Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

This question is one of many raised by Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (one I wish I would have read years ago!). Let me give you Farley’s assertion, then the FarleyEdwardargument that informs it:

[T]heological education has assumed that its unity and subject matter had no relation to the sapiential knowledge which accompanies faith’s concrete existence (piety). The flurry of activity going on these days about ‘formation’ and ‘spirituality’ is no doubt some sort of attempt at the restoration of piety [in theological education] … Because the aim has been to spiritualize the theological school’s life and ethos but not its course of studies, the formation movement perpetuates the inherited separation of piety and intellect. Presupposed here is that spirituality pertains to a realm other than the subject matter and end of studies … Furthermore, formation and spirituality seem to be viewed as to have little to do with faith’s sapiential knowledge (theologia). This may be why it has been so easy to talk about and urge a formation which lacks spirituality’s very essence, namely, discipline. This lack of a cognitive element and the discipline necessary to it may be the reason formation in the present-day sense exports intellect from piety (pp. 160-61).

How does this strike you?

Lying  behind Farley’s statement is a rather detailed historical tracking of theological education’s circuitous route from the patristic age to the present. The result: Farley contends that contemporary theological education operates with an overly modern, scientific notion of theology, one that actively separates faith and action, theory and practice, knowledge and spirituality. Against this, theological education (in the academy and the church) should find its unifying centre in what Farley calls theologia, a sapiential (existential, personal) and praxis-oriented understanding of God and the world which predominated before the Enlightenment and the inclusion of “theology” into the German university as a “science” (among other reasons).

Theology is less a “science” in the modern sense, and more “an act of practical knowledge having the primary character of wisdom” (p. 81). This retrieval works to hold together theory/practice, faith/obedience, knowledge/spirituality.When theological study ceased being an end in itself by which those who studied it were transformed by grace, the
“study of theology” became a means toward other ends (in its earliest cases the training of professional ministers) and with it came a theory/practice divide.

The separation of knowledge and spirituality also attended this shift. To make up for the inadequate relationship between them, in the present day some seminaries and Christian universities attempt to infuse the entire education process with an emphasis on spiritual formation rather than change its basic view of theology to incorporate the sapiential wisdom that had long-characterized it before the Enlightenment.

Does this ring true to anyone? If so, where do we go from here?


11 thoughts on “Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on ‘Spiritual Formation’ « colloquy |ˈkäləkwē|

  2. I concur with Farley’s basic thesis, at least as it applies to the recent history of theological education in the West. The good (or at least hopeful) news is that this conversation is acquiring broad currency within many seminary circles. Though much ground has yet to be gained, Farley’s thesis is by now quite familiar and continues to be engaged. Numerous others have built on and nuanced Farley’s proposal (e.g. Robert Banks) to the general benefit of the conversation.

    Of course, the conversations at the scholarly level and the “popular” level are quite different. I perceive that there is, and will continue to be for some time, the notion that spiritual formation is the “antidote” to the dangers and sterilizing forces of theology (“theology” as denoting rigorous, disciplined engagement with the classical disciplines). I know that David Buschart and I to what we can to disabuse students of this notion, but this is a huge field to plow!

    I’m encouraged by signs of more integrative engagement within the academy, as represented (anecdotal, I realize) by the new spiritual formation journal being published by Talbot. It’s intended to be academically rigorous. We’ll see how much of a splash it makes. At least a number of fairly serious scholars in the classical disciplines are attempting to think with biblical and theological depth about this phenomenon of spiritual formation.

    Work that remains? I would say it’s fostering the mindset that sees all of life as formative; maybe developing better, richer definitions of “spiritual formation”. It’s getting past overly pietistic notions of spiritual maturity or spiritual intimacy that only see those through affective lenses. It’s developing a spirituality of the intellect and a spirituality of the “hands” that gets past this tired and shallow polarization between “being” and “doing”. But don’t get me started :-)

    • On the scholarly level, Ellen Charry (Inquiring After God) and Kevin Vanhoozer (Drama of Doctrine) forward a similar argument as well.

      As always, thanks for furthering the discussion. As much as your optimistic estimation encourages me, it has been my experience that lay Christians and most undergraduates and incoming seminary students have the same view of theology that I did growing up, the one Farley rightly argues to correct. So do we have to wait a generation for today’s seminary graduates to pass on a new conception of theology to their congregations?

      As encouraged as I am about the new Spiritual Formation journal (and from what I have seen the articles are top shelf), I don’t see its presence addressing this issue. It seems to me that what we need is newly invigorated sense of the transformative nature of theological study as such, its sapiential character, both in the pulpit and the classroom, and I can’t see how the spiritual formation journal furthers that end. If anything, it would seem to create the impression that “spiritual formation” (as something separate from theological study) is our antidote to the knowledge/spirituality divide.

      • I have to agree with Kent’s assessment of the new journal and of the as-yet-unaddressed need [for] a newly invigorated sense of the transformative nature of theological study as such, its sapiential character, both in the pulpit and the classroom.

        This was the basic raison d’etre for the subtitle of my book Unlocking Wisdom: Forming Agents of God in the House of Mourning: When viewed through the lens(es) of sapiential theology, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes seem [to my biased eye, at least] to virtually explode with a sapientual [sic] (existential, personal) and praxis-oriented understanding of God and the world.

        Hence, from my vantage, Kent, further substantive progress in the role of Spiritual Formation as informing “theology” will necessarily begin with a personal, as well as institutional, willingness to embrace a process of deconstruction—along with the attendant profound personal and institutional disillusionment that would ensue—of what we “have” in classical theology, as the first step in revising a theology curriculum to incorporate the theologically transforming benefits of Spiritual Formation.

