I only recently discovered the Anglican priest and theologian V.A. Demant when I saw his name referenced in the acknowledgements of John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. Always intrigued by the prospect of another obscure Anglican to explore, particularly one who gets a shout-out from the likes of John Milbank, I set out to procure any works of his that I could and finally acquired a small copy of two radio talks he gave titled A Two-Way Religion.
Demant begins by suggesting that our common understanding of spirituality doesn’t fully grasp the nature of who we are as creatures of God. We think of spirituality as something that is begins with our conscious devotion to God and therefore that “to be spiritual is to be godly.” But Demant wants to go underneath the consciousness of spirituality down to its very foundation. Before we ever have a conscious thought of God, before we utter so much as a prayer, we are already inextricably bound up in an existential relationship to God simply by being his creatures. God is the ground of our being and it is this relation that underlies any other relation that we might have with God. And since it does not stem from any direct activity on our part, there is an unyielding certainty to this primary relation to God because it consists in nothing less than our existence itself.
As Demant expounds:
The essence of this kind of certainty is that the relation of the human creature to God is one of existence, not primarily one of consciousness in the ordinary meaning of consciousness. Of course, in a very special sense it can become an experience with a kind of awareness of its own. It is the purpose of discipline in the prayer life — with its phases of meditation, contemplation, and the way of union — to reach this kind of knowing God as the ground of existence; and we find that it can be reached only by the eventual breakdown of the more familiar processes of knowing.
These more familiar processes of knowing are usually the processes that we are conscious of; they are the kinds of knowing by which we get ourselves through the day. As such, they are necessarily bound up with all the cares and occupations of our lives along with all of our flawed responses to them. So in seeking to know God as the ground of our being, “the achievements of the human spirit’s self-expressive powers are therefore broken down over and over again, precisely in order that the man of faith may know God and not mistake his own spiritual vibrations for the divine action.” We are in the way of ourselves, in short. And this is a paradox, for while we are bound up in an existential relation to God, we nevertheless have to seek him.
Fortunately, our tradition offers a wealth of wisdom for such an endeavor, for the discipline it cultivates in us through the Daily Office, seasons of feast and fast, and good works just so happen to be extremely effective methods for setting ourselves in proper alignment so as to perceive more clearly our union with God down at our very depths.
V.A. Demant, A Two-Way Religion, 9-17.