Bradley P. Holt.2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
When I began writing about Christian spirituality in 2013, I was deeply frustrated with the church’s superficiality and lack of interest in theology. My seminary professors strived to teach me the pastoral arts and how to read and interpret the Bible, but as my relationship with God deepened, I wanted to know still more. Ultimately, my writing helped to address some of these concerns and to share what I learned with others. Still, my soul doth pine for more.
In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt shares similar concerns:
“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)
The depth of Christian spirituality is often lost when pastors focus almost exclusively on the double love command (love God; love others; Matt 22:36-40) reaching out primarily to “seekers” rather than addressing the deeper spiritual yearnings of the majority of their congregation. Holt describes this yearning as: “the living water of God fresh and sparkling and pure”, a thirst (5)
What is Christian Spirituality?
The word, spirituality, often conjures up the image of an exotic Eastern sect where adherents dress funny, chant strange phrases, live in communes, and find religious excuses to use drugs. While it has been years since we last observed such people hanging around airports handing out pamphlets, this backdrop has spoiled many people’s images of spirituality.
Holt reminds us that the root of spirituality is the biblical word, spirit, that in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) means breath or wind (6). Holt sees three uses—capacity, style, and academic discipline—but goes on to cite the Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality definition: “Christian spirituality is the domain of lived Christian experience.” (6-7)
Perhaps more interesting, Holt see biblical spirituality comprised of four basic relationships: “relationships to God, to self, to others, and to creation.” (31) In my own writing I have followed Nouwen (1975, 20) in focusing on the first three so the fourth attracted my attention. The relationship with creation is, of course, highlighted in Celtic spirituality’s attention to nature and the life and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi who was known to preach to birds and animals. Creation has more recently come up again in discussions of environmental concerns.
Background and Organization
Bradley P. Holt is a professor emeritus at Augsburg University, where he also studied as an undergraduate. He is a graduate of Luther Theological Seminary and received his doctorate at Yale University. Holt writes in ten chapters:
1. What is Christian Spirituality?
2. The Bible and the Four Relationships
3. The Beginning of a Global Community
4. The European Era
5. Protestant and Catholic Reform
6. The Modern Era
7. The West Since 1900
8. The Non-Western World Since 1900
9. Interfaith Spirituality for Christians
10. Christian Spirituality and Ecology (ix)
The chapters are proceeded by acknowledgments and an introduction and followed by an afterword, appendix, and several indices.
The Spiritual Side of Creation
Creation formed perhaps the most interesting aspect of Holt’s treatment of spirituality, who writes:
“God intends humans to care for the earth, not destroy it, and that an exclusive other worldly focus on salvation in Jesus can distract us Christians from our responsibilities to the creation.” (264)
Although I have devoted the past six years to writing about Christian spirituality, this point escaped me, but not because I was unaware of his point. For me, it was an idea that simply occupied another room in mind, not labeled spirituality.
One of my earliest and most enduring influences was Henry David Thoreau’s Waldenwho begins:
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner to civilized life again.”(Thoreau 1960, 1)
He goes on to explain:
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce to its lowest terms…”(Thoreau 1960, 62-63)
The idea of a Spartan existence, which he immediately related to reformed spirituality paraphrasing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, always had a special appeal to me. Exposed to the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and to Thoreau, I have always implicitly associated creation with spirituality. However, it took a recent reading of Holt (31) to remind me of my own spiritual roots in this regard.
Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.
Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for Godprovides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1960. Walden and Civil Disobedience (Orig pub 1854). Edited by Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (PCUSA). 1999, 7.001)
I went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics, possessed as it were of a strong desire to deal with the world food problem following the 1970s concern for limited resources and limits to growth (MMRB 1975). This background does not make me an environmentalist, but it gave a deep appreciation for our role as stewards of creation.
Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.