        IMO, further progress in sapiential theology would then entail building on this foundation of disillusionment by moving in the direction of the relational constituents of theological anthropology, as Don and I have discussed on several occasions. From a praxis-oriented standpoint—at least in western theological educational curricula, this may first require formal and/or informal training of faculty and students in “emotional intelligence,” which (in my view) typically seems to be “selected out” among our “best” students.


  3. This rings true to me and I second Kent’s mention of Ellen Charry’s book. Richard Muller also wrote a book a while back called “The Study of Theology” that has a chapter on the unity of theological discourse. Further studies with him has me convinced that piety and theology went hand in hand through even the period of Reformed Orthodoxy until the middle of the eighteenth century. My prayer is that leaders in churches become persuaded that theology as wisdom is eminently practical and they demonstrate that through their preaching, counseling, and teaching. Perhaps that will take a generation, but it would be great if it happened even sooner.

  4. Well, Kent, I take your point. Looking at the broad landscape, warrant for optimism can be rather elusive. My own qualified optimism is admittedly anecdotal, reflecting conversations I have or overhear, as well as hopeful signs. And, of course, signs are far from the full meal deal!

    A brief follow-up. Much turns on what we mean (or expect) by “transformation” and “transformative”. That whole family of “transform” words needs an overhaul; a stripping of dramatic and linear (and sometimes romanticized) connotations. For quite a few years now I have had the accumulating impression that popular evangelicalism is enchanted with notions of transformation that do not accommodate the most vital aspects of genuine transformation in the image of Jesus Christ. For example, my own seminary has (or at least had) transformation as a focal point of its recruitment literature; and we’re certainly not alone in doing so. Why would we think of transformation so glowingly when it is so excruciating and disorienting? It’s because we like the idea of transformation or the affective imagery we project upon it. We love the dramatic and the quick (if not easy), just as TV has conditioned us.

    Jim touched on a related point in mentioning disillusionment and deconstruction. Who wants to be disillusioned? And the radical postmodernists have ruined the concept of deconstruction for us! Yet, wholistic transformation inevitably involved stripping. It’s repentance. It’s division and subtraction before (or as much as) it’s addition and multiplication. Evangelical piety (now called spiritual formation) has not taught us how to navigate disillusionment and deconstruction. They are viewed as enemies. Hence, spiritual formation takes on the form of scampering hurriedly back to the domain of the affect where we can be unbothered by or shielded from those damned questions that scandalize us so and that alone provide the opportunity for the real Jesus and the real gospel to do something!

    I guess I’m not as optimistic as I thought I was! The solution does not lay in intensifying our emphasis on the affective domain or devotional types of theology (and I’m NOT trivializing or devaluing those), but in doing sapiential theology differently. I have seen students come alive in a systematics class as much or more than in any other type of course. I know that sounds horribly self-congratulatory. It really does not indicate that I’m doing well. I think it merely indicates that they have NEVER had anyone even try to do theology except in a modernistic, sterilized fashion and any attempt to come at it differently is water on a parched desert.

  5. This rings true to me as well. I am going back to university to read for a second undergraduate degree in Theology from Oxford this fall. I strongly considered applying to one of the religious Permanent Private Halls, but ended up not doing so for several reasons (mainly because I was advised to apply to a college, since I am not seeking ordination, and because I was concerned doing so might lower my chances at obtaining a place). I will be studying at a college that used to be, but is no longer, affiliated with a religious denomination, though it still hosts several students a year who are training for ordination. I am a bit concerned that not studying at an institution filled with practicing Christians will lead to a more academic, scientific study of theology, rather than one informed by experience and sapiental understanding.

    When I tell people that I will be studying theology, their first question is whether I want to be ordained, and when they learn that the answer is no, their second question is whether I want to teach. Theology is seen as job training to them. For me, it’s inseparable from my spiritual growth. My career goals are to obtain a postgraduate degree (possibly a D.Phil.) in Theology and the Arts, publish a book on the moral responsibility of the Christian artist, and start a theatre company founded upon the understanding of that responsibility, perhaps partnering with a Christian college. I don’t need a degree to do any of this, but I want to spend the next few years increasing my understanding so that my artistic work will be fully informed by the history of Christian thought on the artist. And these career goals are inseparable from a sense of vocation, a sense of mission to counteract certain elements of modern and postmodern art which I was taught during my first degree in theatre. The academy, the art world, and the spiritual realm are woven into one cloth for me, which makes sense, considering that how we respond to the questions which theology raises determines how to act in every area of our lives.

    I am looking forward to having my academic study of theology fed by the fact that I am converting to Catholicism from Presbyterianism, and will be going through catechesis at the same time I am academically studying theology. I will also be living in a house with other Christian academics and clergy, as an intentional community. I am looking forward to how the experience-oriented and academic-oriented encounters with theology will complement each other, and hopefully meld into one search.

  6. What a wonderful integrative approach, Cole. Reminds me of the approach taken by the Roman Catholic seminary here in Denver. The entire first year of their seminary experience is what they call “The Year of Spirituality”. Overlooking for the moment the compartmentalized connotations of that language, they devote that first year to various exercises and “spiritual disciplines” carefully designed to cultivate the broader range of a person’s capacities; a fuller taxonomy of learning. All this is prior to any classical, formal academic studies. They have compared their students’ academic performance to that of some other Catholic seminaries and found that their students perform better. Their own assessment of this phenomenon is that that “year of spirituality” improves students’ ability to integrate. So, rather than counterbalancing, trivializing, or competing with more analytical academic work, they think they are seeing how this work actually enhances a student’s analytical work.

  7. “Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart.”
    Calvin (Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 6, Section 4)

    Just came across that this morning and it reminded me of this post (which I read yesterday). Thanks for all the great posts and comments, everyone.

  8. Pingback: links for 2009-07-19 | The 'K' is not silent

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