Research Theology

Tilburg School of Catholic Theology explains the catholic tradition in the context of contemporary society and studies the spiritual needs of the individual.

Initiation and Mystagogy in the Christian Tradition

Research theme

This research program examines the processes through which Christians appropriate their faith and the way of life that is specific to them, not just during a single moment of initiation, but also through permanent mystagogical formation. The program’s main focus is on the rituals and trajectories of Christian initiation and ongoing formation, as well as on the authoritative texts and theological concepts that underlie them, and on the persons that contribute to these processes of initiation and mystagogy in different capacities. In addition, the program investigates the role played in these processes by communities, and also the interactions with the social contexts in which they take place.

Further comments on the research theme

The concept of ‘initiation’ has become popular mainly on account of its use in religious studies, where it denotes the ritual process through which people are inducted into a society or group. Initiation rituals are important keys to gaining deeper insight into these societies and groups, their religious ideas, moral values and social structures. Initiation rituals exist in all societies and groups that have a common identity.

The originally Greek term ‘mystagogy’ is closely linked to ‘initiation’. It is no coincidence that the Greek verb ‘mystagogein’ is usually translated in Latin as ‘initiare’. The concept of ‘mystagogy’ (and  related terminology) originates in the mystery cults of Greek and Roman Antiquity, where it denoted ritual initiation into the ‘mysteries’ connected with the worship of goddesses and gods such as Demeter and Dionysius.

The terms ‘initiation’ and ‘mystagogy’ have in common that they originally have a strictly ritual connotation and that they presuppose the existence of communities with clearly defined identities and boundaries which individuals enter through communal rituals.

Both concepts have often been and can be understood in a broader, non-ritual way. The notion of ‘mystagogy’ and other concepts that derive from the mystery cults were used in Antiquity by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophers, Gnostics and church fathers as metaphors for the journey that must be travelled to achieve philosophical knowledge or gnosis or to be able to share in the divine mystery. It is typical for this understanding that mystagogy is not seen as a process that is concluded as soon as the initiate has become a member of the religious group in question, for the Christian catechumen for instance at the moment of baptism. Initiation and mystagogy are regarded more as ongoing processes of learning and as models for continuing spiritual transformation which can accommodate the personal journeys of individual believers and which always respect the mysterious nature of the divine, transcendent reality. It is precisely this broader understanding of mystagogy that has been rediscovered during the past few decades by practical theologians and researchers of religion education, and which also plays a role in the research of Christian and non-Christian forms of spirituality.

This research program focuses on the way in which initiation and mystagogy have functioned and continue to function in Christian traditions. These concepts are understood both in the more restricted, ritual sense and in the broader, metaphorical sense. The program on the one hand investigates the Christian rituals of initiation: the baptism of adults – which functioned especially in the early church –; the initiation of children into the church, and concomitantly into an officially Christian society, in later periods, as well as the ritual process of entry into the monastic or religious state of life. . In addition, Jewish purity rules, the rite of circumcision and of Bar)(Bat) Mitswa can serve as comparison. On the other hand, the program examines the continuing transformation of Christians who interpret human existence in the light of the mystery of a divine reality – of the Triune God in the Christian tradition – and who strive to remain open to this mystery.

Research questions

  1. The program’s main research questions are as follows:
  2. What role do concepts of initiation and mystagogy play in the Christian tradition? What meanings have been assigned to these concepts?
  3. What role do Christian rituals play in initiation and in the process of transformation?
  4. How are initiates transformed? Which phases can be distinguished in this process?
  5. Which sacred and authoritative texts such as the Bible are foundational to initiation and to the process of transformation? Which biblical concepts and models are used?
  6. What role do faith communities play in ongoing initiation and transformation?
  7. Which notions of God, of transcendent reality, of humanity, and of the community underlie the religious views and practices that are being studied?

Social and academic relevance

Every society faces the challenge of conveying certain essential rules for living together to its members, whether they are people who have joined from outside, or whether they were born into society and are growing up within it. Similarly, every religious community faces the challenge of initiating its members into the particular religious or philosophical views of reality it has, as well as into its moral values and norms and its ritual practices. This initiation can never be regarded as complete, but consists of an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime. This is even more strongly the case for societies and religious communities that are subject to strong change and that are coming into contact with other traditions and cultures and are consequently being challenged to rethink and reformulate their identity. Churches, religious groups and society as a whole are being faced with the question as to how to continue to initiate their newer and older members. Investigating the formational practices that have been developed in the Christian tradition can help to gain greater insight into the way in which initiation functions – or fails to function - in societies.

Conversely, precisely the way in which people are initiated into a religious tradition or a society offers a unique insight into the things that are regarded as the core or the heart of that particular religious tradition or society. It sheds light, moreover, on the vision that is being espoused of human beings’ course of life and spiritual development. We have therefore chosen ‘initiation’ and ‘mystagogy’ as the guiding principles for our research of Christian tradition and traditions.

