Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 3

As I continue to blog my experience at Wheaton College’s annual theology conference from last week, here are some highlights from Thursday night and Friday morning, plus the usual uppity feminist critique of same:

Dr. Gordon Fee was Thursday’s keynote speaker. He’s an emeritus professor of New Testament studies at Regent College, as well as an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God church (a Pentecostal denomination) and a heavy hitter in the world of New Testament commentaries. Fee’s pithy and provocative speech was called “On Getting the Spirit Back Into Spirituality.”

Sounding a common theme, he argued that the word “spirituality” is widely misused both inside and outside the church to mean anything non-physical or vaguely religious. What would happen if every time we saw the word “spirit” or “spiritual” in the New Testament, we understood it as a reference to the Holy Spirit? For instance, when Paul observes in Galatians that the only God-given antidote to legalism is a thorough-going reliance on the Holy Spirit, he encourages those who are “spiritual” to restore the brethren who are falling into sin. The chapter break at Gal 6:1 obscures the fact that he is talking not about a generic trait of “being spiritual” but about the fruits of the Spirit in Gal 5. Similarly, at the beginning of Ephesians, Paul says God has blessed us through Christ “with every spiritual blessing”, but what is a spiritual blessing? Is it the opposite of a material blessing? If we look at Paul’s usage of “spiritual” in its original, Trinitarian sense, Fee said, it is the divine origin of the blessing that is important, not its content.

Fee gave the mainstream church a serious scolding for being insufficiently Trinitarian. Most Protestant religious practice (in the Q&A he extended his indictment to Catholics too) is Father-Son only. The Spirit is boxed up in the creed instead of let loose to be a vital and scary part of church life. Evangelical believers, he said, need to check their tendency toward Apollinarianism, where the deity of Jesus is so foregrounded that his humanity disappears. We also tend to miss the fact that Christ’s miraculous and loving life on earth was made possible because God was with him exactly the way the Spirit is with and in us now.

Fee’s speech was short and his Q&A responses perfunctory, so we didn’t get to hear specifics of how this played out, but I for one was excited to hear a revered Biblical scholar make the case for a more fearless, trusting, and dynamic way of discerning how God is speaking to us now. To his credit, Fee seems pretty progressive on gender issues, as shown in this online summary of his thoughts on women’s equality in ministry. I skimmed through some pages of one of his books on Spirit-led interpretation at the Wheaton bookfair, where he urged Christians not to shrink from the New Testament’s radical relativizing of gender. In a society where traits like gender, ethnicity, and family status defined your whole personhood, the early church dared to suggest that these traits were secondary in God’s eyes.

My heart sank, however, when I saw his footnote on homosexuality. Oddly, though recognizing that there are persons with same-sex orientation and that what he was about to say would be “hard on them”, Fee insisted on the standard line that this was not God’s intention for humanity and that Romans 1:26 is correct in deeming it a source of shame.

I have to say that this caused me physical pain. Our families’ lives are not a footnote. If gender is relative for God’s love, why is it absolute for human love? Why does an illusory category suddenly become reified beyond debate? Family is the primary means of spiritual formation in love, for the majority of people who are not called to celibacy. It’s where we learn to trust, to serve, to be honest, to forgive and be forgiven…or not. Once you acknowledge that same-sex orientation exists and that gender is relative, you can’t slam the lid back on the Spirit box and condemn 5-10% of the human race to a disembodied solitude that fails to reflect the nature of the Trinitarian, Incarnate God.

Now, I realize that I am becoming the kind of person whose first question is always “Is it good for the queers?” Is it true, as one of my evangelical friends feared, that I am subjecting the authority of God’s word to human political standards when it should be the other way around? I’ve prayed and wept and worried about this a great deal, and I really don’t believe that’s the case. If the author of a treatise on kindness kicks his dog, I don’t care how lovely his arguments are. I am committed to following God’s will, but I won’t take the self-styled interpreters of His will at face value. I want to know whether their hearts and eyes are open, whether they value human beings more than texts, whether they would rather love than be right. As the evidence of happy, healthy, God-fearing gay lives becomes undeniable, opponents are increasingly thrown back on text-worship versus openness to the possible promptings of the Spirit.

As I have now spent several times more ink on this issue than Gordon Fee did, I’ll move on to Friday’s lectures.

Dr. Chris Hall, the Dean of Eastern University in Pennsylvania and a member of the Anglican Church, spoke about the theological foundations of lectio divina, a monastic prayer practice of rereading and meditating on short passages from the Bible. In a charming marriage of old and new, Hall uses his iPod for lectio divina, replaying a few verses several times in a row, to make the words sink into his heart and subconscious mind. Interestingly, the practice developed in part from technological scarcity, as monks had few reference books and commentaries in the era before the printing press, and had to chew over difficult verses patiently on their own.

There is something about hearing the Bible that helps it soak in better than visual reading, which can keep us stuck in our analytical minds. Mere analysis can be a dangerous way to read, because we may try to control and limit the text’s ability to transform us. Lectio divina is a way of reading that is not just information-gathering. It is connecting with the real voices of the Biblical characters as they live, love, suffer, and worship.

Undergirding lectio divina is the Trinitarian belief that the Eternal Word continues to speak to us through the Spirit. As we embrace Christ in faith by listening deeply to his words and imitating his actions, we are increasingly changed into the image-bearers we were always meant to be. Lectio divina can heal a disordered imagination and fill it with new thought patterns, so that we experience Christ’s mind as our own. It will beckon us to imitate Christ instead of false teachers.

