The Three Faces of Evelyn Underhill

by Todd E. Johnson

Evelyn Underhill’s life often has been described as having two distinct halves: the years before her tutelage under Baron von Hugel and the years following his influence. Underhill decribes herself as a “white-hot neoplatonist” in these early years. She claimed her penchants for monism and platonic dualism were overcome by a good dose of orthodoxy dispensed by the baron, as well as her acceptance of his philosophical framework known as Critical Realism, which argued for a limited duality between nature and supernature. For von Hugel, the bridge between humanity and God was the incarnate Christ.

There have been those who have challenged this interpretation of Underhill’s life and thought, most notably Susan Smalley and Terry Tastard. From their perspective, von Hugel’s influence was short-lived and Underhill quickly retreated to her earlier dualistic perspectives, never fully accepting the centrality of Christ in her thought. However, a closer look at Underhill’s life and thought reveals a steady progression in her theological understanding that continued beyond the influence of von Hugel and underscores the relevance of her thought for today. Underhill’s early works were influenced by an optimistic and evolutionary perspective known as Vitalism. Underhill used this perspective to describe the spiritual life as the mystical ascent to God through the development of one’s spiritual consciousness. This postive view of the world was unable to accomodate for her the reality of human sinfulness evident in World War I, and the pain of the loss of her best friend, Ethel Ross Baker. Her theology in shambles, she turned to von Hugel for help.

Underhill’s time spent under von Hugel’s direction exposed her to a more Christocentric theology, as well as a more sacramental piety. Still, the main shift in Underhill’s thought at this time was the understanding that one’s relationship with God was not primarily a human ascent to the divine but God’s gracious condenscension to humanity. After the baron’s death in 1925, Underhill set out to distill his thought into a philosophy of religion. The result was her book Man and the Supernatural.

The third phase of Underhill’s thought began in 1930 with her essay “God and Spirit” and the volume that followed, The Golden Sequence. In her dissertation, Grace Brame raised the question of why Underhill would essentially rewrite Man and the Supernatural from the perspective of the Holy Spirit? The reason becomes evident through a careful read of Underhill’s life in the latter half of the 1920s. In these years Underhill was taken by the work of Alfred North Whitehead and his “Process Theology.” Underhill likewise was becoming more familiar with the Eastern Orthodox tradition and its emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Like the wise steward who brings out both the old and the new, Underhill combined the ancient Orthodox emphasis on the Spirit with Critical Realism and Process Theology to establish a theology based on the continuing incarnation of the Spirit, instead of the one time incarnation of Christ. The Spirit—not Christ—became the bridge between God and humanity—the missing piece in Man and the Supernatural.

For the rest of her life Underhill would write from a Spirit-centered perspective. Instead of the Spirit being the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit was the Spirit of God, and Christ was the fullest incarnation of that Spirit. This interpretation precedes the first “serious” Spirit Christology in Anglican theology by twenty years. The sacraments were now encounters with the dynamic energy of the Spirit, not the static presence of Christ, heightening the awareness of participation in the liturgy—a theme not fully accentuated until Vatican II. It is the Spirit that allowed Underhill to weave prayer, worship, and ministry so tightly into the fabric of the spiritual life. In fact, in Underhill’s most lucid distillation of her thought in her later years, The Spiritual Life, there is hardly a mention of Christ; it is the Spirit that dominates the work.

Evelyn Underhill moved through three distinct phases in her life and thought. The result was that her work at the end of her life reflected the mind of a woman years ahead of her time. As a self-educated lay woman, she created a theological synthesis using the Spirit that is more at home in our age than her own. Underhill’s work continues ot speak to new generations of those seeking God because she gives voice to a perspective that has been silent for so many years in the Western traditions, and I would add, because the voice with which she spoke was an echo of the voice of the Spirit she so courageously followed.

Todd E. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University, Chicago.