Monday, 28 September 2015

The Foundations of Spirituality

The oldest known portrait of St. Francis.
Posted by Thomas Scarborough

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.
• 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.
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.
• Is there a real experience of God?
• 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?
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. 

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.

The full 702-page dissertation by Fr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen on the Foundations of Spirituality has now been published and can be read atThönissen C.J. 2005. Foundations for Spirituality: A 'Hermeneutic of Reform' for a Church Facing Crises Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. Pretoria: UNISA.


  1. Thank you Thomas and Kees for what is actually a very controversial post! For a start the claim that :

    "four-fifths of our world believes in God"

    A few lines later there is a slightly ambiguous turn of phrase that could be read to say that this proves God's existence (which of course it does not) - but I assume the point is actually that given the existence of God, in one or other form, how should this awareness/ fact influence life?

    Here, I see things rather differently from the post, which says:

    "faith remains weak (fundamentalist) without reason, while rationalism is uninspiring and incomplete"

    I would say that this is a very dodgy assertion. I find rationality very inspiring! Ask anyone who solves a puzzle - be it a practical one like Archimedes working out the value of irregularly shaped bodies - or a child learning how add numbers...

    Einstein (who I disagree with on scientific matters) it seems to me wrote well on the subject, when he says that spirituality needs to be focused on the workings of the universe rather than the writings of the ancients.

    1. Here's a word from the 'ghost writer'.

      In writing up this post, I had some seven-hundred pages of dense theology to work with. A one- or two-page survey was ambitious. As best I can see, Father Kees' 'indispenable spiritual categories' are thought in themselves to recover the existence of God.

      Father Kees' thought is sophisticated: 'The idea transcendence or the notion of it (called ‘God’), but, even more fundamentally, a deeper living ‘sense’ or ‘intuition’ of transcendence, is what has ‘gone missing’' (

      I sensed that, to many, this could represent a basic, undeclared assumption, namely: God exists. Therefore I presented it as 'given'. But Father Kees' thought goes deeper than this, beyond any 'given'. As for the rest, let's see whether Father Kees checks in.

  2. (I just lost a long commentary and my so-called "Lazarus" extension (Firefox) won't bring it back from the dead. Strange.)

    Let me rephrase my dead comment in the form of a question : could there possibly be enough rational knowledge about the the after-life (NDE research and reincarnation research), messengers of God (NDE research, ESP research), experience of God (psychedelics, meditation, other mind-altering techniques), to start accepting rationally (and strongly, strengthening our faith) some aspects of God?

  3. ( Oh! And one thing that is so simple that I forgot : the science of dreams. How a society who dreams properly could really experience God, an be in relationship with God. )

  4. Mmmm at the moment all of us are thinking along slightly different lines? Yes?

    1. And I'm certainly the most un-aligned!

      Let me rephrase:

      it is because it is believed that rationality can't help much relate with, have the intuition of, and have the experience of, God, that the foundational issues are framed in such a way that spirituality appear relatively unaccessible --

      the three pillars are extremely compelling (and I appreciate this article for describing them), but the next level, after the foundations have been established, seems hard to reach. I take as evidence the fact that the only example given in this article is Saints, who are *almost* by definition inaccessible (and the example of St Francis is especially telling, since it is quintessentially anti-intellectual (in my, and most people's, understanding at least)).

      In contrast, what is usually meant by "spirituality", at least for the largest number in the western world nowadays, is a practice that is closely tied with a New Age or post-Hippie worldview (a democratic (if not populist), exoteric, open approach) where those tabloid notions (and *scientific facts*) I mentioned above are foundational.

    2. I suspect that vernacular spiritualities (pagan worldviews) had the same problems throughout history being accepted -- they are just too practical.

  5. Look what I've just found : The Physics of Angels with Mathew Fox. "

    In a groundbreaking book The Physics of Angels theologian Mathew Fox and scientist Rupert Sheldrake delve into what is known about angels not only in theology, but in science."

    1. It's more a tempting hint than anything substantial there? I'm struck by the conjouring with the word 'scientist'... I just came across this 'debunking' exercise, you might enjoy it.

      The astronomer I quoted in Paradigm Shift (not well received by the 'world' - yet!) as disputing the existence of Black Holes, (Stephen Crothers) notes two of the conventional scientists who have been spending millions of public money looking for evidence (in the form of gravitational waves’) are scratching their heads and coming up with ad hoc theories to explain their failure to find any. Add to which,

      “... [one team of astronomers] recently reported that for some 20 years they had mistaken for cosmic microwave sources the signals from the microwave ovens in their lunchroom. They [had] even named their ‘cosmic’ signals, ‘perytons’:

      You couldn’t make it up!

  6. (Comment posted by Martin on behalf of Chengde, writing by email)

    "My understanding of the post is that, based on the Triune God Christianity believes, Kees suggests that we must have a spiritual foundation with three abilities: we can experience God, we have the intuition of God, and we can have relationship with God. I guess that there were many accidental reasons for a religion to be developed into its theological format. There are monolithic god and multiple gods, trinity and unicity, etc.; wouldn’t these indicate different foundations required? In some religions, God is made remote and not loving people at all, but it still works so long as He is just. And it may be more subjective to define “experiencing God”. It seems to me that the common foundation of different faiths is human imagination of a transcendental existence, which can form a moral structure of the Almighty awarding good and punishing evil. (This was initially driven by the need of evolution when man reached the stage of coexistence.) Of course, there can be a comparative study on which form of religion is more beneficial for cultural development, but it would almost be an impossible task given that cultural development depends on the combination of so many factors."

