On Spiritual Styles and Practices

In A History of Christian Spirituality, Urban T. (“Terry”) Holmes analyzed spiritual practices using two polarities: apophatic (emptying) vs kataphatic (imagining), and affective (illumination of heart) vs speculative (illumination of mind). Outside a “circle of sensibility,” where dialogue across diverse styles of spirituality can happen, lie four extremes of spiritual practice and perception:

• Encratism: exaggerated self-control and self-discipline
• Rationalism: obsession with logic, analysis and explanation
• Pietism: confusion of subjective, superficial feelings with theology
• Quietism: exaggerated spiritual passivity (wait, don’t seek)

At these extremes, people are focused on a “right” style rather than an open dialogue, and do not hear each other.

One reason this happens is another polarity Holmes discusses: the receptive and active modes of consciousness. Holmes wrote: “The action mode is one of logic, control, analysis, and prediction. It operates in a world of sign, concept, and system. … The receptive mode is one of association, surrender, intuition, and surprise. It operates in a world of symbol, ritual, and story. It is an often neglected function which, by diffusing our awareness, allows the possibility of new or expanded consciousness.” Some degree of the receptive mode is required within Holmes’s “circle of sensibility.” *

Within any tradition, all four extremes are possible. One might think that Unitarian Universalism tended always toward the excess of rationalism, but this is not so. The excess of encratism (or moralism) occurs frequently in those passionate about social justice. The rush to non-judgment among us can become a kind of quietism. And we do sometimes experience the excess of pietism.

Holmes wrote: “Pietism is a term which … describes a degeneration of spirituality that … flourishes in self-congratulatory small groups. It is impervious to criticism because it recognizes no canon of truth outside the subjective meaning of its membership.” Sound familiar? **

This aspect of diversity within Unitarian Universalist ranks – our diversity in spiritual styles and practices – we often acknowledge and seldom discuss. I think greater awareness of it would help us to understand one another and our religious tradition.


* Holmes defines sensibility as “the ability to express a comprehensive, balanced whole in experience.”

** Holmes illustrates pietism with this example: “A Dutchman, Gerard Groote (1340-1384) … gave birth to the Devotio moderna, which is a form of pietism. … Groote and his followers taught a spirituality which was pessimistic and practical. They were obsessed with the seeming debauchery of the clergy and the apparent pantheism of the mystics. They advocated conversion of the heart, the practice of virtue, the endurance of trials, the apostolate [ie, God’s calling of individuals to particular ministries], and, above all, eternal salvation. Action and contemplation were to them the same thing, and there is very little notion of a process of spiritual growth. All depended upon the imitation of the humanity of Jesus. These are all themes which will recur in pietism from the fifteenth century to the present … The Devotio moderna insists on the personal devotion to the humanity of Christ and highly affective prayer. This … has the effect … of divorcing personal prayer from liturgical prayer…” Aspects of this general pattern may also ring familiar.