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  • On the Emerging Field of Contemplative Studies and Its Relationship to the Study of Spirituality
  • Jacob Holsinger Sherman (bio)

Scholars working within the fields of Christian Spirituality, spirituality studies, the study of mysticism, and other related areas may have noted the appearance of a cognate field, emerging largely over the last decade or so, now commonly identified as Contemplative Studies. By all accounts, Contemplative Studies is still in an embryonic phase; but it has begun to build the necessary guild structures for a more robust scholarly presence and seems to have crossed something of a symbolic threshold in 2012, marked especially by the inaugural International Symposia for Contemplative Studies. The field has established its own communities of inquiry (especially as a group within the American Academy of Religion, and through the work of organizations such as the Mind and Life Institute and the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education); it has a number of research centers and graduate programs (notably at Brown University, NYU, Emory University, the University of Virginia, Naropa University, Rice University, and the University of Michigan); and it has begun to develop a scholarly literature of its own.1

In establishing this field, scholars of Contemplative Studies are engaging in work quite similar—both formally and substantively—to that undertaken by scholars of Christian Spirituality during the last three decades. In what follows, while recognizing that Contemplative Studies and Christian Spirituality are distinct fields, I will argue not only that they might be seen as fellow-travellers along similar disciplinary paths, but also that the maturation of Contemplative Studies requires it to engage more fully with scholarship produced by those in Spirituality.

In order to do so, this essay is divided into three parts. In part one, I introduce the field of Contemplative Studies, provide some programmatic definitions, and point to areas of resonance with the academic study of Christian Spirituality. In part two, I point to the way that Contemplative Studies has thus far focused almost exclusively on the study of Eastern contemplative traditions and practices, on the one hand, and Western sciences, on the other, and I argue that this tendency may unintentionally foster precisely the kind of “cognitive imperialism” that Contemplative Studies and Christian Spirituality both have sought to overcome. One way to avoid falling prey to the problems involved [End Page 208] in such a construction would be to open Contemplative Studies to a broader engagement with Western contemplative traditions. But, as I show in part three of the essay, many seem to believe that the Western construction of contemplation itself presents real barriers to such a wider engagement. How real are these barriers and, if real, how insuperable? In order to begin addressing this question I consider one of the most common reasons given for laying aside the need to attend to the Western contemplative traditions, namely, that they are too beholden to a problematic understanding of the natural and the supernatural and the relation of contemplation to both. I will argue that, while there is some force to this charge, it is far from conclusive and it holds only within the context of certain, limited, theological contexts of largely late-medieval origin. Finally, in the conclusion of this essay, I suggest that these barriers are not only historically contingent and so, in principle, revisable, but also that they are already in the process of being dismantled from within the same Western religious traditions by which they were initially erected.


So how are we to understand this new field? Scholars within Contemplative Studies are still wrestling over its precise contours, but enough work has been done to provide a sketch both of the particular object of its study and of some of the particular ways of its approach. At the most basic level, the material object for the discipline of Contemplative Studies is the human practice and cultivation of contemplative states, events, and ways of life. With roots in the old French contemplatio and the Latin contemplatiōnem, the lexical range of the English word “contemplation” can be quite wide, passing from “the action of beholding, or looking at with attention and thought,” through to “religious...


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pp. 208-229
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