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The History of Christian Spirituality: Beginnings to 1500*
In response to widely documented illiteracy about religious history, this course invites students to delve into the lives, contexts, beliefs, texts, and spiritual practices of dedicated Christian men and women during the first 1500 years of Christianity. We will read and discuss in an open yet critical way a selection of "classic" Christian spiritual texts from the Bible to Julian of Norwich. Goals of the course include knowledge and appreciation of the general and particular contours of Christian spirituality during this period; the relationship of theology to spirituality; an understanding of how social, ecclesial, political, and economic contexts affected spirituality in each era; the ability to discern the strengths and weaknesses of this tradition and identify those elements that can be creatively and critically appropriated for our time.
Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., on Feb. 4, Feb. 11, March 3, March 10, March 17, April 21 and April 28
“We tend to discover the past we set out to find. This is not because the past is a willfully imagined fiction but because it is such a complicated and multifaceted reality.” Norman Cantor Inventing the Middle Ages
“A meaningful connection to the past demands, above all, active engagement. It demands imagination and empathy, so that we can fathom worlds unlike our own, contexts far from those we know, ways of thinking and feeling that are alien to us. We must enter past worlds with curiosity and respect. When we do this, the rewards are considerable. . . .We live our lives; we tell our stories. The dead continue to live by way of the resurrection we give them in telling their stories. The past becomes part of our present and thereby part of our future.” Gerda Lerner Why History Matters. Life and Thought
In an age of troubling religious and historical illiteracy, this course invites students to delve into the lives, contexts, beliefs, texts, and spiritual practices of notable Christian men and women during the first 1500 years of Christianity. We will read and discuss in an open yet critical way a range of classic Christian spiritual texts from the Bible to Julian of Norwich (14th century). Goals of the course include a) knowledge and appreciation of the general contours of Christian spirituality during this period; b) an in-depth knowledge of particular primary texts; c) an understanding of how social, ecclesial, political, and economic contexts affected spirituality in each era; d) the ability to discern the strengths and weaknesses of this tradition and to identify which elements are no longer relevant (or even harmful) and which should be creatively and critically appropriated for our own time. A secondary goal is to allow students to reflect on their own spiritual paths in light of this tradition.
This course aspires to:
- encounter the broad and complex story of Christian spirituality, from origins to 1500;
- understand the complexities involved in “doing” historical study, attending to what it means to encounter and engage patristic and medieval sources, and how perspective and identity shape judgments about the past;
- articulate basic developments of the church’s theological spirituality as these emerge during this period;
- engage the formative power of such traditions, and how these reflect both patterns of consensus, selections and exclusions, diversities of view, etc.;
- explore the margins, tensions, and silences that make up this portrait and influence how we might read it faithfully;
- identify the role of historical understanding in our varied vocations as pastoral and prophetic leaders in church and society
It is expected that students will:
- develop a basic familiarity with the history of Christian spirituality from its origins to 1500;
- understand biblical, spiritual and theological patterns of Christian faith and life in their varied expressions;
- be able to examine and interpret primary texts with insight and confidence;
- be able to discern problematic stances of exclusion and marginalization, as well as identify elements of the tradition that do and do not speak to contemporary spiritual needs and contexts;
- appropriate in a critical way strands from this common tradition into their personal religious story, affiliations, and ecclesial responsibilities.
- Attendance at all classes; evidence of careful preparation of assignments; occasional leadership of class discussion; willingness to contribute in significant ways to the general conversation. Since this class is text based, it is imperative that you have a copy of the text under consideration with you in class. 20%
- Three “critical text analysis” papers of primary material covered in class (each ca. 600 words). 10% each -- 30%.
- Paper #1 due March 3 hard copy (Desert Sayings)
- Paper #2 due April 6 electronically (Bernard of Clairvaux)
- Paper #3 due on April 28 hard copy (Julian of Norwich)
- Final take-home essay/ paper (no more than 3000 words). Paper topic should be shaped in consultation with instructor. Thesis statement due March 6. Outline due April 21. Final paper is to be handed in on or before the date scheduled for the final exam for this class. 50%
Attendance in class is required. Given the format of this course, it is imperative to attend all seven sessions. Only one missed class will be allowed and only for a grave reason. Should this be necessary, please inform the professor as soon as is possible.
In all assignments, it is assumed that what is submitted is the student’s own original work. All material from other sources, whether direct citations in quotation marks or paraphrase, is to be thoroughly and accurately documented. Students are accountable to Harford Seminary’s General Guidelines for a Research Paper. It is also not acceptable to submit a paper written for another course. The minimum penalty for any plagiarism is failure for that assignment with no opportunity to rewrite. If you have questions about plagiarism consult a Writing Consultant. To make an appointment, contact Robin Roth, Student Services Manager, at email@example.com or 860-509-9552. For further information: http://www.hartsem.edu/student/writingassistance.htm.
Schedule of Lectures and Readings
- Read Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake.
