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  • Michel de Certeau: Spirituality and The Practice of Everyday Life
  • Philip Sheldrake (bio)

Brenna Moore’s essay highlights the growing divergence and then final “rupture” between Michel de Certeau and his erstwhile hero and mentor Henri de Lubac. This centered around their contrasting understandings of how theology connects, or does not connect, with the everyday world or the “secular” and of whether the past is accessible to and useable in the present. My own sense is that de Certeau refuses to adopt a simple theology versus secular polarity. Even if the importance of the “secular” for de Certeau stems partly from his social and political conversion as the result of the riots of 1968, more straight-forwardly the secular refers to “the here and now,” this age. De Certeau was preoccupied with the way all our relationships—whether with the human or the divine “other”—are shaped by space and time. This sensibility to the immediate and the tentative was born of de Certeau’s immersion both in Ignatian spirituality and in historical theory. In reference to the latter, de Certeau’s historical training, particularly his exposure to the French Annales school of historical theory and interpretation, made him far more sensitive than Henri de Lubac to the unavoidable “otherness” and strangeness of the past. This contrasted strongly with de Lubac’s more fervent belief in the possibilities of historical continuity and its impact on his sense of how Christian tradition “works.”

De Certeau’s critical historical perspective on Christianity ran alongside a complex yet deep engagement with faith. Overall, I seriously question the assumption among some English-speaking social scientists that de Certeau’s life and writings are neatly divisible into two parts—a first religious part up to the early 1970s and then a second social scientific period when theological interests and a religious narrative are essentially absent. I do not believe that de Certeau left theology behind or moved in some simple way into a form of postmodern fragmentation and dispersal. However, the problem with some attempts to retrieve him as a religious thinker, for example by “Radical Orthodoxy” theologians, is that they concentrate too much on his explicitly religious writings and bypass the implicit yet real religious underpinning to much of his social scientific writing.1 This omission fails to do justice to de Certeau’s emphasis on the spiritual quality of everyday practices—something which I [End Page 207]

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believe has a covert Ignatian trace. My dominant concern in this essay is to underline certain continuities in de Certeau’s work by highlighting key spiritual values that I believe are present in his collaborative social scientific project entitled “The Practice of Everyday Life.”

Luce Giard, de Certeau’s closest collaborator and executor, notes in several places his youthful fascination with solitary journeys.2 The theme of journeying is, in various ways, at the heart both of de Certeau and of Ignatian spirituality—including the lifestyle of the Jesuit order of which de Certeau remained a member until his death. This was part of what attracted him to the Ignatian path. Solemnly Professed Jesuits take a fourth vow to journey anywhere in the world to undertake mission. “This is a vow to go anywhere His Holiness will order . . . without pleading an excuse and without requesting any expenses for the journey.”3 “One should attend to the first characteristic of our Institute . . . this is to travel.”4 Ignatius Loyola’s assistant, Jeronimo Nadal, in his commentary on the Fourth Vow, wrote: “The principal and most characteristic dwelling for Jesuits is not the professed houses, but in journeyings.”5

Journeying is both a geographical concept and a spiritual value. In broad terms, this value is implicit in de Certeau’s later religious essays. In “The Weakness of Believing,”6 he suggests that Christian spirituality must avoid the temptation to settle down into a definitive “place.”

The temptation of the “spiritual” is to constitute the act of difference as a site, to transform the conversion into an establishment, to replace the “poem” [of Christ] which states the hyperbole with the strength to make...


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pp. 207-216
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