rather like yet another proposition-to-be-believed-or-else, not like experiential spiritual reality. Lutheran Christianity directs us to live out our calling in everyday life, seeking the good of our neighbour, and it does so, in my opinion, on good Christological grounds, but in terms of psychology of religion, it is a particularly demanding form of religion. It does—and to my mind, rightly so—give the everyday and ordinary life the status and position of a holy thing ; but in so doing, it also inadvertently manages to give the impression of the holy as being something drab, uninteresting, uninviting. And this, of course, is something we cannot have failed to notice in our Nordic societies and churches.
The other “security gaps” we notice vis-à-vis other religions and also a more diffuse “new spirituality”. Both seem to contain a dose of the kind of experientialism that our scholarly, sapiential, and balanced Nordic Lutheranism seems to lack.
3. “God is holy, but ‘holy’ is not God.”
Thus, thirdly, I would recommend building bridges between experience and mature reflection, or between the immediate and the historical, in the spirit of Simone Weil. She thought that while the intellect can never grasp mystery, it (and it alone) can nonetheless discern whether the mystery has been correctly (verbally) interpreted; and that in this task the intellect has to be sharper and more exacting and inquisitive than in any other task set before it.
If we would allow theology to act in this way as the reverse, as it were, of spiritual experience, we would not in so doing open the floodgates to “anything goes”, for “the intellect alone can discern” and “in this it has to be sharper”. For my own part I feel that in all this I remain firmly within traditional Christianity; I am not challenging the creeds, I am not challenging doctrinal content. I do, however, ask how I can connect with “an inner knowledge of Christ”; how I can be “affected” by God, or how I can simply be near God. I find it easy to appropriate the words of Bishop emeritus of Helsinki, Dr Eero Huovinen: “God is holy, but ‘holy’ is not God.” Experiencing ‘holy’ does not construct God, and private experience does not constitute religion. And yet it is there, specifically, that we can hear echoes of God, for the Triune God, God one and only, is indeed holy.
4. Discerning the Footprints of God: The Essential Task
Fourthly—and (thanks be to God) finally—I think that our Nordic Lutheran folk churches do well in relating to New Spirituality if in so doing they begin to recognize those echoes, echoes of God, and acknowledge their significance and meaning. Meditating on the Catechism is perhaps not quite the place where one should begin in his or her spiritual live. We should perhaps start by listening and by seeing how people are affected by goodness, by grace, by holiness, by love—so that through that process we could perhaps together find our way to the source of all these things. Together, we could practice discernment, be mindful so as to notice and identify the footprints of God.
Nordic Lutheran Folk Church—the combination of words sounds like, if not a dinosaur, then at least a mammoth. I do not believe, however, the mammoth incapable of speaking the language of spiritual experience, the native language of religion, the one that New Spirituality is trying to speak in its own way. It is a language that contemplates more than it explains, simplifies more than it conceptualizes, asks politely rather than demands. And it will not quench the thirst for the Triune God, but makes us thirsty for more.