I would have liked to hear some details about how lectio divina practice with particular verses led Hall to new insights and behaviors that he wouldn’t have found through an analytical reading alone. His evident delight in reading the Bible this way left me wanting to explore this prayer discipline further. (Here’s a YouTube video from Fr. Jim Martin explaining two methods of lectio.) Praying The Daily Office has some of the same effect because certain passages are repeated daily or monthly, but it’s become clear that I need more than 25 minutes a day with God. To say the least…

Dr. Susan Phillips, the Executive Director of New College Berkeley, was the conference’s first female s
peaker. Phillips, a sociologist and spiritual director, gave us an introduction to modern-day spiritual direction and how it differs from secular counseling. Before beginning her lecture, she lit a candle. This small liturgical gesture was somehow very comforting to me, making me feel that we’d moved into a prayerful space and were not merely addressing God with our intellects.

A century ago, she said, the sociologist Max Weber observed that our formerly unified worldview had been split into rational cognition and mystical feeling, with the former being privileged in public life. According to Weber, in our secularized world, privatized religious experience is the result of a search for meaning when the public worldview of science and reason, including secular psychotherapy, doesn’t seem to address important dimensions of the person. But the quest has become lonely and individualized, without church, tradition or community.

The contemporary resurgence of interest in spiritual direction has occurred because people need guidance and companionship in their spiritual formation. There’s been a proliferation of privatized spiritualities that are stitched together from many traditions, with no system or community. Spiritual directors help people “navigate” their lives according to the time-tested “map” of church history and doctrine. The test for any text or spiritual discipline is whether it helps us better attend to the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, express God’s truth and love, and make us more integrated.

Phillips spoke eloquently of the “ministry of listening”. In modern culture, we have a lot of ways to communicate, but precious little space to be quiet with God or one another. Jesus was the great listener. For all of us, there is a special grace in regular, confidential, holy listening. Spiritual directors are particularly called to listen to how God is acting in another’s life, and then to keep redirecting that person’s attention to God’s presence. A spiritual director can remind a person about the ways God acted in his life, helping him hold fast to memories that sustain his faith. “Spiritual direction is one way of improving the acoustics in the temple of your soul.”

Spiritual direction, Phillips said, shares some methods with psychotherapy but differs in that its ruling paradigm is prayer and discernment, not treatment and cure. The church needs to rethink the modern practice of outsourcing character formation and soul care to secular professionals.

To read more about Phillips’ work and to purchase her book Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, visit her website.

Dr. Dallas Willard gave the chapel address on Friday, as well as the keynote speech that evening (to be blogged next time). I appreciated that his talk was heartfelt and used language that was accessible to the lay person, without in any way sacrificing spiritual depth.

Willard said that a spiritual life, in the Christian understanding, is a life lived from the direction, power and motivations of Jesus. What does that look like specifically? See Matt 6:33, where Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added to you. In other words, let your many concerns rest for awhile and pay attention to seeking God. Don’t even worry about finding, because God will find you if you seek Him. When you seek something, you look for it everywhere, and finding it is your first priority.

Why do we have to seek God–why isn’t His presence obvious? Seeking is important because our wants constitute who we are. We need to reorient our desires toward God. He leaves us free to decide what we want. That’s what determines the shape of our life. God could put an end to all deviations from His will simply by being fully present to everyone, but instead, as Jesus, He became incarnate as an inconspicuous person and only appeared to a few people after resurrection. God wants us to ask the spiritually formative question: what is my life really about? Do I want the kingdom of heaven, or do I just want a little help from God with my self-generated project?

When Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, he means “it is now available to you” as opposed to being a possession of a particular group. The good news of the Beatitudes is that the marginalized are equal in the kingdom.

(Unless you’re queer? That depends, I suppose, on whether queerness is an identity or a detachable sinful behavior. I think that’s an empirical question, like the age of the earth, and not a theological question, like whether Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore, my Scripture-based belief in the radical equality of all people compels me to defer to gays’ own self-understanding, because I don’t occupy a position of superiority to interpret their lives. Your average evangelical, on the other hand, might start and end with texts like Rom 1:26, just as his grandfather might have backed Genesis against Darwin.)

Okay, girlfriend…back to the main topic…humility!

Willard quoted Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” A spiritual life is the life of one who acknowledges God in all their ways and recognizes His presence in all that they do. People don’t find God because they’re trying to run their own lives. “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” Willard then cited 1 Peter 5:5-7: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another…Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” When you trust God, you will lead a life of sufficiency, but from the hand of God–being exalted when God chooses, not when you choose. God wants to exalt you but only when it’s really in your best interest.

To be humble, Willard said, just means that you’re realistic about yourself. That will bring you to see that you can’t manage your life without God. You put yourself in God’s hands. It’s not about self-mortification. “It’s the person who very simply just is who they are.”

The three rules of humility: Never pretend. Stop wasting so much energy putting up a facade to protect your ego. Never presume. Don’t expect special treatment, don’t assume you are up or down, just be where you are without comparison to others. Never push. Stand for what is right, stand for who you are, stand for God, but let Him take care of the outcome.

The question that keeps coming up for me is: How can you be true to who you are, in Christian honesty and humility, and not “lean on your own understanding”? I’d like a clearer picture of the difference between integrity and arrogance. (And I’m sure everyone who knew me as a teenager wished that I had known the difference, too.)

Still to come: lectures on centering prayer, the sanctity of life, and Christian art, plus feminist commentary on this blog series from Teresa Wymore at Flesh & Spirit.