A term that comes up a lot in the world of contemporary spirituality is “energy.” Practitioners of various spiritual modalities will talk about such and such an “energy” working in such and such a way. Some go so far as to call their practice “energy work.”
I hadn’t given this much thought until a friend who is interested in esoteric traditions expressed his discomfort with this word, since in his mind it’s a scientific term and using it in these mystical or magical contexts confuses science and spirituality.
This criticism makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of pseudo-scientific ideas out there — especially in the spiritual world — that make unsupported claims using scientific language. And we definitely need to be careful about that.
At the same time, I appreciate the use of ‘energy’ as a theological or philosophical term. This spiritual usage comes from the days when the natural sciences had yet to become disciplines on their own and were still part of philosophy. And so it’s less a case of mysticism appropriating scientific language than it is that it’s using a term that is part of the shared heritage of both ways of engaging with the world. The word is related to the word for ‘work’, and at its heart, it simply means “inworking,” “activity,” or “operation.” And so it rightfully belongs to the world of spirituality just as much as it does to science. We just need to separate the stuff from the Stuff and know how it is we’re using it.
Yet my friend’s discomfort with the term was helpful for me to think through. Energy has been an important part of my theological vocabulary for such a long time now that I hadn’t even thought to parse how and why I use it. I came by it honestly, since it is one of the hallmark ideas of Eastern Christian theology, and particularly that of St. Gregory Palamas, whose thought I studied for my Master’s thesis and continues to be a very strong influence on me.
One of Palamas’ metaphors for explaining the divine energies is helpful for understanding how the term is used in spirituality. He likened the relationship between a thing or person and its energies to the Sun and its rays: We know and experience the Sun directly as “warmth, light, life, and growth,” even though the Sun remains in a sense beyond our understanding (Chapters in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts 68); we can similarly experience and know the divine directly in many ways through God’s energies (love, justice, grace, forgiveness, consolation, and so on).
I see ‘energy’ working in a similar way in these other spiritual modalities. To talk about the energies of a given situation or practice is to talk about what is at work in them and how we might respond to that. What is helpful with this metaphor is that the energies are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but always contextual: The Sun’s heat for example is a great boon on a crisp Spring morning, but can be detrimental on a hot Summer afternoon. And of course, the choice of how we’re going to deal with the heat is up to us.
And so I find the theological and spiritual use of the word ‘energy’ helpful. It’s certainly not scientific, but it’s a helpful way of exploring how the different aspects at work in our circumstances are operating and interacting with one another.