Lavinia Byrne IBVM THE cover illustration for Philip Sheldrake's inter-disciplinary study of spirituality and history shows God the Father breathing life into a multi-layered cosmos. This cosmos is marked by sun and stars, by the signs of the Zodiac. An image from medieval glass at Hengrave Hall, it makes a telling statement about the relationship between the God and time.
The author explores this relationship with a "questioning and adventurous approach". As co-director of the Institute of Spirituality at London's Heythrop College and co-editor of The Way, he is uniquely placed to provide a critical examination of many of the presuppositions which we bring to any reading of the spiritual tradition. His purpose is threefold. He is concerned to apply some of the insights of contemporary historical scholarship to the study of spirituality and in doing so is forced to come up with an alternative reading of it.
So he asks what is spirituality, who creates or controls it and how do we use it? Political questions such as these recast the saga of Christian spirituality as a battleground with winners and losers, dominant trends and marginalised minorities, the orthodox and the rest.
The second part of the book examines two examples of this drama in more detail. The religious life as a distinctive thread within the tradition and the fourteenth century Beguines provide case studies. Here the reader is invited to share the excitement of what an archaeological foray into history can actually reveal. Extensive reading backed up
with a wealth of reference in the bibliography remind us that what the author is most gifted at is the overview. His text cases are about people and how they lived rather than about the fate of their sacred writings.
Yet these do receive attention and the process of interpretation is analysed in the final section of the book. Here it becomes clear that both tats and the traditions which generated them require commentary and that the commentator too has, as we would say nowadays, an agenda. The book's great strength is that it engages the reader's attention in a drama which is still being lived out in our midst. Spirituality continues to create majorities and minorities.
But at least we are offered a persuasive and authoritative insight into the processes by which this happens. And students of Christian spirituality as well as a wider readership will find here a tool for exploring alternatives.