Grave Robber: Spirituality and the Art of Theft
“All originality and no plagiarism makes for dull preaching.” Charles Spurgeon said that—or at least I think he said that. I read those words somewhere, although I am no longer sure where, almost twenty years ago (I think). I still find moments every once in a while where I can say this, my favorite quote, and raise a smile. It is just too bad that Spurgeon said it; the quote would probably be more impressive if it came from Kierkegaard. Maybe I could say that these were Kierkegaard’s words; nobody would know, or really care. As a matter of fact, I have been saying this quote so long that it really belongs to me now. So the next time a situation arises where this quote fits perfectly into a conversation, and believe me those moments are few and far between, feel free to quote me.
A meaningful and integrated spirituality is available to those who learn the art of theft.
Since Spurgeon’s quote now belongs to me, I am free to change it to suit my present purpose: “All originality and no plagiarism makes for an impoverished spirituality.” This is a thesis I have found to be true as I have explored spirituality over the last fifteen years. It is actually not so much a thesis, but an observation. When one takes a close look at how Christians today seek a meaningful spirituality, whether it is in the area of private prayer or communal worship, one quickly becomes aware of the reality and prevalence of theft. A few common examples will make this clear: a Baptist pastor goes to a Catholic nun for spiritual direction; the worship service of an Anglican Church is inspired by the charismatic movement; a group of Methodists gather for a Celtic prayer retreat; a devout Pentecostal Christian eagerly explores hesychasm and the “Jesus Prayer” of Orthodoxy; a Mennonite congregation introduces liturgical elements into their worship service; a Presbyterian youth pastor practices Lectio Divina with her youth group.
Although many embrace the thievery of this new ecumenicism in pursuit of a rich and meaningful spiritual life, they are also faced with a significant, but often unaddressed, problem. The dilemma is that there are few, if any, guidelines for ethical and artful theft. Many well-intentioned Christians have become petty crooks rather than master thieves. They use elements torn from their proper contexts and patch them together in a haphazard manner that is both spiritually shallow and theologically inconsistent. A stolen spirituality can be very enriching, but it requires the ethics and artistry of a master thief.
IN DEFENSE OF THEFT
Before we explore the metaphor of theft more fully, we must back up and consider the metaphor itself. Is theft the most appropriate image to describe the acquisition of a rich spiritual life? If we think of spirituality as a treasure to be cherished, there could be several ways of laying hold of it. It seems to me that our approach to the spiritual life can be formed in us in at least five ways: we can inherit it; we can buy it; we can create it; we can borrow it; or we can steal it.
Inheriting a Spirituality
The way we understand and practice spirituality is often something we inherit from our particular denominational tradition. Our tradition shapes the way we approach Scripture, understand theology, and practice Christian living, and thus, our tradition strongly influences how we experience God. Whether we are born into it, fall into it by chance, or make a deliberate choice to embrace it, we all inherit some kind of a tradition. Inheritance is a powerful force that we usually respond to in one of three contrasting ways.
First, we may uncritically and unconsciously accept our tradition and blindly continue on with the status quo. Those Christians who claim that they do not have a tradition often fall into this category. They are locked into a particular theological framework even though they are totally unaware of their presuppositions. The inability to critically evaluate their presuppositions causes those who claim to be beyond tradition to become the most rigid propagators of traditionalism. 1
A second way that we may react to our inheritance is to totally reject our particular tradition and buy another one or utterly abandon the faith. It is important to remember that one cannot shake off one’s inheritance so easily or so completely. Seeking to understand and appreciate the spirituality we have inherited often also provides us with the self-understanding that is so essential to spiritual formation. It is also important to be aware that the residual anger and bitterness that often accompanies this rejection will hinder our spiritual life no matter where we turn. It is therefore crucial to make peace with our tradition of origin and take hold of its cherished transportable valuables if we make the hard decision to leave our home and inheritance.
