Critical Spirituality: A Holistic Approach to Contemporary Practice

Author: Fiona Gardner
ISBN: 978-1-4094-2794-0 pp. 197, pbk?
Date: 2011
Price: ?40.00?
Publisher: Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey

The ongoing search to critically define spirituality as a sphere of human enterprise continues with this interesting book by an Australian academic and Quaker, Fiona Gardner ? not to be confused with the former Chair of the Thomas Merton Society with the same name who might perhaps be more familiar to British audiences: this Fiona Gardner comes at the subject from the arena of social work and in particular palliative care.

The last section of the book comprises notated interviews with various ?practitioners? and her use throughout of useful ?boxes? and bullet points suggests a practical, no-nonsense approach to the subject. The other intellectual influence that weaves through the text is that of her fellow Australian academic and writer on spirituality, David Tacey (again, not to be confused with the theologian David Tracey). Tacey?s beautifully written Spirituality Revolution (2003, not to be con- fused with Woodhead and Heelas? Spiritual Revolution of 2005) was in many respects a groundbreaking work that was somewhat overshadowed by Heelas and Woodhead?s later, more sociological work. Tacey, in contradistinction, brought his extensive knowledge as a Jungian analyst to bear upon a fraught subject to shine much light into dark corners. The thesis of Gardner?s new work can be put very succinctly. Spirituality is ?that which gives life meaning, a sense of connection with something greater?, it is ?life-affirming, emphasises wholeness and constructive mutual relationships in community and embraces diversity?.

So far so good. If, of course, this is what spirituality is about then all it needs, to paraphrase Professor Bernard McGinn, is a round of applause rather than critical analysis. Consequently, Gardner introduces the notion of ?critical spirituality?. At this point I expected to find some sort of critique of the whole notion of spirituality that seems to have sprung up as a cottage industry in the past decade along the lines of Carrette and King?s sharp critique Sell- ing Spirituality. However, the criticism of the title is that directed against ?institution- al religion?: ?this view of spirituality aims to move beyond spirituality that is linked to a particular religious tradition?.

This is, I?m afraid where I started to part company with the author. I can see the polemical value of promoting such a view of spirituality, especially one which builds up ?a desire to work with what is meaningful in the context of enabling a socially just, diverse and inclusive society?. I think these are laudable aims and clearly important in the social work context. However, is religion really like that? As the late Professor Zaehner wrote in his angular Our Savage God is there not a side of spirituality that is ?mad, bad and dangerous to know?. Yes, I assume most of us find the behaviour of terrorists, recidivists and bigots reprehensible and worthy of moral condemnation, but is that the job of the academic researcher? We don?t have to look far into the history of religion to find a sorry tale of dark and dangerous acts.

There is, as Kierkegaard so presciently pointed out, a necessary ?teleological sus- pension of the ethical? within the religious sphere. This, on the contrary, is where religion gets interesting, and also capable of changing people?s lives for good and ill. Gardner?s mentor, Tacey, was able to understand this from his Jungian perspective. However I looked in vain for such an over-arching approach in Gardner?s work beyond the broadly functional and pragmatic. The book will certainly appeal to readers new to the field, especially from the social sciences perspective to whom it will make a lot of sense. It also contains a great deal of resource material which will be helpful for those wanting to teach courses on spirituality outside the traditional theological disciplines.

In summary, I think this will be a book that will appeal to those from wider social scientific or humanist disciplines but perhaps less so to colleagues in the theology faculty. I was surprised that the Ashgate copy editors missed several typos such as Jalal al-Din Rumi being described as ?Runi?. That said, for those wanting a view of how the study of spirituality is evolving outside the traditional theological disciplines this will be a helpful primer.

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