Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 1

With the cognitive dissonance for which this blog would be famous if it were famous, I’ve decided to follow yesterday’s post on NOM parody videos with my report on the theology conference I attended at Wheaton College last week. The topic of this year’s event was “Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective”. Wheaton is the leading U.S. evangelical college, acclaimed for its rigorous academic program as well as the quality of its dining-hall food, and I partook liberally of both resources. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the Saturday morning session because of my flight time, so this report will only cover Thursday-Friday.

Dr. Jeffrey Greenaman, a professor of Christian ethics at Wheaton, introduced the theme of the conference with a clear and lively lecture that defined spiritual formation as “our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.” He then unpacked several aspects of this definition. It’s a continuing response because formation into disciples is a lifelong process (a theme picked up by Dr. Dallas Willard on Friday in his lecture on sanctification). Greenaman emphasized God’s grace because the fear of works-righteousness looms over discussions of spiritual formation. We can only change because God chose to offer us new life, but on the other hand, we have to do the work. Formation into what? Into the likeness of Christ, the suffering servant who is humble and gives himself for others. However, this process does not end with the individual or even with the church. Formation is for the sake of the world because the church is a sent body. (This phrase made me think of Christ, who was sent to us in a human body.) The church is not an end in itself, Greenaman said; it exists to be the presence of God in the world.

Greenaman also said that “the chief purpose of theology is whole-person formation for mission.” If your theology has no bearing on the formation of a whole person (head and heart) in God’s service and in community, it’s got some problems. He recommended Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

This was a useful reminder because intellectuals (myself included) tend to get lost in worshipping beautiful abstract systems. Notwithstanding this, at some points during the conference I still felt that we were becoming too bogged down in history and theory, considering our practical topic. This was also influenced by my personal gripe that evangelicals sometimes pay more attention to the Bible, as a sacred object, than to the world in which it is applied. But I digress.

Dr. George Kalantzis, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton, discussed “Spirituality and the Mimetic Impulse”. Kalantzis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, is the director of Wheaton’s new Center for Early Christian Studies. He was one of the speakers who addressed the meaning of “spirituality”, that much-abused word that can mean anything from a vague religious feeling to a serious faith practice. According to Kalantzis, spirituality reflects the radiance of Christian faith in daily life. It is the charism (anointing) of the Holy Spirit, a life transfigured and cleansed of evil.

Kalantzis described the second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr’s journey from classical philosophy to Christian faith. Like Christians, Greco-Roman thinkers understood the transitory nature of cosmic existence and tried to find a way for the soul to transcend the temporal and be united with the eternal good. Justin sampled various philosophies and stuck with Platonism for awhile, until one day an old man asked him how the philosophers could talk about a God they’d never seen. Truth cannot be reached through the mind alone; you need God’s self-revelation. Justin prayed, was converted, and studied the prophets, “friends of God” who had direct knowledge, not just theory.

(Since I’m all about empiricism these days, I wonder if there’s a lesson here for Christians who behave as if the bare text always trumps personal experiences and real-world observation. Has the era of prophets ended? How would we know?)

Kalantzis then discussed ascetic disciplines as a means of spiritual formation, another trait the early Christians had in common with Greco-Roman sages and some Jews (the Essenes). Martyrdom was the first such extreme practice. It was an anticipation of the eschaton, in which the power of the Spirit was revealed by the super-human deeds performed by weak and marginalized people (slaves, women, etc.).

After Christianity was legalized and then made the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, “the world was in the church” and it was no longer so easy to distinguish the holy from the hypocrites. Thus the era of martyrs gave way to the era of monks as the new exemplars of spiritual perfection. Martyrdom became self-martyrdom. The desert fathers’ writings were a program for theosis, humans becoming God-like through the grace of God who became human. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we cooperate with God through practical obedience, assenting to let the spirit transform us. Human will and divine grace interpenetrate, rather like the persons of the Trinity. The monk’s progress leads to apatheia, or passionlessness, letting go of attachments to particular forms. Contemplation springs from simplicity. Then perfection follows, the true knowledge of God.

Kalantzis ended with some wise words from Basil the Great, who thought that life in a monastic community was healthier for the soul than pure solitude. “If you’re living alone in the desert, whose feet are you washing? To whom are you last, if you are alone?” For Basil, salvation was personal but not individual.

Dr. Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame was not alone in lamenting that the modern usage of “spirituality” had stripped it of association with the Holy Spirit. Instead, it’s often deployed as a vaguely uplifting contrast to the seeming rigidity of organized religion. This way of speaking about spirituality was coined during the Enlightenment to mean religious experience without the discipline of living in community with ordinary worshippers. By contrast, the Catholic understanding of spirituality roots it in Romans 8, where Paul contrasts those who live in the spirit (i.e., under the impulses of the Holy Spirit) with those whose ruling impulses come from the flesh (not the body per se, but the world). The way of the Spirit is the way of holiness. God is holy, meaning, wholly other. All else is made holy only by having a nexus to God.

While Jesus is “the Way” (John 14:6), there are many ways of discipleship, Cunningham said, showing himself to be “catholic” in the small-c sense as well. Throughout church history, people were always trying out different methods of discipleship, and if a method seemed to work and gained adherents, it would become a “school”. Hence the various monastic traditions developed to emphasize different spiritual practices, such as the Franciscans’ giving up their possessions to serve the poor. Each school developed traditions specific to their community, including a different “pedagogy of prayer”: monks pray psalms in community, for instance, while Ignatians study the life of Jesus.

Cunningham compared the Catholic Church to a house that people have live
d in for generations and accumulated a lot of “stuff”: you may not use it all, but it’s all there for you to use. This rich and diverse vision held a lot of appeal for me personally.

More to come!