The third possible response to our inheritance, passionate embrace, also contains its share of dangers. The healthy embrace of a tradition can easily turn into the destructive grip of hording elitism. We can become so locked into our tradition’s particular perspective that we become blind to the beauty, insight, and balance offered by other traditions. We can become so convinced of the truth in our tradition that we look down upon any and all other expressions of the Christian faith and the aspects of truth that they offer. We can become so possessive of our inheritance that we become offended when we see our tradition’s distinctives become evident in other places. Those who passionately embrace their inherited tradition are the ones who are most offended by the concept of theft. Theft, after all, implies two things that are abhorrent to them: their tradition is not self-sufficient, and they do not have exclusive ownership of their tradition.
There is an alternate and healthier response to inheritance that tries to bring a balance to the three extremes listed above. This fourth approach is one of open-eyed appreciation and critique. The spiritual tradition that we inherit needs to be investigated and understood. We need to learn to appreciate its strengths and beauty as well as to become aware of its weaknesses and pitfalls. Above all, we need to hold our treasure loosely, recognizing that our perspective is limited and that “our” emphasis must be freely shared.
Buying a Spirituality
Sometimes the spiritual tradition we inherit simply does not fit us well and we need to buy another tradition. The expression “coming home” provides a good image to describe this particular experience. There are times when such a drastic move is necessary, but one must remember that it is costly to buy a spirituality. A purchase includes everything. The beauty of a tradition also comes with its dark side, and they are one package. Those who have experienced such a purchase acknowledge that the grass is not always greener on the other side of a denominational fence. It is also important to heed the warning of Eugene Peterson when he writes, “Spirituality does not normally thrive by transplant.” 2
Although purchasing or inheriting a spirituality can provide a solid foundation, theft is essential to broaden and deepen this foundation. We need to steal from other traditions in order to broaden the understanding of our own and to move towards a balanced Christian spirituality. Since our spiritual ancestors are not always good at passing down things of value, we need to rob the tombs of our own tradition. We sometimes inherit the dross and miss out on the gold. This makes theft necessary even in grasping and deepening our own tradition.
Creating a Spirituality
Some try to build a meaningful spirituality out of nothing. This, of course, is not really possible. Creativity consists of putting existing things together in new ways. If we trace the history of Christian spirituality, we find that every great spiritual discovery was in fact a rediscovery of some sort. Even unhealthy spiritual movements were retracing earlier missteps. The Holy Spirit was actively and creatively at work throughout Christian history, but this creativity tended to take place through an inspired synthesis of earlier ideas rather than through the creation of ideas out of nothing. After all, there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9).
This basic idea is sometimes lost on our contemporary culture which places such a high value on originality. Often we use the phrase, “that is a novel theology,” as high praise. For ancient Christians these words would be the equivalent of calling someone a heretic. 3 Ancient Christians understood that authentic spirituality is built upon the wisdom of those who have walked before us, not upon the latest trend. Creativity plays an important role in Christian spirituality, but it is the creativity of a synthesizer not of an inventor.
Borrowing a Spirituality
Another method of enriching one’s spirituality that is often used is to borrow from other spiritual traditions. The chief problem with this method is that is does not allow for an integrated theology or a deeply personal spirituality. When I borrow something it is never really mine. Borrowing also carries with it the obligation to keep the borrowed item intact and eventually to return it. Common courtesy tells me that I should not mark up a borrowed book. Although I would like to, I cannot borrow my friend’s book, highlight in it, catalog it, and make it a part of my library. I cannot do that unless I steal it.
Stealing a Spirituality
As we consider the four options for acquiring a rich spiritual life that were touched on above, the importance of theft becomes clear. Theft is superior to borrowing in that it allows for ownership and integration. The creation of a spirituality is only possible through the synthesis of stolen elements. Theft is also essential to broaden and deepen an inherited or purchased spirituality.
