Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010
298 pp., 34.50
Living with the Triune God
A year or so ago, while I was reading Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension by Julie Canlis, the phrase "spiritual theology" in juxtaposition with the name John Calvin was, as a friend of mine likes to say, déjà vu all over again. Fifty years earlier, I heard for the first time the word "spiritual" used in association with the theologian John Calvin. It happened in New York City as I was listening to a lecture by the Quaker philosopher Douglas Steere in a series on "Spiritual Classics." The week previous, I had been in attendance at the first in the series, on Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. Intrigued, I was back for the second. If I had known of the subject beforehand—John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion—I probably wouldn't have come. But after five minutes, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
Although I had been a pastor for a couple of years, I had little interest in theology. It was worse than that. My experience of theology was contaminated by adolescent polemics and hairsplitting apologetics. When I arrived at my university, my first impression was that the students most interested in religion were mostly interested in arguing. Theological discussions always seemed to set off a combative instinct among my peers. They left me with a sour taste. The grand and soaring realities of God and the Holy Spirit, Scripture and Jesus, salvation and creation and a holy life always seemed to get ground down into contentious, mean-spirited arguments: predestination and freewill, grace and works, Calvinism and Arminianism, liberal and conservative, supra- and infralapsarianism. The name Calvin was in particularly bad odor. I took refuge in philosophy and literature, where I was able to find companions for cultivating wonder and exploring meaning. When I entered seminary I managed to keep theology benched on the sidelines by plunging into the biblical languages.
But midway through Steere's lecture, theology, and Calvin along with it, bounded off the bench. A new translation of the Institutes by Ford Lewis Battles (edited by John T. McNeill) had recently been published. I knew of the work of Dr. Steere and trusted him. But Calvin? And theology? After the hour's lecture, most (maybe all) of my stereotyped preconceptions of both Calvin and theology had been dispersed. Steere was freshly energized by the new translation. He talked at length of the graceful literary style of the writing, the soaring architectural splendor of this spiritual classic, the clarity and beauty of the thinking, the penetrating insights and comprehensive imagination.
The lecture did its work in me—if Calvin was this good after four hundred years, I wanted to read his work for myself. The next day I went to a bookstore and bought the two volumes and began reading them. I read them through in a year, and when I finished I read them again. I've been reading them ever since.
As I read the recently published Calvin's Ladder, my initial delight in Steere's lecture on Calvin, but this time not a surprise, was affirmed in spades—the Siamese twinning of "spiritual" and "theology." The defining adjective in the subtitle, "spiritual," is significant. Theology is about God, and God is Spirit—so why the adjective? Maybe because we have accumulated a lot of experience in the Christian community of persons treating theology as a subject in which God is studied in the ways we are taught to study in our schools—acquiring information that we can use, or satisfying our curiosity, or obtaining qualifications for a job or profession. There are, in fact, a lot of people within and outside formal religious settings who talk and write a lot about spirituality, things of the spirit or the soul or "higher things," but are not interested in God. There is a wonderful line in T. H. White's novel of King Arthur (The Once and Future King), in which Guinevere in her old age becomes the abbess of a convent: "she was a wonderful theologian but she wasn't interested in God." It happens.
So—spiritual theology, lived theology—not just studied, or discussed, or written about; not "God" as an abstraction but God in a participating relationship; not God as a truth to be argued; not God as a weapon to be wielded in the culture wars. Rather, the conviction that everything of God that is revealed to us is to be lived relationally in the dailiness of our human lives on this local ground on which we have been placed. Nothing disembodied, nothing impersonal, nothing in general.
And spiritual theology. God (theos) is the subject—not primarily me, not my potential, not how I can leverage some supernatural assistance into getting ahead, not using God as ticket to heaven, or to a better job, or to a compliant spouse, or to peace of mind. Rather, God in whose love I practice love, God in whose holiness I become more human, God by whose forgiveness and grace I become the person I am created and saved to be. Julie Canlis writes, "The purpose of this book is to consider what koinonia (participation, communion with the triune God) might mean for us in a century fractured by individualism, reductionism, and fundamentalism, and to consider what it might signify for a comprehensive, embodied, repersonalizing Christian spirituality."