Spirituality, Culture, and Politics: A Conversation with Andrew Prevot

By: Andrew Prevot

March 12, 2024

In August 2023, Andrew Prevot joined the Berkley Center as a senior fellow. Prevot is the Joseph and Winifred Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University.

The Berkley Forum sat down with Prevot to discuss the scope of his academic interests and relevant issues at the intersections of spirituality, culture, and politics. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What are your primary research interests? What are your goals for nurturing and expanding these pursuits while in your role as a senior fellow?

As a theologian, I study texts and traditions that attempt to put the mystery of God into words. Although no formulations are perfectly adequate, those that arise from spiritual practices of prayer and contemplation, while supporting social actions of mercy and justice, seem the truest and best to me. I have a particular interest in Catholic and Black spiritual traditions because they keep me in touch with my roots and profoundly shape my perspective on the world, but I also like to explore other religious and cultural traditions that expand my horizons.

As a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, I hope to bring my distinctive Black Catholic spiritual-theological experience into the work that we are doing to foster a global culture of encounter. 

I sincerely believe that peace in the wider world is only possible if we first seek peace and love in our hearts, which means engaging with religion not only from the outside, as it were, but from within, from the depths that it promises to open up inside each of us.

I find these depths, for example, in Eucharistic liturgies that celebrate the supreme gift of self-sacrificial love and in slave spirituals that sing ecstatically about freedom.

How do you understand the relationship between spirituality, philosophy, culture, and politics?

Before it was a discipline in the modern university, philosophy was a spirituality: a way of life devoted to what is best in the cosmos and in ourselves. While seeking a wisdom it considered divine, it developed a complex relationship with the surrounding culture. It sought to rise above common opinions, inherited myths, and superficial values in order to commune with the transcendent, which it called the Good, the Beautiful, the True, or the One. And yet, it could never fully extricate itself from the languages, regional biases, and political institutions that shaped it.

The distance that ancient philosophy sought from culture, even while depending on it, is today called “critique” or “critical theory.” While it may sometimes appear secular, this contemporary mode of philosophy continues to do some of the work that was envisioned by the earliest philosophers and spiritual masters, namely to reveal the contingency of conventional beliefs and practices, to expose their falsehoods and brutalities, and to seek a more life-affirming vantage point on everything.

Ultimately, philosophy critiques culture not to transcend it but to transform it. Spirituality does the same. Neither is supposed to benefit the individual alone. Each promotes the life of the community, the polis, and in this sense must be political. 

When I do theology—that is, reflect on the meaning of God—I am always also doing philosophy and spirituality, which is to say critically engaging with culture and politics in search of a better world.

Before joining Georgetown you were a faculty member at Boston College, another Catholic and Jesuit institution rooted in Ignatian spirituality. How do Jesuit values like contemplation in action inform your research and teaching?

The Ignatian tradition, particularly the idea of being a contemplative in action, is very meaningful to me. A few years ago, while at Boston College, I had the opportunity to do the Spiritual Exercises in the format of the 19th Annotation, which means I completed Ignatius’s “four weeks” of prayers and meditations over the course of several months in the midst of my daily life instead of in a single, month-long retreat. Drawing on this experience, I recently contributed to a forthcoming volume, edited by Laurie Cassidy, called Praying for Freedom: Racism and Ignatian Spirituality in America (2024). In my chapter for this volume, “Training the Soul: A Black Catholic Journey through the Spiritual Exercises,” I share some of the reflections I had while doing the exercises as a Black person and suggest several ways in which this spiritual tradition could support the struggle against anti-Black racism. I have also done work on many Ignatian thinkers such as the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría, the postmodern philosopher Michel de Certeau, the theological aestheticist Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the peritus of the Second Vatican Council Karl Rahner.

In the classroom, I regularly lead my students through a guided, Ignatian-style meditation on scripture. This semester, in a Christian spirituality course called Finding God Within, I am teaching Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola (2004). This text shows that finding God within really means finding the freedom to go out toward others in loving service. I am also using Erin Cline’s A World on Fire: Sharing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with Other Religions (2018) in the seminar on religious pluralism that I am teaching for senior theology and religious studies majors. Students from diverse backgrounds enjoy learning about Ignatius’s techniques for interpreting feelings of consolation and desolation and his methods for discovering the loving presence of God in all things.

Where do you see synergy between your work in the Theology and Religious Studies Department and current initiatives at the Berkley Center?

Georgetown’s Theology and Religious Studies Department offers a doctoral program in the study of religious pluralism that connects very naturally with the Berkley Center’s goal of fostering a global culture of encounter. Each student in the program specializes in two religious traditions while doing research that facilitates mutual understanding between them. I am excited to be a resource for this unique and important program, which is forming a new generation of theologically educated scholars and peacemakers.

The department’s core curriculum for the undergraduate students, including the flagship Problem of God course, is resonant with the values of the Berkley Center. These courses are often the only chances students have to learn how to think deeply and critically about the complex roles that religion plays in the contemporary world. When I step into the classroom, I know that I am about to discuss theological themes with future leaders of business, politics, medicine, and international affairs, the very sorts of leaders the Berkley Center may eventually invite to participate in its forums and conferences. 

I feel a great sense of responsibility to empower these bright young persons to develop their own thoughtful points of view about religion, while being guided by wisdom, compassion, and respect for the common good.

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