The Role of Spirituality in Pastoral Care


WD Jonker, Stellenbosch

The concept of spirituality is rather difficult to define. so much is clear, that it refers to the spiritual relation between man and God. Used within the context of Christian theology, it is an inclusive concept denoting the subjective side of the human relation to Cod. It refers to the human consciousness of God, the orientation towards God, the fellowship with God in prayer and meditation, and the daily walk with God. Lawrence Richards says: “True Christian spirituality is living a human life in union with God” (A practical theology of spirituality, 1987:144).

Perhaps the best equivalent of the term would be the Biblical expression the fear of the Lord. Says Peter Toon: “Spirituality is a personal involvement with and response to the God who reveals himself and in so doing offers everlasting salvation to all who come to him in repentance and faith. It is a response of a believer who is ready and open to the enlightening, guiding and strengthening of the Holy Spirit. So ‘spirituality’ in an orthodox Christian context, may be said to be the sphere of human nature in which the Holy Spirit is active as the Paraclete or spirit of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour, as the Sanctifier” (Toon:39).

The reality is, of course, that not all people use the term in the same sense, let alone in an orthodox Christian sense. The result is that people using the same term may often refer to different things. That may also be the case when it is used in a discussion about pastoral care. That will become clear when we look at the recent developments in the approach towards pastoral care.

The shift from pastoral counselling to spirituality

As an outsider in the field of pastoral care, it strikes me that a major shift seems to have occurred in the general orientation of pastoral care. It is my impression that a number of practical theologians advocate a new direction within this discipline. In a general sense, I presume, the term pastoral care originally indicated the care and spiritual attention of the pastor for his whole congregation. But in modern times it more and more became a term denoting the special attention and guidance given to individual people in need. It became what was known as pastoral counselling, which was directed at individuals with specific problems. This use of the term implied a close link between psychotherapy and pastoral counselling. The methods used, and even the terminology, suggested a close connection between the psychotherapist and the pastor. The person in need often became a client, and the type of approach propagated was called client centered therapy. In this regard I may refer to the work of Carl Rodgers, which was the best known to me.

However, this seems to have changed. Nelson Thayer opposes the concept of pastoral care as defined by William Clebsch and Charles Jaeckle, when they see it primarily as response to “troubled persons”. He quotes them as saying: “Pastoral care begins when an individual person recognises or feels that his trouble is insolvable in the context of his own private resources, and when he becomes willing … to carry his hurt and confusion to a person who represents to him the resources, and wisdom and authority of religion. “Thayer himself sees it differently. To him pastoral care is also care taken for the nurturing, guidance, and growth of persons in relationships to themselves, others, nature, and God, as an ongoing part of ministry unrelated to whether the person experiences himself of herself in crisis or in trouble” (Spirituality and Pastoral Care, 1985, 69–70) .

This of course implies that pastoral care is again seen as an activity directed at the congregation as a whole. But that does not mean that it is understood in the traditional way as the shepherding of the flock by means of preaching, teaching and applying the Word of God. The whole setting within which the concept of pastoral care today functions according to the view of Thayer and others, is different from that traditional concept. The present picture is rather that of the pastor shepherding his flock by stimulating their religious experience. The accent has shifted away from preaching, guidance and counselling to the fostering of a practice of inner healing and growth in an exploration of the inner life, in order to help members of the congregation to open themselves up for a new consciousness of God and thus for a new dimension of religious experience .

That means that the accent in pastoral care has shifted to spirituality, and that the close link between pastoral care and psychotherapy has lost its monopoly. Pastoral counselling as a therapeutic process in which only the pastor and the person in need are involved, is replaced by what Kenneth Leech calls spiritual direction, understood as service to the spirituality of the congregation. Where pastoral counselling depended heavily on the methods of psychology, spiritual direction occupies itself with the phenomenon of religion and develops a new methodology of caring for the congregation by stimulating and fostering the pursuit of a new experiential spirituality (Leech: Spirituality and Pastoral care, 1987).

