Why I Rejected “Spirituality”

Deal W. Hudson

I was newly graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, a licensed Southern Baptist ministry now at Emory University studying for a Ph.D in Theology and Literature. Prof. Author Evans, one of my teachers, an expert at French and European literature, had invited me to take tea with him in the back yard of his beautiful Druid Hills home in Atlanta.

Arthur Evans was a very special man, one whom I thought of over and over in the nearly 40 years since I sat there with him, trying to remember the tea manners taught to me by my great Aunt Lucile when I was an undergraduate in Austin, TX. Catholic, deep cultured, humble, soft-spoken, with iridescent blue eyes, Dr. Evans began to ask me about the literature I loved and about my nascent interest in the Catholic faith.

Were we discussing the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the Australian novelist Patrick White, or the French writer Julian Green? I can’t remember now. But at some point in the conversation, he referred to the “spirituality” of a specific piece of literature. Inwardly, I glowered but hoped it did not show on my face. Spirituality, to me at the time, was one of those words people used to talk about the Christian faith without committing to orthodoxy. Spirituality was a loosey-goosey terms that could not be challenged because of its vagueness.

Yet, I hearing it from a man who I trusted and respected deeply, whose own Catholic faith was could not be doubted, whose love of tradition in all things was reflected in his manner, his words, his teaching, his marriage, his fatherhood, and his home. If there was ever a Renaissance Man in the deepest sense it was Prof. Arthur Evans. Hearing the term spirituality from his lips puzzled me for a very long time, because if he was using it then I must be missing something, something important.

During seminary I had more or less defined myself as an Evangelical who defended Christian orthodoxy against the Vietnam era liberals and radicals who were common on campuses in those days, in part because they were avoiding military service. This was the era of Rudolf Bultmann whose program of “demythologizing” had placed all the historicity of Scriptures under a looming question mark. Thus words like spirituality and hermeneutics had become objects of suspicion in my self-appointed role as the defender of the faith.

For me, in the 70s and 80s, defending the faith meant underscoring differences, highlighting what was not Christian, in reaction to what I perceived as the refraction of Christianity through the lens of modernism. My movement away from this attitudinal posture happened slowly, there was no lightning flash of insight to correspond to that moment in Dr. Evan’s garden when I suddenly questioned a deeply held truism.

After I became a Catholic in the early 80s, while teaching philosophy at a Southern Baptist college in Atlanta, my attitude towards “defending the faith” slowly, and unconsciously, changed. When I started using the word spirituality in my writing and teaching, a smile would come to my lips as I remember that day in Dr. Evan’s garden. What had happened to me? What had changed in my mind and heart allowing me to talk about spirituality without cringing? Quite a bit, as it turns out, and that period of change has not yet finished as I look towards my 65th birthday and over 30 years as a Catholic.

The change can be described simply, though its ramifications were not, as a disposition to recognize similarity where I once noticed only difference. Where I had once only praised what was specifically, and recognizably, Christian, I became eager to notice any place, and in any person, evidence of spiritual expression of our common journey. It no longer mattered to me, as least as much, whether that journey was expressed in specifically Christian terms, what mattered was that the dimension of ourselves always looking for God, through our pursuit of happiness, was being expressed and explored.

Spirituality itself, as a concept, has many meanings but all of them are drawn from the reality of our immaterial powers of loving and knowing. In others words, the human person is gifted with the ability, unique among all creatures, of bringing into our minds, as object of our will’s love, complete abstractions, such as beauty, truth, and goodness. But if we look long enough — as seen in Plato’s Symposium, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God, to name a few — the natural desire to know ultimate causes will lead us to God, Who is no abstraction but the measure of all abstractions.

Thus, as a Catholic, I have come to appreciate all spiritual journeys, whether they are marked with the Christian label or not. My role as defender of the faith is no longer to mark the differences but to affirm the similarities, as did C.S. Lewis in his classic, The Abolition of Man. Affirm the similarities as a way of encouraging the journey in others, of finding a common reference point for discussion, for evangelization, but also for mutual guidance.

It was very painful to watch Dr. Evans slowly die of Parkinson’s Disease, but even those visits to his bedroom were as luminous as that day in his garden. I recall him once gesturing to me to play a CD of the Bach cello sonatas so we could listen together, or the day he excitingly held up a copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter to signify he had finally read it after years of my hounding him to. His way of telling me that he was glad to have read it was in his smile and his handling of the book as he showed it to me, as if the book itself had become an object of love.

As I watched his slow decline towards death, there was never a moment of fear, doubt, or anger in his face — Dr. Evans evinced only a cheerful resignation to the unavoidable outcome of his illness. Here was the man who had opened my eyes to the inherent spirituality of every persons journey towards God, and I was a witness to the approaching end of his. And through this, Dr. Evans taught me even more about spirituality by the perseverance of his joy in all things beautiful and true, but most of all, by the perseverance of his friendship.

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