James C. Ungureanu, review of Moshe Sluhovsky’s “Becoming a New Self”

Moshe Sluhovsky. Becoming a New Self: Practices and Beliefs in Early Modern Catholicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 232 PP. Cloth $45.00. ISBN: 9780226472850.

In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, in the fading smoke of scandal and embarrassment caused by humanist and Protestant polemics, the Roman Catholic Church reasserted its credentials in new urban-based, mendicant orders. In fact, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Franciscan, Jesuit, and Carmelite orders extended their spiritual practices to the laity itself. In his recent volume, Becoming a New Self, Sluhovsky reexamines early modern Catholic spiritual exercises and how they fostered introspection and agency in practitioners, which in turn formed the “modern self” (1-6).

Histories of the “modern self” typically locate its origins in the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, or the so-called “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century. But according to Sluhovsky, early modern Catholic spiritual practices offered practitioners “self-formation,” “re-formation,” “personal discovery,” “self-awareness,” or in general a more enhanced sense of the “self,” which are all important ideals of the modern individual. Indeed, the most important element in the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Carmelites, according to Sluhovsky, is in how their transformative techniques of introspection were not simply the domain of spiritual elites but the laity as well.

In this Sluhovsky challenges the conventional model of Protestant individual modernity, and particularly Michel Foucault’s reductionistic study on the “technologies of the self,” which treated early modern Catholic spiritual practices as mechanism of governmentality (7). But according to Sluhovsky, “Foucault obscured rather than clarified some crucial facets of the process of self-reformation” (6). Foucault ignored the long history of practices of self-creation and self-examination developed in the Catholic Church as far back as the medieval period. The language of personal and interiorized experience, for example, was already present in St. Augustine and Gregory the Great, further popularized in the twelfth century by Bernard of Clairvaux, and continued in notions of Church reform during the Renaissance, which emphasized internal reform and spiritual individual renewal. Thus well before Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, there were many who longed for ecclesiastical reformation, and who worked towards it. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the spiritual practices emphasized a more collaborative effort that empowered practitioners as well. In short, Sluhovsky aims to reclaim the role played by the Catholic tradition in the formation of modernity.

After some historiographical and philosophical reflections, Sluhovsky turns to early Christian and medieval practices, drawing from substantive archival research from Spain, France, and the Italian Peninsula. He highlights how these practices were highly “democratizing.” Sluhovsky begins by discussing the development of the devotio moderna tradition. The “Modern Devotion” was a late medieval renewal movement, which started in the home of its founder, Gerard Groote (1340-1384) in the Netherlands. Widespread spiritual hunger, the need for religious reform, and an increasingly rational scholastic theology in fourteenth-century Europe encouraged a climate for fostering a spirituality outside conventional channels. In the case of Groote, after his spiritual conversion he renounced his lavish life and began to live as a penitent, sharing with those in need and opening his home to the poor, particularly to women.

At the time, the poor were unable to join religious orders for they were only open to wealthy families. Groote spoke out against not only the corrupt practices of monastic orders, but the moral and spiritual laxity of clergy and monks. He organized small groups of followers throughout Holland united in their desire to imitate Christ. His sermons against concubinage resulted in his persecution. He died of the plague in exile, but his fledgling movement was carried on by others.

After Groote’s death in 1384, the devotio moderna spread across Germany, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, before reaching its height in the mid-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. Importantly, members did not take vows of poverty as did medieval mendicant orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. Rather, they lived communally in imitation of the early church, earning income for their houses by copying and selling sacred texts or by producing goods for the textile industry. Thus the movement attracted many, including women, youth, laity, and clergy to meditation practices that did not remove them from the hoi polloi. The devotio moderna, in short, constituted a “middle way” between the parish and the mostly rural religious orders of the day. Its ideals are best reflected in the great spiritual classic attributed to Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, perhaps the foremost manual of spiritual advice compiled for a mixed lay and religious audience (69). Theologically, texts like the Imitation of Christ and followers of the devotio moderna focused on Christ’s humanity and the virtues they sought to imitate in their own lives, a more controlled attitude toward the emotions, a preference for devotion to the Eucharist and to the Passion of Christ, the perfection of “self-knowledge,” the fulfillment of obligations, self-abnegation, interiority and subjectivism, and thus less on the Church and its hierarchy.

Scholars such as John van Engen and Heiko Oberman emphasized the continuity between the devotio moderna and the Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and later Puritans expected Protestants to practice the devotio moderna in their imitation of Christ but with greater emphasis on the role of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. However, on the Doctrine of Justification, scholars have seen virtually no continuity at all. Rather, they hold that the devotio moderna has its greatest continuity with the Counter-Reformation.

Indeed, the success of the Protestant revolt prompted the Roman Catholic Church to confront its own need to reform. The most important Catholic response, according to Sluhovsky, was the work of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), Francis de Sales (1567-1622), and subsequently many of their followers (44-66). In the following sections of his book, Sluhovsky gives us a brief history of Ignatius’s life, dissemination, and reception of his great work, the Spiritual Exercises, which were composed between 1522 and 1524. As founder of the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus, Ignatius is a massive figure in post-Reformation Catholicism. Born to parents of minor nobility in the Basque region of Spain, women, gambling, dueling, and the pursuit of glory dominated the young Ignatius, until a disabling leg injury at the battle of Pamplona in 1521 changed the course of his life. It was during a decisively spiritual convalescence that he began composing a notebook of instructions, admonitions, warnings, mediations, examinations of conscience, and other practices for the exercitant. Thus the Exercises is not the product of a single mind, but rather the fruit of experience through which Ignatius lived during his own spiritual conversion. Indeed, Ignatius had read the numerous “lives of Christ” and the saints of the day, and had thus absorbed an enormous body of introspective practices when he sat down to compose his own spiritual experiences (76).

