in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 7 March 2014

Book Review: 'Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction' by Philip Sheldrake

This is book review week!

I have just been asked to write a few words of commendation for Philip Sheldrake's latest book, 'Spirituality - A Guide for the Perplexed', which I was very happy to do. As excellent and scholarly as ever. However when I had finished I thought it might be worth posting here the review I did of his last book 'Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction', which I also enjoyed (as you can see). With so many students at all levels working on topics to do with spirituality I think that Philip's guides make a difficult topic accessible and understandable.
I have just finished a review of Shirley du Boulay's new autobiography which I will post in the next few days... happy Lenten reading!

best wishes,

Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction

Author: Philip Sheldrake

Date: 2012


Publisher: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 978-0-19-958875-6

pp 133 pbk


Anyone who has ever puzzled over the myriad contemporary uses of that oddly weasel word ‘spirituality’ will find much to enjoy in this latest addition to the excellent OUP ‘very short introduction’ series. Its author, Professor Philip Sheldrake, will be already known to many readers for his lifetime contributions to the development of Christian spirituality as a subject of critically detailed academic study. He does not leave these credentials behind in writing this book, however this is clearly a book also aimed (as the rest of the series) to the general reader so much technical discussion is jettisoned – which is probably just as well. The other development of Sheldrake’s style from his earlier works is the focus in this volume on ‘spirituality’ tout court rather than simply Christian spirituality. The explosion of interest in the field over the past couple of decades makes a comprehensive and coherent survey of the whole field well-nigh impossible at the current time. It is to Sheldrake’s credit that he neither trivialises or excessively dilutes the meaning and reference of the term as he gives a magisterial overview of its manifestations in world culture: past, present and future. To have achieved this in just over a hundred (small) pages is no mean feat.

            The first section looking at ‘What is spirituality?’, addresses all the usual misgivings that arise when this term is employed in everyday discourse. Sheldrake, perhaps wisely, decides to concentrate on the manifestations of spirituality within specific world religions (‘Hindu spirituality’, ‘Islamic spirituality’ etc.) before turning to wider deployments of the term such as in ‘secular spiritualities’, the relationship of spirituality to philosophy, psychology, the arts and so on. This will form the template of the rest of the book as he addresses questions such as the relationship of spirituality to experience, way of life, society and religion. Each chapter contains a neat summary of differing faith and non-faith views to these questions and will be a welcome asset to my students who will no doubt find it a very useful introduction to the field before embarking upon deeper study. To aid this Sheldrake provides a helpful bibliography which will help the reader to pursue their own researches into the areas he indicates. It is a pleasant surprise to find a good index in a book this size, and having reviewed several more substantial books recently without an index this little volume puts many larger contemporaries to shame in its comprehensive and elegant critical apparatus.

             I hope that this book will help to de-mystify some of the clutter attached to the word ‘spirituality’ and advance further its critical acceptance as a legitimate field of discourse. By concentrating on the practical as well as the theoretical aspects of the term Sheldrake is to be congratulated in producing an eminently readable but critically thorough guide to an often perplexing field.


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