This paper was presented at the University of Chicago Divinity School at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality during the “Reading and Teaching: Spiritus as Pedagogical Resource” panel.
In teaching the course Comparative Theology as Spiritual Practice, I asked my students to compare a spiritual classic from their home tradition with a spiritual classic from another faith tradition. In order to clarify, I gave a lecture titled “What is a Spiritual Classic?” which included examples of spiritual classics within the Christian tradition and five criteria that a text should meet in order to enjoy the status of “classic.” I argued that a spiritual classic 1) has the capacity to change lives 2) claims a religious truth 3) remains rooted in a community and tradition 4) has longevity and repeated use and 5) remains adaptable to new generations and open to new interpretations. Although I invited the students to broaden their understanding of “text” beyond written documents to include “events, images, rituals, symbols and persons” (David Tracy), the students pushed me to widen my definition and loosen my stipulations even more. Initially, I resisted the student’s appeals, concerned that expanding the category of ‘classic’ too much could open the door to solipsistic comparative studies such as comparing the Bhagavad Gita with a page from one’s personal journal. However, after the lecture and discussion, I read Arthur Holder’s article “The Problem with ‘Spiritual Classics'” from Spiritus Spring 2010, which explained how a tenacious grip on the criteria and even the category of classics could potentially lead to the very myopia that I was trying to avoid. He writes,
The greatest obstacle to your understanding of any classic may be your notion of what a classic is, or what it should be. Remember that David Tracy identifies a classic as a text that ‘surprises, provokes, challenges, shocks and eventually transforms us,’ and consider, if you will, the possibility that an academic discipline that limits itself to the study of spiritual classics is in danger of becoming an enterprise that only comforts, soothes, reassures, distracts and titillates us, and eventually distorts the very reality such powerful texts are meant to disclose. (Holder, 25)
At the next class meeting, we revisited our discussion of the spiritual classic and I affirmed their probing and pushing of my criteria. We decided that the five criteria could serve as helpful guideposts in choosing comparative texts and not as prison bars that lock and limit the students’ imaginations. As a result, the students produced a colorful cornucopia of comparative projects, including comparisons between Taizé worship and Vipassana meditation, Hindu Kirtan and the Jesus Prayer, and even Christian Baptism and Capoeira Batizado. Although Capoeira Batizado pushed hard against the criteria of a classic, the comparative insights offered about preparation and training before baptism provoked and challenged the class, causing the Christian students to re-evaluate their own preparation for baptism. By loosening my grip on the criteria of classic (thanks to Holder’s article), we did not fall into myopic solipsism. Instead, the students felt free to compare rich practices that challenged us all to seriously reassess our own spiritual traditions.