|The oldest known portrait of St. Francis.|
An Exploration of the Thought of Fr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen.
“A thought theory that never comes to grips with intuition, hallucination, spirituality or dreaming cannot possibly be a serious account of cognition.” —David Gelernter.The entire discipline of spirituality – insofar as one may call it a discipline – is unstable. It is pluriform, fragmented, free-floating, subjective, without firm ground and without accepted categories, lacking cohesion. In a word, it is ramshackle.
However, spirituality is where we must begin, if we desire true religion. All religious dogma, without spirituality, is hollow at best. In Fr. Kees' Roman Catholic tradition, a vital spirituality has been neglected in favour of the laborious effort of straining to God through a metaphysics which St. Thomas Aquinas built on a rediscovered Aristotle. It is an impressive yet static edifice, employing (to most) unfathomable language: being, substance, essence, accidence, and so on.
The existing traditional edifice, on its own, is ill equipped to respond to the most pressing challenge of the Roman Catholic Church, which was identified by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as the spiritual reform of faith. Here is the classic predicament which both Catholic and Protestant traditions still properly need to resolve: faith remains weak (fundamentalist) without reason, while rationalism is uninspiring and incomplete (Descartes, for instance, or Kant). There is a pressing need for a vital spirituality.
But then, how should one derive a living spirituality from that which is sterile? How should one ground it? And how should one unite it with a theology of truth? How may one even – to be yet more bold – universalise it? Answering the call of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, these questions became Fr. Kees' journey of fifteen years of doctoral research.
Conservatively, four-fifths of our world believes in God. This includes the Christian tradition, which is formed and sustained by faith in a Triune God. Therefore we may begin with the simple assumption of God's existence, as the foundation of faith and spirituality. Given such belief, there are then three radical, foundational statements which follow. They have foundational worth – in fact general application – because they are indispensable spiritual categories:
• Unless we can experience God, He will be distant and powerless, and may as well not exist.These foundational statements, in turn, may be turned into challenging questions about the faith which is the practice of spirituality: in service and in care, in adult formation, seminary training, youth work, catechesis, in worship and in sacraments, and in our personal walk of faith.
• Unless we have the spiritual intuition of God, He remains an unsatisfying idea, and inaccessible. And
• Unless we can have a relationship with God, He does not love us, and is irrelevant to us.
• Is there a real experience of God?With these three foundational categories, we have, further, the example of the saints, which itself is foundational. In Fr. Kees' Roman Catholic tradition (the Order of Capuchin Franciscans), one looks to the example of St. Francis – a man uncontaminated by Medieval theology, yet who uniquely and directly experienced God, mystically intuiting a relational intimacy with Him. Through his spiritual vigour, St. Francis transformed the Roman Catholic Church, and became a significant revolutionary force for change in Medieval times.
• Are we able to receive this through spiritual intuition, so that it is maximally fruitful? And
• Does it bring about a relational change with God, and a form of growth?
Thus spirituality may be grounded, and foregrounded, on the foundations here described. It may further be rehabilitated, which is the point of it after all. However, the details of its outworking are, needless to say, too expansive a subject for a mere introductory post such as this.