- Hand in a 2-3 page paper, analyzing what you think are the major themes of the novel. What questions/response did it arouse in you?
- Read Part II in Holder (Scripture and Christian Spirituality)
- Read Egan “Biblical Mysticism” pp. 1-16.
- Be prepared to discuss three major biblical themes (include both Testaments) that you think are important for the history of Christian spirituality and explain why.
February 4 Class:
Themes: 1) horizontal/vertical dimensions of the spiritual life; 2) vocation; 3) desert in the city; 4) science/divine mystery; 5) nature of religious experience; 6) community; 7) discernment; 8) doubt; 9) biblical themes.
- Introductions. Shape of the class.
- Discuss Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake.
- Biblical Spirituality [See pre-class assignment] Please bring a Bible with you.
- Library work/small group sessions.
- Preview of next class.
Assignment for February 11
- Read Part I in Holder (What Is Christian Spirituality?)
- Read Egan, “Introduction” pp. xvi-xxv.
- Read Egan, “Origen” pp. 17-30.
February 11 Class:
Themes: 1) role of context; 2) spirituality and mysticism; 3) spirituality and theology; 4) stages and goal of the spiritual life; 5) human/divine effort: who does what? 6) spirituality as a field of study; 7) self-implication; 8) apocastastasis; 9) spiritual senses; 10) martyrdom/cross; 11) inner/outer person; 12) wound of love
- What is Christian Spirituality? Definitions. Methods. The relationship of spirituality to theology.
- Spirituality and Mysticism
- Theology and Spirituality (handout)
- Discuss Origen’s texts
- Library work/individual/groups exercises
- Preview of next class.
Assignment for March 3 (3 week break)
- Read Holder, Chapter 4 by Columba Stewart
- Read “Forward” and 50 pages from the following sections of Sayings of the Desert: Anthony the Great, Arsenius, Amoun of Nitria, Euprepius, Macarius the Great, Poeman, Sarah, Sisoes (see questions below).
- Read Egan, “Augustine of Hippo”
- On Wednesday, Feb. 29th submit as an attachment to an e-mail the first of three essays on the desert material. See directions at end of syllabus. firstname.lastname@example.org. Please bring a hard copy of this paper with you to class on March 3.
March 3 Class:
Themes: 1) desire; 2) asceticism; 3) individual/community; 4) Abba/guru.
Morning: Discuss Desert Sayings
Library work/group sessions
Preview of next class.
Assignment for March 10
- Read Holder, chapter 5 by James McGuckin
- Read Egan, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, Maximus Confessor. Sign up to lead discussion and textual analysis of one of these authors.
- Recommended: Holder, Chapter 20: Aesthetics.
- Prepare initial thesis statement for final paper.
March 10 Class:
Themes: 1) desire; 2) beauty; 3) theosis; 4) hesychasm/Jesus prayer; 5) apatheia.
Morning: Discuss primary texts
Afternoon: Continue discussion
Library work/individual/group exercises
Preliminary thesis statement for final papers.
Assignment for March 17
- Read Egan, “Pseudo-Dionysius”
- Read Holder, Chapter 6 by Ulrike Wiethaus.
- Read Egan on Hildegard, pp. 197-206.
March 17 Class:
Themes: 1) apophatic/kataphatic spirituality; 2) hierarchy;
Morning: Discuss Pseudo-Dionysius
Afternoon: Apophatic and Kataphatic Spirituality
Discuss Hildegard of Bingen
Library work/individual/group exercises.
Assignment for April 21 (5 weeks)
- Read Bernard McGinn, “The Language of Love in Christian and Jewish Mysticism.” In Mysticism and Language, ed., Steven T. Katz. Oxford, 1992. Pp. 202-235.
- Read Bernard of Clairvaux: On Loving God; Sermons on the Song of Songs; Letters.
- Paper #2 on Bernard to be submitted on-line on April 6. See end of syllabus for guidelines.
- Sign up to report on one of the chapters in Holder, Part IV.
- Preliminary outline for final paper due. 10-15 minute student reports.
- You might also want to get started on the Julian text for April 28. Paper #3 on this text is due May 4.
April 21 Class
Themes: 1) medieval spirituality; 2) renewal of monasticism; 3) erotic mysticism/Song of Songs; 4) Christian anthropology; 5) Spirit/spirit; 6) nature/senses/sacramentality; 7) Trinity; 8) church; 9) ethics.
Morning: Discuss Bernard of Clairvaux
Afternoon: Discuss Hildegard
Student oral reports on Holder, Part IV
Discussion of final papers.
Library work/individual/group exercises.
Assignment for April 28
- Read the Long text of Julian of Norwich’s Shewings
- Paper #3. See guidelines at end of syllabus. To be submitted on-line May 4.
- Sign up to report on one of the chapters in Holder, Part VI.
- Discussion of final papers
April 28 Class: Paper #3 due.
