Spiritual Formation for Academic Types

Those with experience in graduate level theological education (like seminary) will recognize the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle condescension of the “classical” disciplines toward the “practical” or “pastoral” disciplines. Those who teach in the former will often characterize the latter as somehow intellectually softer, less rigorous, dependent on the former to provide the content and methodology needed for legitimacy, and consequently less substantive. As one who teaches on “both sides of the aisle,” this unfortunate chasm is worthy of our suspicion.

Quite a few years ago when I was working more directly with the non-formal curriculum of spiritual formation at my own school (through the mentoring program), our program staff visited the Roman Catholic seminary across town to learn about how they approached spiritual formation in their unique educational venue. Apart from differences in theology and educational structure, we were struck at a particular commitment they lived out regarding the place of spiritual formation in their educational process.

Admittedly, since their M.Div. process is far longer than that of Protestant seminaries, they have more time with their students. What do they do with that extra time? They require an entire academic year devoted to various spiritual formation exercises prior to students engaging any traditional (classical) academic work. This, we were told, is rather unusual even among Roman Catholic seminaries. So, they had done comparative studies with some other Roman Catholic institutions and discovered that their students actually did better work in the classical courses than those without that personally formative base. Their interpretation of those results was that the year of attention to the “heart” actually helped students better integrate their more cerebral endeavors.

James M. Houston, former professor at the University of Oxford and co-founder of Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., has mused at length on the dangers of academia without attention to one’s personal life. In a sort of memoir, Joyful Exiles, he makes the following indicting and challenging observation.

“Alan Bullock, head of one of the colleges I taught in [at Oxford], once assured me that it was an immature teacher who saw the subject as all-important. Rather, a mark of academic maturity is to value the personal formation of the student in the light of the discipline being taught. . . . This has persuaded me ever since to cultivate a compassionate, not just critical scholarship” (106).

He continues,

“If you are tempted to think my appeal here is only devotional and therefore ‘soft,’ I respond with the assertion that living out as a person takes hard thinking indeed! Michael Polanyi was one of my early neighbors at Oxford, so I read his work Personal Knowledge as soon as it was published in 1959. Although he might have received the Nobel Prize had he remained as a research chemist, he chose to become a philosopher of science to combat current false Marxist interpretations. It was a selfless act in defense of the truth, recognizing that scientists are fully and personally involved with their subject matter, regardless of ideology. For there is no impersonal scientific knowledge” (109).

My concern is that the relationship between different types of disciplines needs to be reconfigured. Without a doubt, the “classical” disciplines provide a type of content and methodological rigor that can help other disciplines be accountable and rigorous. Yet, there is more than one type of content to be mined and transmitted. Other disciplines provide essential content that the classical disciplines need just as much and often seem unable to recognize.

Houston’s remarks served as a timely reminder to me of the old adage that “we don’t teach subjects, we teach people.” And, it takes well-formed people to form people well.

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