Thursday, September 18, 2014

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion by Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe (Book Review #91 of 2014)

The breadth of Christian history, philosophy, and literature covered here make it very close to a "must-read" for any Christian. Good books inspire you to read other, older books and this book excels at that like few others. While I understand that most of the book was researched and written by Beebe (over three years), Foster closes each chapter with his own personal takeaways and a devotional prayer. I highly recommend Foster's book on spiritual disciplines (see my review) before reading this one.

How do we order our lives rightly in order to love God and grow in our faith? The authors explore the written works of several in church history in the area of spiritual disciplines: Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict, pseudo-Dionysius, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton, George Herbert, George Fox, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John Wesley, St. Bonaventure, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and others.

Each of these teachers, monks, theologians, and philosophers contributed something to the literature of a disciplined life and experienced God in unique ways. Each made contributions to the Western church that influenced others down the road. A feature of the book is that it allows you to see echoes of Platonic philosophy as incorporated by Augustine and passed on through Gregory, Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Wesley, etc. Everyone on the list could be accused of being "neo-Platonic" but it's important to recognize Greek philosophy's role in developing European institutions, most prominently the Church. An appendix deals with pre-Christian philosophers who were known to influence the historical figures. Having recently finished Plato's Republic I find it interesting that the authors see the "cave" analogy as turning from our dark ignorance to God. Early Christians reportedly saw the importance of enlightened spiritually mature Christians to turn and help others less mature, just as Plato saw for the philosopher kings in his ideal society. Clement reputedly claimed Plato for the Christian purpose, arguing that Plato ultimately pointed to Christ. (Classical Christian schools today teach Latin and teach Platonic philosophy and dialectic from early grades based on the idea that Western Civilization, including Christianity, requires this as a foundation.)

Many contributors come across as mystics, but the authors defend many of their positions as ultimately rooted in Scripture. Calvin, for example, wrote of the importance of oguidance by the Holy Spirit in choosing elders, deacons, and making decisions. But those revelations of the Holy SPirit worked in conjunction with the reading of Scripture. Fox wrote much about the spiritual experience-- the feelings-- but also had large sections of the Bible memorized. The authors assume some of the more supernatural experiences of the individuals were true. St. Francis, for example, experienced a stigmata that was testified to by many witnesses, and his life thereafter was markedly different. Others mentioned had some type of divine revelation or vision that changed them or influenced their thinking.

The authors divide up the seven "paths" as follows. No path is "right or wrong" but all are aspects of a person's spiritual growth.
One: The Right Ordering of Our Love for God
Two: The Spiritual Life as Journey
Three: The Recovery of Knowledge of God Lost in the Fall
Four: Intimacy with Jesus Christ
Five: The Right Ordering of Our Experiences of God
Six: Action and Contemplation
Seven: Diving Ascent

The writing and philosophies of the various historical figures are categorized, non-chronologically, in these seven paths. The non-chronological aspect of the histories make it more difficult. One could really re-organize it into a much different book on the history of church thought.

A weakness of the book is the inclusion of some like pseudo-Dyonisius. If there is ever an accident of history, it's him. While his writing was incredibly influential and is essential to the foundation of Eastern Orthodoxy, the fact that he was given authoritative credence on false pretenses should discredit much of what the authors might want us to glean from this account. Schleiermacher is also a surprise, but the authors write that you have to understand him in his context-- he was arguing for Christianity in a time and place when atheism and humanism were on the ascendance; as such, he was persecuted. Against that backdrop, he does not appear so bad.

Where the authors stick with the importance of examining our personal experiences and beliefs with Scripture, they do well. Where they appear to stray from that, it gets a little murky. But the entire book is enlightening on Christian history and the context in which the contributors-- many of them martyred-- were writing.

I give this book four stars out of five. I look forward to reading some of the examined works myself.

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