The post-Reformation, revived monastic orders were particularly empowering to women, according to Sluhovsky. Teresa of Ávila founded or reformed monastic orders in the face of considerable opposition from the church. Teresa favored a form of contemplation in which the “self” merged with the “divine” in an ineffable experience. At the same time, this experience produced great anxiety in her. Scholarship has stressed that her doubts were partly forced upon her by the Inquisition and the decision by some of her confessors ascribing her experiences as from the devil. Teresa had thus to negotiate issues of validation, power, and authority in her defense that her experiences were not demonic.

Teresa’s “mystical theology,” found in the pages of her Interior Castle of the Soul, used a fundamentally trinitarian framework in exploring how God illuminates and transforms the life of the believer. Her symbol of the “interior castle” signifies different stages of perfection the soul must pass to achieve final perfection, which was the union with God in the “innermost chamber.” Although the exclusion of women from scholastic education was one of her motivations, the kind of mysticism Teresa advocated should not be regarded as a feminist protest movement. She remained orthodox and did not oppose church authority. But unlike many of her male counterparts, Teresa and other female mystics maintained that the contemplative life does not necessarily lead to the renunciation of the active life. Many female mystics remained active in the world, in charity and politics.

Excavating these Catholic spiritual and penitential practices, Sluhovsky argues that new forms of introspection sought to awaken the awareness of one’ s sinfulness and to train the self to overcome immoral inclinations. Extending these practices beyond cloistered walls, both male and female Catholics studied with spiritual advisors to gain the tools needed to self-correction and self-awareness (97). Thus, Ignatian techniques of introspection and subjectivation imbued early modern Catholic selves with the capacity to govern their own humanity and shape their own lives. It is this agency that Sluhovsky convincingly maintains is worthy of consideration as an “enduring contribution of Catholic practices of belief to modern notions of selfhood” (146).

The devotio moderna was thus disseminated to the laity, “whose thirst for knowledge could not be quenched” (143). This is what Sluhovsky aptly calls the “Catholic priesthood of all believers,” a radical democratization and popularization of spiritual practice. But this was always risky. Ecclesiastical authorities had long feared unsupervised and unmediated forms of devotion. The availability of techniques of self-formation by means of individual examination raised concerns. Salvation was to be found solely within the Church, and reliance on one’s own spiritual experiences and insights could challenge the hierarchical structures of Christianity. Sluhovsky correctly points out that the flood of spiritual practices led some Church officials to accuse its authors of semi-Pelagianism (43), and not without justification. At the same time, encouraging devout people to become better Christians was not only a foundational principle of the Church but a necessity at a time when rival Protestant claims were being received increasingly with warmth.

While Sluhovsky rightly maintains that the Catholic Reformation was already present in the sixteenth century, the advent of Protestantism no doubt gave it a new character. It was no longer a matter of the need to reform the Church out of an inner necessity, but also an attempt to respond to those who included doctrine among the things to be reformed. Especially in those areas where Protestantism was considered a real threat, Catholic reformers felt compelled to respond with both the reformation of custom and a defense of traditional doctrine. Indeed, the papacy found that the Jesuits, who were usually superbly trained theologians, were particularly useful in combatting heresy within Catholicism and effective against Protestantism, and Pope Paul III approved the new order largely on that basis.

Sluhovsky is also correct to maintain that religious practices requires a pre-existing set of propositions, assumptions, and social imagination about the constitution of the world (9). Christianity in particular has always been a religion that understands itself in relation to a past that can be comprehended only by means of a hermeneutic of textual interpretations. Interpretation, moreover, was always based on teacher-student relations (29). However, it would have been helpful if Sluhovsky also included recent philosophical examinations of mysticism. Philosopher Steven T. Katz, for instance, convincingly argued that all of reality is made within experience, and experience is created, shaped, and directed by culture. All of our experiences, then, are in one way or another shaped by various social factors, including the mystical ones. A careful analysis of mystical texts will reveal that the mystical experience does not occur in some vacuum or unidentified reality, but is in fact the product of socio-cultural, religious, and historical factors. This was certainly the case for Ignatius and Teresa.

These minor points notwithstanding, Sluhovsky’s short book convincingly counters Foucault’s treatment of spiritual practices, demonstrating that introspective techniques were disseminated among the wider population, and that these practices required active participation of the practitioners. Most importantly, these practices encouraged self-understanding, which involved mental, cognitive, emotive, perceptual, material, performative as well as conceptual and ideological ideals, which are all hallmarks of the modern self.


James UngureanuJames C. Ungureanu is an intellectual historian with a particular interest in the history of religious thought. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Queensland, an M.A. in the History of Christianity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a double B.A. in Religious Studies and Philosophy from the University of California-Davis. He also teaches broadly, from introductory courses to the Bible to the history of science and religion. His first book, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, traces the origins, development, and popularization of the “conflict thesis,” the idea that science and religion are irrevocably at odds.

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