A Certain Boldness

December 13, 2020   •   By Travis LaCouter

The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience

Simeon Zahl

THEOLOGY BY ITS nature calls for a certain boldness. Not necessarily in terms of writing it, although bold stylists often produce the most fertile theologies (think Augustine, Martin Luther, or Marcella Althaus-Reid), but in terms of its subject matter — that is, God and all things related to God. Inert propositional claims tend to do very little theological work, aside from prepare the theologian to say something that might spark the readers’ imagination or stir their heart.

Unfortunately, Christian theology often confines such considerations to the pneumatological register, speaking of the Spirit who touches hearts and minds, and moves individual souls toward God, but demurring when asked to describe the patterns according to which this plays out. The Benedictine theologian Kilian McDonnell criticized what he identified in 1982 as a tendency among many systematic theologians to adorn their work with “pneumatological baubles” and “Spirit tinsel” at the expense of a coherent account of the Spirit’s actual effects on bodies in time. Troublingly, McDonnell’s charge still rings true nearly 40 years later, despite significant efforts of such authors as Catherine Mowry Lacugna or Walter Kasper to stem the tide of pneumatological neglect.

Enter Simeon Zahl’s major new monograph, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience, which attempts to flesh out the saving work of the Spirit in dialogue with affect theory and cognitive science. Zahl, one of the bright lights among the younger generation of Anglophone theologians, has argued in the past that theology must attend to the “affective salience of doctrines,” by which he means the “practical emotional valence and the anticipated experiential impact” of a given teaching. He grasps the simple but often overlooked fact that doctrines do things, and that the theologian is as much responsible for these effects as for the discursive apparatus that produces them.

The affective approach allows Zahl to write theology that moves, even if it’s not always moving (stylistically, Zahl retains many of the marks of the Oxbridge system to which he belongs). This book extends Zahl’s prior work significantly by providing a fairly comprehensive framework with which to understand appeals to experience or emotion in theology. It is not surprising, then, that we encounter here not just Luther and Philip Melanchthon, but Eve Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, and even George Eliot. What stands out most of all, and what ties together the various threads of this ambitious book, is Zahl’s confidence that the Spirit’s transforming action within hearts and minds can be described in ways that are specific enough, and sufficiently textured, to be considered “practically recognizable” to those to whom such transformations are supposed to apply. For Zahl, this is not just an exercise in good interdisciplinarity but a requirement of “pastoral effectiveness.” The substantive theological questions that the book addresses are essentially soteriological: How does one know one is saved? And what difference does that make to one’s life?

There is of course a long history of theological debate over precisely these questions, one that largely predates the advent of affect theory in the 1960s. So what is Zahl’s contribution? First, he provides the basis for a methodological critique of contemporary Protestant dogmatics which, he claims, not only fail to attend to affect but also tend to misread the Magisterial Reformers on precisely these points. It has become commonplace today, for instance, to accuse Luther’s forensic account of justification of being cold, rationalistic, and abstract. Zahl’s attentive rereading of Luther and Melanchthon, in the middle chapters of this book, performs an effective Protestant ressourcement by showing how early modern soteriologies were explicitly sensitive to the experiential dimensions of sin. Indeed, it was Luther who wrote that the “knowledge of sin is itself the feeling of sin” [cognitio peccati est ipse sensus peccati], and it was Melanchthon who emphasized the “anxious heart” as the “affective predicate of salvation,” to use Zahl’s phrase. In light of these rereadings, prominent figures like T. F. Torrance and Kathryn Tanner come in for extended critique for their overreliance on impersonal ontological categories, which leave too much left unsaid and render an “indeterminate” account of the Christian life.

As a partial corrective, Zahl turns to contemporary Neo-Thomist accounts of participation in Christ, which prove better at describing “the saving transformation of the human being [as] a process that necessarily takes place in bodies, in history, and over time.” They do this by making use of the traditional (Thomist-Aristotelian) categories of “infused virtue,” cooperative grace, and habitus as the means of growing in sanctity. And yet here again Zahl’s affective account provides the grounds for a critique, since

[a]ffect theory’s starting point is […] the observation that procedures of discourse and rationality, including the cultural practices by which we seek to inscribe discursive insights into behavior and experience through habituation, are significantly limited in their ability to make sense of what human beings actually feel and do — to explain what “makes bodies move.”

A simple truth, perhaps, but one that it is necessary to repeat when one reads some of the “astonishingly optimistic” (really Pelagian) claims by Neo-Thomists about the possibility of virtuous habituation: Aumann, for instance, believed it was possible to achieve “near-perfect control of our passions” through a “prudent organization of all our psychological resources.” As Zahl points out more than once, it was precisely Martin Luther’s experience of the persistence of vice, even after years in the monastery, that led him to emphasize the interruptive nature of God’s saving grace. Anyone who has dragged themself to church, struggled to pray, or reluctantly held back a damning word about a neighbor knows what the problem is here.

Zahl sees in this apparent impasse an opening for the Spirit to enter. He notes that “virtue-inscribing practices ‘work’ only insofar as they have already been made attractive and delightful through the Spirit,” and that to preempt this “living drama” by manufacturing our own consent to the law is, in Luther’s memorable phrase, to “devour the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.” In other words, desiderative transformations should be seen as evidence of the Spirit’s saving work, not the way to bring it about. Here is one point at which Zahl’s account really begins to pay off in my view, since it allows us to say that when “efforts over time to engage in practices intended to generate virtue are experienced by Christians as abidingly joyless, frustrating, or impossible, then it is a mistake to interpret them as instruments of the Spirit’s liberating work.” In other words, it provides a basis for the discernment of spirits in a way that Protestant systematics badly needs.

And yet it is precisely here that I found myself wishing Zahl had more to say. He rightly grasps, for instance, that an underdeveloped pneumatology risks providing theological “cover” to all sorts of masochistic spiritualities but declines to discuss any specific examples (I immediately thought of gay conversion therapy). Elsewhere, fairly late in the book, Zahl discusses the social implications of his account and concludes that since “emotions have [social] histories,” then the “transformation of desire [by the Spirit] is implicitly a political event” inasmuch as it constitutes an “intervention in these histories.” Just so. But aside from a passing reference to Kathryn Tanner’s work in Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, we get little indication of what Zahl thinks of the primary political factor presently conditioning our desires and emotions, namely neoliberalism (or what Zahl calls “finance dominated capitalism”). Theological critiques of neoliberalism would be aided substantially by incorporating Zahl’s framework, but this is not a task that he seems willing to undertake himself — at least not in this book.

Still, Zahl’s basic contention that pneumatology ought to be one area of theology especially concerned with “practical recognizability” is sound, and he puts us in a position to carry on a fruitful dialogue with psychological and cognitive accounts of experience and affect.

For theology to be an “instrument of compassionate diagnosis,” as Zahl puts it, it must constantly work to expand the limits of its own discursive configurations. Luckily, the Spirit is good at this kind of thing. In a quirk of timing characteristic of academic publishing, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience was released shortly after the feast of Pentecost, when the Church commemorates the Spirit descending upon a group of disciples and empowering them to speak in strange new tongues. Zahl’s account gives us a grammar with which to understand not only this kind of transforming action, but to carry on the conversation.


Travis LaCouter is a Visiting Lecturer in the department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.