Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life
by Robert Davis Hughes, III
New York, NY: Continuum, 2008
Reviewed by Rev. Nancee Martin-Coffey, DMin
In Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life Robert Hughes, III, gives a fresh systematic, theological, and pastoral treatment of the Christian spiritual life. What is unique and pervades Hughes’ approach is an effort to move spiritual theology from moral theology, where it has resided for centuries, and root it in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This represents an outgrowth of renewed interest in the Holy Trinity among both Catholics and Protestants.
I read Beloved Dust through multiple lenses: that of spiritual director, Episcopal priest, third-wave feminist, and former seminary student of the author. The text spoke to me on all accounts. A wide range of readers, including spiritual directors, individuals and leaders in formation programs, pneumatologists, church historians, and academicians will find this a valuable read, excellent resource, and a useful conversation tool.
After describing the current state of Christian spirituality, Hughes commences on a detailed historical summary of Christian life through the centuries, even mentioning Spiritual Directors International. Spiritual directors will recognize many in our ancestry: second century desert dwellers, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, John Wesley, the Shalem Institute, and Gerald May. Hughes shows how those on the spiritual path are immersed in three great tides of the Holy Spirit: the traditional threefold rhythm of conversion (purgative), transfigured (illuminative), and glorified (unitive). The rest of the book describes these tides in understandable, life-enhancing, vibrant, and provocative ways. Particularly helpful for spiritual direction relationships is the vast material on the three tidal currents, and a chart including virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and vices.
The title and central core of the text originates from Hughes’ explanation of the relationship of human beings to the Holy Spirit: "By our creation as beloved dust we are already animated and spirited by the Spirit; by covenant and further, even more superfluous grace, we are also indwelt by the Spirit" (118) Beloved Dust clearly emerges from an "unabashedly Christian point of view" (66). Hughes has a high doctrine of both Christ and humanity. Hughes clearly favors interfaith dialogue, but only after one is clear about one’s own tradition.
The footnotes are a rich and worthy resource, from discussions of the meaning of adam and filioque to the refutation of heresy found in suggestions related to the book The Littlest Angel and the popular song "Teen Angel." The index and bibliography are additional assets. Other gems include an elucidation of types of spiritual pain, and Hughes’ tendency to utilize heresies to explain and extend discussions. Some may consider his style heady and dense.
Hughes is a Professor of Divinity and Professor of Systematic Theology in the School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, USA, where he has taught since 1977. His love of Christ, ideas, teaching, theology, and spirituality speak solidly in Beloved Dust. In the years to come, it will be interesting to see the place Hughes’ recasting of spiritual theology will occupy.
Nancee Martin-Coffey, DMin, is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and licensed professional counselor. She serves at the Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville, Florida, USA, and recently did research on Jane Vennard’s process of the Compassionate Observer method of discernment.