‘Initiation’ has received a good deal of attention from religious studies and social sciences in recent decades. In liturgical studies, the focus has mainly been on the early Christian initiation of adults, but often from a narrowly liturgical perspective rather than a historically contextualized one. Researchers of religious education and practical theologians have discovered the importance of ‘initiation’ and ‘mystagogy’ a few decades ago, but their approaches require a critical and enriching confrontation with a study of the relevant historical sources. This confrontation is only in its infancy. There is therefore an important lacuna regarding research of these terms.


Clarifying ‘initiation’ and ‘mystagogy’

This subproject examines the origins of these concepts and the way in which they have developed in the history of Christianity, as well as the different meanings they have been given.

The project will investigate the backgrounds of the progressive broadening of the understanding of these concepts. Why were mystagogical concepts and images mostly interpreted as metaphors for non-ritual processes in Late Antiquity? Why do theologians nowadays – just as some movements in early Christianity – strongly prefer a broad interpretation of the concept of ‘mystagogy’, an interpretation that is focused more on the believer’s spiritual journey than on the process of entry into a church community?

Investigators: Professor G. Rouwhorst, J.C. van Loon

Initiation rites in different religious traditions

(Judaism; Christianity; Islam; Buddhism)

This project focuses mainly on how initiation rituals are performed in different religions and how they relate to different phases of life. What role, if any, does the community play in these rituals? And also: which initiation rituals can be discerned in modern secularised Western society?

Investigators: Professor G. Rouwhorst, Professor A. Merz, Professor M. Poorthuis, Dr J. van Wiele, Dr A. van Wieringen, Professor R. Munnik

Initiation by psalmists, prophets and teachers

This project focuses from a Biblical studies perspective on the role of the psalmist, of the prophet and of Jesus as teacher who initiates the community into his message. This research will use communication-oriented exegetical methods, which uncovers the different communicative processes that are present in the text – both in the different personages (psalmist, prophet and Jesus as teacher) and in the textual author (evangelist, narrator).

Investigators: Professor B. Koet, Dr A. van Wieringen, Dr H. van Grol

The role of narratives and parables in formation

This project studies the way in which reality is opened up in different religious traditions through the use of parables and narratives in order to facilitate the transformation of the individual and the broadening of his or her frame of reference. It is an NWO-funded project that investigates parables in the New Testament and in rabbinic literature. The investigators working on this project are both members of the RJC.

Investigators: Professor M. Poorthuis, Professor A. Merz.

Mystagogy in the church fathers

This project focuses on the role of prayer, as well as on the reading and interpretation of Scripture in the mystagogical process. It attempts to answer a double question: what role did Biblical texts play within the mystagogical process, and, conversely, what influence did the mystagogical perspective of the early Christian reader bring to bear on the reception and interpretation of Biblical texts? The project will also address the reading of Scripture in monastic traditions. The investigators working on this subproject are all members of the CPO.

Investigators: Professor P. van Geest, Dr J.C. van Loon, Dr M. Op de Coul

Crucial initiation texts: the creeds

The Christian tradition has always greatly valued the careful formulation of the contents of the faith. From the early centuries of Christianity on, the creed has been an integral part of the baptismal ritual. This project examines the origins, development and interpretation of one of the oldest creeds, the Apostles’ Creed, and studies Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of it.

A joint interdisciplinary project has moreover been planned which will investigate the backgrounds of one particular theme from the Apostles’ Creed, the ‘descent into hell’. This topic will be examined from the perspectives of Biblical studies, of the history of religions and theology and of systematic theology.

Investigators: Dr L. Westra, Dr P. van Egmond, Dr A. van Wieringen, Professor M. Sarot

Initiation, a lifelong process

The role of ongoing initiation in the lives of the faithful according to Thomas Aquinas.

This project focuses from the perspective of systematic theology and the philosophy of religion on how God joins himself to humankind and, conversely: how human beings are inducted into union with God through a life of faith, hope and charity. On the one hand these theological virtues, bestowed on humans through God’s grace, perfect the natural life of human beings. On the other they lead humans into the eschatological life of glory with the Triune God. Thomas Aquinas summarized this in the statements ‘grace perfects nature’ (gratia perficit naturam) and ‘grace is the beginning of glory’ (gratia est inchoatio gloriae). These statements express both the continuity and the radical transformation of human life. Human beings’ ‘normal’ life does not conflict with the Christian life of faith, but rather flourishes through it and bears fruit far beyond human expectation. Nature, and what has been called ‘supernatural’ grace and glory, are connected in a dynamic of inclusive transcendence.

Investigators: Dr. H. Schoot, Professor R. te Velde, Dr H. Goris


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Research students