The cultural background of the shift

It is obvious that this change of approach is closely linked to the cultural changes that took place in the Western world since the end of World War 2. In his work Soul Friend (1987), Kenneth Leech starts with an opening chapter on: Spirituality and the present climate, in which he describes how the new quest for spirituality is imbedded in the cultural changes since the War. He points out that during the 1960’s it was frequently said that the future of man was non-religious, that society was secularised, and that the church’s mission should be based on that assumption. But that assumption proved not to be true.

Already by 1968 it was clear that there was a new interest in ‘spiritual’ issues. The so-called counter-culture and the psychedelic movement amongst the youth signal led the beginning of a new desire for the spiritual and the transcendental. It stimulated the search for new methods of self-exploration and the enriching of the consciousness. It highlighted the fact that the Western world was suffering from severe spiritual deprivation. According to Leech it was therefore not strange that this new movement turned to the East for inspiration.

The result was a tremendous upsurge of interest in Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and a dabbling in the non-rational rather than the rational, the occult rather than the prophetic, and the emotional rather than the intellectual. This is typical of the so-called “new consciousness” which is characteristic of our time. Within the South African context we were startled when it became known that the poet Breyten Breytenbach was converted to Zen Buddhism. But it was only an indication nearer home of the new interest in the mystical spirituality of the East.

In a more recent work Experiencing God – Theology as Sprituality (1985), Leech again makes the point that it was a mistake to see our world as a secular one. We should rather say that it is a very religious, but an idolatrous world (20). In retrospect we realise now how modern man under the guise of irreligiosity had supplanted old time religion by all kinds of quasi-religious surrogates. Leech points to the religious role that ideology played in Nazi-Germany and to the religious reverence for Stalin and Chairman Mao Tse Tung in the hay-days of communism (21–22). But he also mentions the interest in the occult and the use of drugs amongst the youth in the West, in order to get a, quasi-spiritual experience.

According to him all these things prove that the human nature is incurably religious, although it’s religious inclination may be misdirected and disorientated. While public life in Western countries often portrays an image of nihilism, religion is thriving in the sphere of the individual life and in all kinds of informal sectors of religious activity outside the churches and religious organisations. The flowering of the charismatic movements alongside the Churches is in itself and indication that there is a thirst for religious experience that runs counter to the apparent secular and materialistic spirit of the age.

It is in the light of these facts that the new trend in pastoral care and the stress on spirituality should be understood. That also becomes abundantly clear in the work of Nelson Thayer: Spirituality and Pastoral Care (1985). In his first chapter he explores the cultural and religious context of contemporary pastoral care, and tries to prove that the recent interest in spirituality is indicative of the fact that we have moved into a post-modern phase. In the post-modernistic era prominence is given to experience and especially to the recovery of the experience of the transcendental. The phenomenon of religion is again en vogue. It is a means to effect the total integration of life. Pastoral care should therefore be directed at helping people to become aware of and to foster their experience of the transcendental. That is the same as saying that it should be directed at the fostering of spirituality (Thayer: 1985, 22ff).

Positive development

In a certain sense one may appreciate the new development as something positive. What else should pastoral care be about, if it is not about the building up of the congregation in its spiritual life? It is important that the pastor is again being made aware of the necessity to take the initiative to support individuals and the whole congregation in the search for real meaning and inner freedom. We may also be glad that the assumptions of the non-directive method in pastoral counselling are at least supplemented by this new approach. The more or less positivistic paradigm is traded in for a more open, a more spirit-orientated one.

The orthodox pastor may see this as a happy swop, because he is brought back to his own field, the field of religion. It opens up the possibility to become a theologian again, to direct and admonish, to stimulate and to guide. The pastor will again be in the position to read the Bible with a person coming to him for help. He will again be able to pray with those consulting him and to encourage them to be people of God, people of prayer and dedication. One does not need to be a specialist in psychotherapy or in the finer details of counselling to help people to surrender themselves to God and to open up their hearts and lives for the power of the spirit. All that is needed is the theological ability, the pastoral sensitivity and the personal experience of the love of the Lord, in order to be able to guide others into a new life of faith and obedience.