Themes: 1) sin/salvation/Christian anthropology; 2) Christology/“facing”; 3) Trinity; 4) Holy Spirit; 5) church; 6) sacramentality; 7) ethics.
Discuss Julian’s Shewings
Afternoon: Student reports from Holder, Part VI.
Library work/individual/group exercises
Short Written Assignments
Each paper should offer a succinct examination of themes or issues raised by the primary text(s).
These papers should: (1) identify the author of the source in question and locate the context from
which this source emerges; and, (2) explore one central salient theme that emerges in this text.
These three papers are to be submitted on assigned dates, and, with the final paper, constitute a “portfolio” of work accomplished in this course. These succinct papers should not attempt to summarize the text in question. Rather, they are to explore one central theme found in the sources by paying critical attention to issues raised by the author, insights gleaned from these sources regarding the cultural horizon within which the author (s) wrote, clarifications of context as gleaned from secondary texts, etc. The final paragraph should give voice your own personal reaction to the material, but you should think of this primarily as an exercise in listening, observing, and analyzing, rather than judging or criticizing. Each paper should begin by stating, in one sentence, the thesis to be explored. (An example: “This paper will explore the question of beauty in the Confessions of Augustine, and suggest how this theme draws upon pagan and Christian sources.”) If you are not able to state your thesis in a single sentence, you are probably not yet ready to write the paper. You should then turn to explore this thesis by addressing the following concerns:
(1) Author and context. Who? When? Where? Identify the author (briefly) by noting background, profession, etc. Does s/he belong to a particular community (i.e., a religious order)? What is the historical context in which the person lived, and how does the text in question reflect this context? That is, locate this text within the wider historical context. What seems to have prompted its writing? What concerns specific to the writer’s context and time emerge in the text, and how does the author’s treatment of such themes suggest something about the cultural location of the text? How does the text endorse or challenge other viewpoints of the day, and what assumptions do you discern in the text?
(2) Critical exploration of a central theme. What/why/how? What is one major issue, theme, problem, etc., that occasions this treatise or occupies its author? Once you have identified a theme, explore what the author’s treatment of this reveals to us of the culture and period in question. To accomplish this, it is presumed that you will draw upon secondary texts, introductions to the texts found in anthologies or published editions, and scholarly journal articles from the library databases (not Wikepedia). Note that your paper is to focus on the primary text(s). For instance, you might see how an argument takes shape, suggest what the implicit assumptions are which are operative even if unstated, how theological goals influence authorial strategy, etc. Do not summarize. This section should represent the bulk of your paper (ca. 450 words). Please follow some clear and generally accepted style for the citation of sources used in these papers; for further assistance, consult The Chicago Manual of Style.
All papers should show familiarity with secondary texts that supplement the week’s readings, while focusing primarily upon the primary sources. Papers that demonstrate a basic familiarity with the material content of this course and with the primary texts studied, will receive a “C” grade. Those who go further to demonstrate something of the intricacies of these sources as well as of the cultural complexities within which they emerge receive a “B” grade. An “A” paper does this with depth and sophistication, probing the sources with genuine insight and taking full advantage of classroom lectures and additional readings in assessing the contribution of the primary sources
A Note on Inclusive Language
It is hoped that all students will use inclusive language for all written assignments, since language is a human product that not only reflects social reality but influences it as well. Students are encouraged to use language that recognizes the worth and dignity of all persons, especially in those settings which reflect our common life together. Language is a living and changing cultural creation. It is an inheritance that we learn to use, and change, in light of traditions we inherit as well as the shifting horizons of experience.
This does not mean that students will be expected or required to alter the language of texts studied; these are usually translations, in any event, and the matter of inclusive language was unknown to these authors. In some cases, the “problem” of exclusive language lies not in the original text but in more recent translations; the instructor cannot and does not expect students to sort this out on their own. In one’s own speech and writing, however, inclusive language establishes a threshold for clear and edifying communication in the public arena. This includes the classroom. Language is not only a matter of proper etiquette; it is this, of course, but it also reflects issues of theological and moral significance.
Salzman, Mark. Lying Awake: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 2000. Buy now
Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. 2nd ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996. Buy now
Holder, Arthur, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Buy now
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975. Buy now
Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works. Trans. G.R. Evans. New York: Paulist Press, 1987. Buy now
Julian of Norwich: Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978. Buy now
Many primary sources can be found on-line, though these are almost always drawn from publications in the common domain, meaning that they are exempt from copyright; in most cases, this means that they are quite dated and often use antiquated language. Of course, there are also marvelous web sites which include, alongside texts, non-textual materials (images of paintings, icons, architectural sites, sculpture, etc.). Students are warmly encouraged to use these and share their findings with class colleagues.
There will be a substantial numbers of books on reserve in the library. For those students who would like to do some background reading prior to the course, the following might be helpful.
Williams, Rowan, Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross. Rev Sub edition. Boston: Cowley Publications [Rowman and Littlefield], 2003. Buy now