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Faith: Coming full circle, from story books to spirituality

  • May 25, 2017

My first love was literature, novels and poetry. As a child, I loved story books, mysteries and adventures. In grade school, I was made to memorize poetry and loved the exercise. High School introduced me to more serious literature: Shakespeare, Kipling, Keats, Wordsworth, Browning. On the side, I still read story books, cowboy tales from the old West taken from my dad’s bookshelf.

During my undergraduate university years, literature was a major part of the curriculum and I learned that literature wasn’t just about stories, but also about social and religious commentary, as well as about form and beauty as ends in themselves.

In classes we read classic novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, The Heart of the Matter, East of Eden. The curriculum at that time in Canada heavily favoured British writers. Only later, on my own, would I discover the richness in Canadian, American, African, Indian, Russian and Swedish writers. I had been solidly catechized in my youth and, while the catechism held my faith, literature held my theology.

But after literature came philosophy. As part of preparation for ordination we were required to do a degree in philosophy. The courses then heavily favoured Scholasticism (Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas) but we were also given a sound history of philosophy and a basic grounding in existentialism and some of the contemporary philosophical movements. I was smitten. Philosophy became my theology.

But after philosophy came theology. After our philosophical studies, we were required to take a four-year degree in theology prior to ordination. Again, I was blessed with good teachers and blessed to be studying theology just as Vatican II and a rich new theological scholarship were beginning to penetrate theological schools and seminaries.

There was theological excitement aplenty and I shared in it. In Roman Catholic circles, we were reading Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Schnackenburg and Raymond Brown. Protestant circles were giving us Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr and a bevy of wonderful scripture scholars. The faith of my youth was finally finding the intellectual grounding it had forever longed for. Theology became my new passion.

But after theology came spirituality. After ordination, I was given the opportunity to do a further graduate degree in theology. That degree deepened immeasurably my love for and commitment to theology. It also landed me a teaching job and for the next six years I taught theology at a graduate level. These were wonderful years. I was where I most wanted to be, in a theology classroom. However, during those six years, I began to explore the writings of the mystics and tentatively launch some courses in spirituality.

My doctoral studies followed those years and while I focused on systematic theology, writing my thesis in the area of natural theology, something had begun to shift in me. I found myself more and more shifting into the area of spirituality and after a few years I could no longer justify calling some of my former courses in systematic theology by their old catalogue titles. Honesty compelled me to name them courses in spirituality.

And what is spirituality? How is it different from theology? At one level, there’s no difference. Spirituality is, in effect, applied theology. They are of one and the same piece, either ends of the same sock. But here’s a difference: Theology defines the playing field, defines the doctrines, distinguishes truth from falsehood and seeks to enflame the intellectual imagination. It is what it classically claims itself to be: faith seeking understanding.

But, rich and important as that is, it’s not the game. Theology makes up the rules for the game, but it doesn’t do the playing nor decide the outcome. That’s role of spirituality, even as it needs to be obedient to theology. Without sound theology, spirituality always falls into unbridled piety, unhealthy individualism and self-serving fundamentalism.

But without spirituality, theology too easily becomes only intellectual aesthetics, however beautiful. Theology needs to give us truth, spirituality needs to break open that truth.

And so I’ve come full circle. From the story books of my childhood, through the Shakespeare of my high school, through the novelists and poets of my undergraduate years, through the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, through the theology of Rahner and Tillich, through the scripture scholarship of Raymond Brown and Ernst Kasemann, through the hermeneutics of the post-modernists of my post-graduate years, through 40 years of teaching theology, I’ve landed where I started — still searching for good stories that feed the soul.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at

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