One can see what an important difference this can make to the self-understanding of the pastor. Because pastoral care is by definition spiritual work, the pastor must realise that he/she cannot make a success of it, unless he or she personally has a living relationship with God in Christ. The spirituality of the pastor thus becomes of the greatest importance. Because pastoral work is not just the performing of a technical duty, but a highly personal involvement with the spiritual welfare of other persons, the pastor needs to be anointed by the Spirit of God and to depend fully on the power of the Spirit in order to be able really to help other people. If the pastor should neglect his/her own spiritual life, there is little hope that his/her work can really be meaningful in the shaping of the spirituality of the congregation.

What kind of theology?

The new approach to pastoral care indeed again makes room for much of what was sound and profitable in the tradition of pastoral care through the ages. And yet, it is necessary to look a little closer at this new development, in order to make sure that the real Biblical nature of pastoral care is not betrayed in one way or another. For that reason we have to ask what kind of theology is used by some of those who propagate this new direction, in order to avoid some of the possible pit-falls that may be on the way.

It has often been said that reformed theologians have the habit of always identifying possible dangers in anything new that may come across their way. Well, seeing that I try to be a reformed theologian, you will have to bear with me when I say that I really do see a specific danger on the road of this new approach. It is the danger of basing this new approach not really on a Biblical foundation, but on natural theology, the phenomenology of religion and the science of religion. That could result in working with presuppositions and methods that betray the revelationary character of the Christian faith.

It must be clear that the concept of spirituality used in the context of this new development is not necessarily exclusively Christian. Although the writers to whom I have referred are of course Christian theologians who have no other goal than to promote the ideal of a genuine Christian spirituality, it is clear that their point of departure is not the Bible as such, but the phenomena of religion and religious experience. Sure, there is a point where they switch over to biblical terminology, but basically they want to be scientific scholars who found their views on data derived from anthropological phenomena which are common to all positive religions.

One need not delve too deeply into the literature defending this position, to ascertain that it often works with the philosophical assumption that God is a symbol for the deepest sustaining power of the universe, and that religion is the human experience of unity with that ultimate reality which all religions call God. It is probably not quite incidental that the new interest in spirituality goes hand in hand with a new interest in the Eastern religions and the longing for religious experiences of a mystical nature. Some of the basic concepts used in this new approach remind us of the kind of terminology used in Eastern mystic al thought. Even Thayer defines true spirituality as the deepening of the level of consciousness to the point where an experience of continuity between a person’s own deepest experience and the deepest, sustaining power and meaning of the universe is established (Thayer: 66).

This type of approach can easily lead to the assumption that all religions are striving towards the same end, a point that is very much stressed in the present climate of religious pluralism (cf John Hick (ed): Christianity and other Religions, 1980; Hans Küng and others: Christianity and World Religions, 1984). Since Vatican Council Il the Roman Catholic Church has adopted a more positive attitude to other religions, stating that there are truths held in common by Christians and by men and women of other faiths. Likewise, in Protestant circles the concept of the anonymous Christian has paved the way for a more open attitude to other religions in a situation of religious pluralism. In some theological circles there is a wide–spread conviction that the great religions all provide legitimate ways to God.

Within this climate it is understandable that religious practices borrowed from non–Christian religions which stimulate specific kinds of experience may be highly recommended also for Christians, such as for instance specific types of meditation and contemplative prayer. If religion as such is the point of departure in our quest for true spirituality, there is no criterion to distinguish between the religions. If the main aim of spirituality is to seek an experience of unity with God, and the character of that experience is not understood in the light of the revelation of God in Christ, it is easy to glide into all kinds of syncretism. All religions may then be seen as different roads leading to an ultimate experience of unity with the great Power behind everything, whether it is called God or Allah, Rama or Krishna, the Absolute or even the Universe itself.

A line of division

It is absolute necessary that a line of division should be drawn between Christian and non-Christian spirituality. Of course Christian theologians normally do not associate themselves with a syncretistic movement like the New Age, but they may stimulate a kind of spirituality that has no built-in resistance against that kind of syncretism. We should remember that the presuppositions behind the Eastern religions are not the same as those of the Judeo–Christian revelation, which teaches us that God is a personal God, that man is a lost sinner that should be forgiven and renewed, in order to walk with God in a new life according to the law of God, taking responsibility for what is happening in the world etc. Christian spirituality has a much broader scope than mystical experience and it breathes in a totally different atmosphere.