  7. In the interim if I may thank friends on behalf of Father Kees for comments. His formidable programme has not permitted him to respond as yet. His full dissertation has now been published at Access is free.

  8. Fr. Kees replies (3) ...

    THE SECOND APPROACH AS ANSWER: Most of all, we are all heavily involved in relationships (relationality). What are most precious to us, the foci (persons!) that consume our energies, are our relations. Aristotle and Thomas were more involved in things, thus downgrading their category of relation (helpfully, rightfully, things do lead us into modern science). Kant’s categories fared badly here also. (See 5.2.4 pg298 pg303).

    We don’t think relationships (we can... but those ‘in love’ don’t start there, we think about the real love); we experience them (as the ‘self-donation’ of the other. (See pg395,396). So why has the Church so heavily pressed for the first route – thinking metaphysically towards God (which is deep and useful – as far as it goes...), when the Judeo-Christian religion began with the Revelation of God – in experience – in human history, as Gods self-revelation, through the prophets, through the Son of God appearing for us on earth? (See pg375).

    Theology reflects on experience of God. (See pg377,378). A fresh ‘humble’ metaphysics reverses (pg39712 pg39815) the tradition path – its starts with what we can understand – namely our experience of God, not so much God in himself as thought (as we think he could and should be like). But what then is my and your experience of God - far can this become really real ... as ... rightly asks !? The thesis suggests directly through contemplation and mysticism – this a child can do, we’ve made it hard because we double-think everything.

    Relationality holds all together in meaning, and is thus a worthy overarching category. But relations must occur in experience, which is thus also an unavoidable category. We though, have to intuit relations – the history of hermeneutics reveals that meaning is not so obvious. Above all those transcendent (divine) beings can only be intuited spiritually. Spiritual intuition too needs to be called a category. (See 5.3 pg320).

  9. Fr. Kees replies (2) ...

    THE FIRST APPROACH AS ANSWER. We can approach this through stretching our minds to face these questions ... but can reason through the mind alone (pg223; pg12118, pg194112 pg531106) reach full metaphysical answers? The Catholic tradition has held that it can. But what kind of reason was it assuming though? It is surely not solely tied to the rationalism above? Or does this ‘reason’ use insight as intuition (and imagination, as Martin and Perig suggest) ‘into’ and ‘behind’ reality? This would be a capacity that is beyond ‘linear reason’ seeking a mere first atomic or chemical ‘cause.’ A ‘new kind’ of reason looks beyond physics – i.e. as per Aristotle, meta-physics as truly metaphysical insight employing metaphysical capacities.

    What do we call this capacity or faculty – which ‘beyond reason’... is something (we possess naturally, innately), is somehow, tied back to the ‘Being’ ‘behind’ the universe... tied metaphysically, or through the connection of something spiritual – the religious spirit, Jewish heart, Greek pneuma/mind, Christian soul, or as I call it, spiritual intuition. (See pg 323; 5.2.5 pg301; pg306352). Aha... we’ve now passed further than sticking with the ‘mind alone,’ so that we need to rethink how we are constituted by our anthropological capacities – which are more than just brain and body. If I don’t want to be limited to what mechanically, computationally drives mere brawn, I have to ask what is so special about me? How is everybody connected in deeper meaning?

    I call for the Catholic tradition to clearly admit it doesn’t only talk of the above narrow reason, but a broader reason that includes the insightful, spiritual (and imaginative) capacities (spiritual intuition). (See 5.2.6 pg309). In fact the Bonaventurian tradition sophistically holds that any thinking or reasoning is already and at all times upheld by transcendental powers. (See pg327&328; pg484). Another way of saying this is that we are always somehow illuminated (unconsciously – Einstein’s ‘creativity’ included something like this. See 5.2.11 pg313; pg51135). ‘Proud’ (enlightenment) reason thinks we think totally independently... through the power of human intellect alone (St Thomas took up this ‘independent’ line). There’s the debate set out for us! If we are content with rationalism coupled to our brains we fool ourselves into shallowness. Postmodernism sees that neither philosophy nor science alone can save us or our planet. What is ‘the more’ of me and you all about then?

  10. Fr. Kees replies (1) ...

    There are some interesting contributions here from Martin and Perig. Thank you... Thank you Thomas for facilitating things. Just to share:

    Rationalism in the Catholic Church means in the thesis a tainting by Enlightenment rationalism as well as a later scientific/ technological kind of reason. This is linear, mathematical (pg13961; 4.18.10 pg192 & 192107), geometric (317369)... and later, analytic. Newtonian logic worked on universal laws (pg301-303). All rests on experiment, and thus only the (observing) senses. All these thus have limitations of narrowness (pg96152). But rationality is righty part of the universal structure of what and who we are... Benedict XVI always reverts to the (Greek) ‘all-meaning’ logos. (See 5.2.5 pg303).

    A fresh hermeneutic is required that seeks such deeper meaning. (See pg317368). What is the meaning of all things that we are immersed in? Why do things ‘hold together’ in the way they do?

    An even more profound Metaphysics will ask: why are we here... to what personal purpose and what end? Is there overarching meaning?