In this age of copyrights, registered trademarks, and the staking out of intellectual property, we have lost the once noble practice of theft. This becomes very evident when one begins to read classic spiritual and theological texts. Premodern authors constantly quote and refer to older works without following modern citation rules. 4 These writers were not guilty of plagiarism—they were not trying to pass off another’s work as their own. Instead, they understood that their spirituality had to be built on what came before them. They understood that a rich spirituality was a stolen spirituality.
THE ETHICS OF THEFT
The theft advocated here is not as simple as merely picking and choosing items from a smorgasbord of traditions. There are a few important ethical guidelines that thieves of spirituality need to be aware of. This code of ethics is what separates a petty crook from a master thief. A master thief steals with three questions in mind: “Do I have a legitimate claim to own this?” “Am I sympathetic to the one being robbed?” and “Do I care for what is being stolen?”
Becoming a good thief requires a shift in thinking. If you begin with the idea that the stolen object belongs to someone else, then you are defeated from the onset. However, if you are able to convince yourself that you are the rightful owner, then you are well on your way to master thievery. Legitimate claims to elements in other Christian traditions are made possible by expanding our concept of family and realizing the scope of our inheritance.
Expanding a family circle can happen in several ways. One way is to focus on the directly connected branches of our family tree. This method would entitle Protestants access to the wealth of Eastern Orthodoxy until 1054 and Catholicism until about 1520. Here I could claim a connection with the spiritualities of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), but I would miss a connection with Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). A more inclusive method is to begin with Romans 8:16-17a (NIV), “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” Based on our status as heirs, we can claim any Christian spirituality that is faithful to the biblical witness and centrality of Christ as our inheritance. 5
The second question a thief should ask is, “Am I sympathetic to the one being robbed?” Theft in the realm of spirituality does not leave victims in the same way as property theft does. When we steal elements from other traditions, nothing is lost, it is shared. However, sharing is difficult and we need to respect those from whom we steal. An expanded inheritance also means an expanded accountability. By claiming the treasures from Christian history and the broader Church, we also shoulder the responsibility and live with the consequences of the sins from Christian history and the broader Church. We cannot, for example, steal from the rich spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux and excuse ourselves from involvement in the crusades.
Finally, a master thief should take care not to do violence to the spirituality that is being stolen. This means that before I incorporate an element into my spiritual theology I need to fully understand that element in its original context. Some elements are so intertwined with other aspects of a tradition’s theology that its removal becomes extremely difficult.
THE ART OF THEFT
The artistry of a master thief is easy to recognize, but it is difficult to explain. Developing the skill of combining various elements of spirituality into an integrated and meaningful whole requires time and practice. There are, however, two important things to remember as we hone our craft. First, master thieves must learn to discern what is of real value. It is too easy to be so blinded by the superficial sparkles of a spiritual tradition that we miss the true riches at its core. The second thing that master thieves must learn is what will fit into their own spiritual theology. The reason we steal is not to build a large spirituality collection; rather, it is to enrich our own spiritual lives. A tradition’s spirituality may be rich, but if it does not mesh with and enrich ours, then it should be appreciated but passed over as an object of theft.
It is true that all originality and no plagiarism makes for an impoverished spirituality. Fortunately, we do not need to create our spirituality out of nothing. We have access to rich resources in the various traditions of the Christian faith. A meaningful and integrated spirituality is available to those who learn the art of theft.
- I am here alluding to Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous distinction between tradition (the living voice of the dead) and traditionalism (the dead voice of the living).
- Eugene H. Peterson, “Spirit Quest,” Christianity Today 8 November 1993, 27-30.
- See, for example, Vincent of Lérins’ (d. ca. 450) Commonitory.
- This became most clear to me when I read Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) a few years after I had read Pilgrim Marpeck (d. 1556). I was surprised to find some of my favorite “Marpeck” quotes in Cyprian’s work.
- There are, of course, problems with expanding our family circle. One of them is that certain family members draw tighter circles than others. Some churches will continue to consider my tradition as a bastard tradition. However, even illegitimate children can have claims to an inheritance.