Sometimes proponents of a new type of mystical spirituality draw heavily on the resources of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic spiritualties. But they are perhaps not always cautious enough to avoid the kind of mysticism that is inherent in the climate of Eastern meditation. The result is that ideas based on Hindu and Buddhist philosophy are also accepted in the Christian world, presumably on the assumption that such forms of meditation are neutral and can be adapted to Christian spirituality (Toon: Meditating as a Christian, 1991, 7).

Of course we should be glad that there are indications that we live in a time of a strong longing for ultimate values and a quest for God. These things remind us of the word of Augustine, that the heart of man was created for God and that it cannot find rest until it rests in the Father’s heart. But that does not mean that we should therefore in an uncritical way accept that religion as phenomenon in itself is basically good and may be used as a sound basis for a true Christian spirituality. There is nothing human that is not tainted and spoiled by sin. The fact that people are religious, points to the reality of Gods general revelation in the whole creation. But just as sinful man corrupts everything that he touches, so also the natural religious reactions of man to the revelation of God in the works of his hands are corrupt in themselves. It is only in the light of the special revelation of God in Jesus Christ that we encounter the full truth, and it is only when the Holy Spirit works regeneration through the Word of God, that man is renewed and enabled to walk with God in true fellowship.

Religion as such is not equivalent to saving faith. Religion as human reaction to the greatness and mysterious character of the world or human life may be a point of contact for the proclamation of the gospel – and in that sense it is of great value – but from the Biblical point of view it cannot in itself lead to a true knowledge of God. We need not express ourselves in the way Karl Barth did when he said that religion is unbelief and a flight away from the living God, and that we should be saved from religion in order to walk in the way of faith (Barth: Church Dogmatics 1/2, section 17). But we should discern the difference between the view that religion as phenomenon should be the point of departure in our search for a true spirituality, and the view that the Word of God alone should be our guide in this respect. There is a line of division between religion and revelation, between religious experience and the Word of God, between science of religion and theology proper, between a philosophy of identity and the gospel of sin and forgiveness, between Jesus as a prophet amongst others and Jesus as the Word made flesh.

Meditation as a test case

Having said this, we are convinced that our churches today should seize the opportunity provided us by the new longing for God which becomes visible. The churches should indeed realise that there is a spiritual void in the Western culture, and that the Christians may be enriched spiritually by learning anew to make much more room for God in their lives. The desire for a new kind of spirituality must not go unheeded. The people of God must be guided to knowledge of fellowship with God and the art to walk with God.

But the churches should be cautious not to align themselves uncritically with all kinds of movements or to propagate all kinds of techniques that are not in accordance with the Word of God. In this situation we may be helped a lot by learning from the Church of the past. It is true that we have become spiritually shallow in the West, the slaves of activism and moralism. We can benefit by learning from the spiritual traditions of the Christian Church that existed in different cultures not hampered by the materialism and activism of our time.

In the reformed tradition we may look back to a specific praxis pietatis that was fostered in the ages before the dawn of the Enlightenment and the birth of modern man. It is also possible that our present generation may learn from the spiritual traditions of the Eastern and the Roman Catholic churches. But it all depends on the presuppositions with which and the framework within which we make use of what they may present. It is for instance possible that we may learn from the age-old tradition of meditation as practiced within the Church. The decisive question will however be how we are going to use it. As a matter of fact, we may regard the practice of meditation as a test case for what may be and what may be not an acceptable praxis pietatis.

In this regard I can identify myself to a large extent with the views of Peter Toon in his book: Meditating as a Christian, with the sub—title: Waiting on God (1991) . He is an Anglican and he has a great affinity for the spiritual tradition of the Christian past. But as the title of his book suggests, he is wary of all kinds of mystical practices that cannot really be reconciled with the revelation in Christ. He sees meditation and contemplation as a fundamental part of Christian living, and without it prayer as dialogue with God can only be partial or paralysed (10). And yet he clearly distinguishes between Jewish and Christian meditation on the one hand, and the kind of meditation that is practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other. While the latter is seen as an inner journey to find the centre of one’s being, Christian meditation is the concentration of the mind and heart on the revelation of God in his Word (18/19) .

Meditation for Christians is, according to him, thinking about, reflecting upon, considering, taking to heart, reading slowly and carefully, prayerfully taking in, and humbly receiving into mind, heart and will that which God has revealed. For the Christian meditating Christianly is being guided and inspired by the indwelling Spirit of Christ in the consideration of God’s revelation (19). In the Eastern religions, on the other hand, meditation refers to the use of specific techniques to cause the mind/heart to look and journey inwards to find the key to existence deep within one’s own self, for there is no “God” to be found elsewhere (20).

Behind these two different modes of meditation there are two vastly different concepts of what is ultimate being. The Eastern religions work with an impersonal monism. Everything that exists is a manifestation of the same One Consciousness, Ultimate Reality, Brahman or by whatever name it is called. The only way to see this is to transcend reason, for intellect is the villain that divides the One from the many. Through meditation as an inner journey into the soul, you see Pure Consciousness, for you actually become Pure Consciousness, that is: Pure Consciousness becomes aware of itself in the human consciousness, and you become aware that your real self is none other than the True Self, that is God (20).

Toon in comparison says that for Jews and Christians God is both transcendent and immanent. He is both the Creator and Sustainer of the world, but also its Judge. As the living God he is a personal Being and relates to his creatures in a personal way. Christians believe in the Trinitarian God who exists as a Trinity of Persons in communion with each other. As the Trinitarian God he draws us into fellowship with him. This is the basis of prayer. Christian meditation is a prelude to prayer. It is seeking to hear and know what God is saying through his (already given) revelation in order to be able truly to engage in prayer, which is communion between the Creator and the created in Christ and through the Holy spirit (21–22).

On the basis of this analysis, Toon warns against syncretism. He refers to books on Christian Yoga, Zen and Christian mysticism and Exploration into Contemplative Prayer which have commended Eastern methods of meditation for Christians. Some of the techniques recommended in these works are borrowed from the Eastern practices. One of them is the use of a mantra in order to achieve complete relaxation. Toon does not deny that it could perhaps be used without harm, but he warns against an uncritical taking over of these techniques, as if they are neutral and not closely linked to the Eastern immanentist, pantheist or panentheist ideas about God (22–24).

We may conclude, then, that in search of a true Christian spirituality the pastor should be careful not to rush into the use of all kinds of methods and tools borrowed from non-Christian sources. But he/she should not avoid the task of helping the congregation grow, not only in willingness to be active in Christian service, but also in willingness to make time for God and fellowship with Him. In this regard, the pastor should teach his congregation (a) to love and use the Bible, (b) to become quiet before God and meditate on the Word of God in order to be filled with it. He/she should make it very clear that Christian meditation is different from that of the Eastern religions, because it is part of the ongoing dialogue and walk with the living and personal God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps we are entering a new phase in the history of the church: the phase of a more profound willingness to take time for communion with God and to experience a greater sensitivity for God and his will for our lives. May all pastors receive the grace to help other people to abide in the Lord, to walk with the Lord, and to obey the Lord until he comes!

Works referred to:
Hick, John & Hebblethwaite, Brian (ed), 1980. Christianity and other Religions. Philadelphia. Fortress.
Küng, Hans (red): 1984. Christentum und Weltreligionen. München. Piper.
Leech, Kenneth: 1987. Soul Friend. A Study in Spirituality. London. Sheldon Press.
Leech, Kenneth: 1985, Experiencing God. Theology as Spirituality. San Francisco. Harper & Row.
Richards, Lawrence O: 1987. A Practical Theology of spirituality. Grand rapids, Academie.
Thayer, Nelson ST: 1985. Spirituality and Pastoral Care. Philadelphia. Fortress.
Toon, Peter: 1991. Meditating as a Christian. London Collins.