[Common Places] Reading Notes: Heavenly-Mindedness
One feature that will appear regularly this year will be a monthly series entitled Reading Notes. In these posts, editors and contributors will lead readers to significant literature related thematically to our other ongoing series. This month Michael Allen introduces classical and contemporary literature related to heavenly-mindedness and formation as a fitting complement to our ongoing engagement of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project (see here).
Admittedly heaven isn’t a particularly big place in contemporary culture. But heaven features widely in the Scriptures of Israel and the early church, and heavenly-mindedness has marked Christian theology through the centuries. Theologians ranging from the patristic to the Puritan eras have sought to reflect on Christian discipleship and formation, on ethics and morality, and on the metaphysics of created reality mindful of the centrality of our heavenward calling. In this brief annotated bibliography I will point to some of the most significant texts in this regard.
First, Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses sketches the upward journey of sanctification and the Christian concept of progress and perfection. By surveying the history of Moses’s life and then offering a spiritual reading of the same narrative, Gregory treats Moses as a microcosm or paradigm for spirituality. Perhaps no claim is as significant as Gregory’s identification of creaturely perfection with continual and upward progress. This claim seems to relate to his particular understanding of our metaphysical reality as dependent creatures, thus as continually moving beings on the pathway to life and blessing in ever-richer degrees. Gregory also tackles the dialectic of light and darkness in Moses’s ascent, showing that ascent is not mere or straightforward progress in knowledge, at least not apart from an ongoing appreciation of mystery and the profundity of God’s sublime presence. Thankfully, the student of Gregory can also find help in recent secondary studies.
Second, one wishing to consider the pilgrimage of heavenly-mindedness will surely be prompted by the reflections in Bonaventure’s The Journey of the Soul into God (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum). The medieval doctor guides the reader to consider ascent but begins with the most mundane, namely, those things external to the self (the stuff of life) and considers how they might be received, contemplated, and known in God. Indeed, the book is an exercise of sorts in how to reduce all things unto God – that technical language of “reduction” does not mean narrowing or subverting things other than God, but rather points to the need to see them as “from, through, and to God.” Bonaventure, then, helps reorient the religious imagination to trace all things back to their maker and, more significantly, their intended end, the Lord of heaven and, thus, of earth as well.
Third, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion addresses the notion of heavenly-mindedness in the remarkable section of its third book, oftentimes called “the golden booklet of the Christian life.” In this portion of the Institutes, Calvin addresses self-denial (which he identifies as the “sum of the Christian life”), cross-bearing, meditation on the future life, and the use of the present life and its “helps” (or blessings). Calvin affirms patristic and medieval ascetical teaching, noting the foolishness of any attempt to supplement it. He does, however, seek to shape the way in which we approach such practices of contemplation, discipline, and discipleship, noting how it relates to the work of Christ (past and present) and how it is governed by the authority of Scripture (and binding only when taught in God’s Word). In so doing, Calvin helps provide a framework whereby a reformational Christian might receive the earlier contributions of a Gregory or a Bonaventure without negating the Christologically-focused insights of the sixteenth century.
Fourth, John Owen’s The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded offers a theological and spiritual unfolding of Romans 8:6 – “To be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Worth noting is the layered way in which Owen describes spiritual-mindedness, involving the intellect, the passions and appetites, and the will. In exegeting Paul, Owen offers something of a moral psychology and seeks to show how meditative focus (what would traditionally be called contemplation) draws from, at times combats, and orients one own desires and volitions. Still further, and frankly more beautiful, Owen describes how contemplation focuses upon God – his very being – and, by extension, upon the works of God (which winds up involving everything, creation in all its many-colored details, throughout the course of history).
Fifth, Kenneth Kirk’s The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum has been forgotten by time, as this Anglican divine’s reputation has fallen behind that of contemporaries like Michael Ramsey. Yet this series of Bampton Lectures reflects on the ethical implications of the beatific vision as it has been understood through the centuries. In considering various movements throughout church history, Kirk traces them back to their eschatology and, specifically, their unfolding of the moral correlates of the beatific vision. Because of the wide-ranging, genealogical approach, there are no doubt historical judgments that are questionable; yet the daring scope of Kirk’s book should prompt the modern reader to consider the vital commitments of earlier Christian movements.
It is worth noting the absence of contemporary literature. Contemporary eschatology has focused on the first part of Irenaeus’s maxim: “the glory of God is a living man.” In seeking to correct purported spiritualism, however, it regularly forgets the accompanying line: “the life of man is the vision of God.” We might ask, then, if contemporary eschatology is not of such earthly-mindedness as to be of rather little heavenly good.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, Reading Notes, offers annotated bibliographic suggestions regarding classical and contemporary works in systematic theology.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors