Gary W. Moon: The title of your new book is Soulful Spirituality. What is soulful spirituality and why is it important for Christians?
David G. Benner: The reason I wrote this book is that being a good Christian clearly does not automatically make one a good human being. I am struck by the fact that spirituality—even our own unique Christian spirituality—does not always make people more deeply human and whole. Honesty forces me to conclude that the spiritual path can lead to an escape from a robust commitment to reality, the repression or dissociation of sexuality, disconnection from the emotions, alienation from the body, and increasing distance from one’s unconscious depths. Too easily spiritual practices lead to increasing identification with those of one’s own religious tribe and an ever-weakening sense of solidarity with all humankind. Too often it involves a narcissistic me-and-God relationship that insulates us from, rather than sensitizes us to, the problems of our world. Too frequently it is associated with a focus on beliefs rather than being and directs us away from life rather than toward a genuinely deeper, fuller, and more vital life.
GWM: Please don’t spare anyone’s feelings. But did you discover any good news?
DGB: The good news is that our spirituality can uniquely move us toward the full and abundant life that Jesus promised. For humans, that life will always involve being human and becoming, therefore, deeply and fully human.
GWM: You aren’t proposing a new spirituality, are you?
DGB: God forbid. What I call soulful spirituality is not a distinct spirituality or a unique spiritual path but a way of walking any spiritual path. Think of what it means to speak of a soulless organization. By that we usually mean one that is not good for humans. The same is true of soulless ways of following the spiritual path. St. Irenaeus said that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. That’s what Christian spirituality should involve. What I call soulful spirituality is the way of walking and living the Christian spiritual path that makes this happen.
GWM: What are the first five words that pop into your mind when you think of a person “fully alive”?
DGB: You know me well enough to know that limiting myself to five words will be impossible, so let me try five thoughts.
GWM: People can change, you know, David.
DGB: The fully alive person is vital (led by passions, not just reason, accommodation, or expediency), grounded (in the body and present life realities), connected (to the earth, to other people, to one’s culture, to the world at large, to God), aware (present and awake), and becoming (open to continuing growth, transformation and enlightenment).
GWM: Thank you. That is a very helpful summary. David, you mention in a very poetic way that the Judeo-Christian creation story reminds us that we are both “dust” and “breath,” and you make the interesting reflection that holding dust and breath together is not easy—either literally or figuratively. It strikes me that at its heart your book Soulful Spirituality is about the importance of living life in a way that honors both our material and spiritual realities. Is that right?
DGB: I think that is a fair summary. Our spirituality is not simply how we relate to God, but also how we relate to our bodies. But rather than speaking of living in a way that honors both our material and spiritual realities, I would say that the challenge is to recognize that the spiritual and material realities are already unified—this is affirmed in creation and reaffirmed in the Incarnation. It is we who are disunified, and this is why we need a spirituality that grounds us in our bodies. Healthy—or what I call soulful—spirituality is a way of living all of our spirit-embodied lives before the face of God. Doing so is the route to becoming what we were meant to be—deeply human, but aligned with God.
GWM: Do you believe that Plato has done Christianity a disservice by elevating the view of the “breath” aspect of the person at the expense of our “dust”?
DGB: Absolutely. The Platonic disparagement of the body—treating it as merely a container for the infinitely more valuable spirit—is profoundly sub-Christian. To be human is to be embodied spirit. And God said that this is good. God got that either right or wrong. And if the answer to that pair of options is that obviously God got it right, then we need to distance ourselves from the sort of Platonic denigration of the body that evolved into Gnosticism and has plagued the church for two millennia. But, as the church has consistently declared since the second century, it is Gnosticism that is the heresy, not an emphasis on the importance of the body in full-orbed Christian spirituality.
GWM: Help us with what might be another stumbling block for someone struggling with your celebration of our humanity. The Bible uses the word flesh, for example, with a variety of meanings. It reminds us that we are creatures of dust in all its raw and brute physicality. But it can also be used in the sense of being bent and heading in a direction away from God. I’m assuming you are saying we need to be more owning of the fact that we are indeed dust, but not the fact of being oriented away from God.