Sunday, December 9, 2012

Via Media and Postmodern Spirituality


                The Episcopal Church explains its identity as the Via Media, meaning the middle path. Anglicanism in its structure, theology and forms of worship, is commonly understood as a Christian tradition representing the middle ground of the extreme claims of 16th century Roman Catholicism, Lutheran and Reformed traditions.  This middle path ideal has been a constant source of identity for Anglo Catholics. The Tractarian formulation of a theology of Via Media was reworked in the ecclesiological writings of Fredrick Denison Maurice.

                This Via Media identity has become essential to the Episcopal identity. In point of fact, as Episcopalians attempt to solve pressing theological and social conflict-ridden issues we call for unity around the principle of Via Media i.e. finding an acceptable common ground.

                I like the concept of via media, but in a postmodern culture there is a problem with the historical understanding of the Via Media. Namely, today people are not really interested in the struggle for identity between Roman Catholic and Reformed theology, i.e. the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine.

                Even though the issues have changed, I still champion a spiritual theology of Via Media. In other words, we might give attention in our Episcopal journey of hope to developing Via Media spirituality. I am using Via Media in the Aristotelian sense of always searching for the golden mean when engaged in an ethical pursuit. It was his teaching that truth is disclosed by avoiding the extremes of a spiritual and moral pursuit.  In Buddhism, there is a similar teaching, where the spiritual path is also known as The Middle Way. It avoids the extremes of asceticism and indulgence.  The Buddha left his life of wealth and indulgence and turned to a path of disciplined asceticism and mortification. In his journey, he discovered enlightenment via the middle path.

                In the Postmodern culture, we are facing a new spiritual divergence much different than the Protestant/Catholic issue. Today, spirituality is either shaped by an authoritative biblical monotheism as opposed to a relativistic spiritual pluralism. The Western Church is moving from a clear boundary theology to a pluralistic spirituality.

                Of course, the issue of east meets west spirituality has been around for some time, but it is now a major element the in emergence of spirituality in Western culture. I believe my first encounter with the new via media dialogue between west-east spirituality was in Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge.  Somerset Maugham includes himself in the novel as an observer of the various characters who represent the voice of his spiritual quest for meaning.  He is a Roman Catholic contemplative intellectual who finds incompleteness in Catholic spirituality; consequently, he explores Indian philosophy and mysticism.       

                Two characters in the novel express his inner west-east via media spiritual pursuit.  Larry Darrell and Elliott Templeton, I suggest, represent Maugham’s inner east-west via media spiritual quest. Larry is the spiritual seeker who feels incomplete with his Catholic spirituality and it is Elliott who is the Catholic holding to his church and living with its incompleteness. Darrell must search beyond a biblical authoritative monotheism, and Elliott holds obediently to his Catholic Church.

                In Larry Darrell, we hear the eastern spirituality of mindfulness, “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing too.”

                Still, Maugham holds to his Roman Catholic historical spirituality. “Our wise old church…has discovered that if you act as if you believed belief will be given to you; if you pray with doubt, but with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience will descend upon.”

                These two characters represent Maugham’s inner spiritual dialogue between the eastern spirituality of consciousness and his Catholic spirituality of a transcendental divine power greater than the consciousness of self. This is, I suggest, the new Via Media, and it is essential in our Episcopal journey of hope that we are in a constant dialogue between the tension of a biblical monotheism and a spiritual pluralism. In other words, we might be known as a house of Dynamic Spiritual Formation and not just a house that does liturgy well.



  1. Thank you for this. I was a Via Media facilitator and believed in affirming those who came to the gatherings that there was a concrete reason why they felt called to the Episcopal Church and to being an Episcopalian or to wanting to understand what it meant to be an Episcopalian. To say that we don't ask you to leave your mind outside the door and that we are masters of music and liturgy undercuts us and makes us shallow. It means that we are good with words and presentation but that we don't have shared spirit of all who have journeyed before us, with us nor with those who will journey after us and that would be a severe injustice. We are a people called to spread the gospel and to respect others who have beleifs different from ours and to love We are a Christian people who believe in private prayer, but who recognize that corporate prayer is important and is where we are called to be for the sharing of the eucharist and for asking forgiveness and working towards the reconcilliation of all people as we care for God's creation and are faithful stewards
    in our whole persons. Thank you for your gift of eloquent summary and calling to us as "the body of Christ" as "Episcopalians".

  2. Alice, thank you so much. You are truly on the path of the Episcopal journey of hope I.e. the Via Media

  3. A House of Dynamic Spiritual Formation; what a great choice of words to describe the way to bridge the gap between form and substance. We have the form right when we pray the liturgy. We have the form right when we listen to the Word. But where is the spiritual substance? Where do we find a true bridge between bibliolotry, lituriolotry, and the vast domain of Western and Eastern pluralism; between science and contemplation; between death and life. You words are so well put Bill. Let us in Episcopal Journey of Hope become a House of Dynamic Spiritual Formation.

  4. I want to add to the chorus of appreciation for what you wrote. I think you have stated a brilliant and simple truth of great energy! To match your DSF, I have for years talked about DNA--Dynamic Numinous Activity. I think the two go together as we seek in dynamic formation to unite ourselves with numinousity that is always in motion so as move closer to Omega. Bill, great contribution.

  5. I'm not sure that this constitutes a new field of action into which a middle way is to be found. I don't see the same energy that accompanied vernacular Bible translation or re-baptism from the Reformation period in the East/West dialogue. East and West largely agree on the mystical stuff and while reincarnation is an interesting difference it was very current in the 7th Century Christian Councils and barely lost out. Like various Atonements, it has never been deeply accepted or rejected by the faithful. Besides I'm not sure Maugham's atheism is a great place to view Christian theological differences.