Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 4

Finishing up my report on last week’s theology conference at Wheaton College, here are Friday’s highlights:

Dr. Jim Wilhoit, a professor in Wheaton’s Christian Formation and Ministry department, gave an introduction to centering prayer, a modern-day contemplative practice developed by Fr. Thomas Keating in the 1970s. Keating, a Yale-educated Cistercian monk, saw young people in the 1960s and 1970s turning to Eastern religions and cults because there was no lay contemplative practice available to them in the church. Along with fellow Cistercians Frs. William Menninger and Basil Pennington, he developed a prayer method that combined silent contemplation with a Christ-centered awareness.

The method of centering prayer, as Wilhoit described it, is basically just sitting quietly before God for 20 minutes twice a day. Keating intended it as a method of being present before God, not a substitute for more content-based prayers but rather something that enhances them. Lectio divina (attentive Scripture reading; see my previous post) should precede centering prayer so that you will be meditating on something Biblical. This emphasis on correct content distinguishes it from Buddhist meditation, which Wilhoit somewhat oversimplified as “emptying the mind”. (There are actually many styles of Buddhist meditation, including metta, the compassion meditation, and vipassana, awareness of thoughts and sensations; Wilhoit was perhaps overly anxious to create a straw man here.)

The intention of centering prayer is to consent to God’s presence. It’s about intention rather than attention, i.e. the goal is not to have a particular object of awareness, but to maintain a consistent intent to be with God. To do this, you need a plan for respecting your intention, so that wandering thoughts don’t snag you. Four steps: (1) Choose a sacred word as symbol of intention. (2) Sit quietly with eyes closed, contemplate sacred word. (3) When you become aware of thoughts, gently return to the sacred word. Don’t force yourself to empty your mind, just let the boats of thought drift past on the ocean of your awareness, without attachment. (4) Conclude practice by remaining in silence for a few moments and end with “Our Father” or similar prayer.

The sacred word is meant to renew our intention to release our attachment to the flow of our thoughts and rest in God’s presence. Every thought is an opportunity to return to God. Can you stay long enough on God’s lap to receive the love you need?

Centering prayer is not just a technique but a way of seeing that God is present everywhere, i.e. having the mind of Christ. Keating believed that the main practice of the spiritual life is to participate in the presence of God through Christ. Wilhoit described it as “a therapeutic intimacy with God”–we identify with Christ on the cross and are healed of our emotional wounds, as we experience the reality that perfect love casts out fear. God’s love provides the anesthetic so we don’t feel the operation; we rest in love and wake up healed.

Though he is a practitioner of centering prayer, Wilhoit seemed to feel some anxiety, which I gathered was not uncommon among evangelicals, about whether open-ended contemplative practices would lead people too far astray from Biblical content. Would Gordon Fee call this an example of Christians being afraid to let the Holy Spirit do its work? My own experience with vipassana meditation has convinced me that pure awareness practice is an enormously helpful supplement to a Christian prayer life. Let’s not rush to fill our minds with thoughts, even orthodox thoughts, to such an extent that we never stop to see what’s already in there. If we’re trying to “seek first the kingdom of God”, it helps to notice what we’ve been seeking instead.

Speaking of Gordon Fee, his daughter Dr. Cherith Nordling was the next speaker. Nordling, a visiting professor of theology at Wheaton, spoke about how church music shapes our theological education, for better or worse. Confusion can set in when we sing songs out of their original context. We sing about servant leadership while living lives of privilege. “God Bless America” sits uneasily alongside “For All the Saints.” African-American spirituals like “I’ll Fly Away” came out of oppression that was so severe that the singers couldn’t envision freedom this side of the grave. However, outside of that extreme situation, these songs can give us the Gnostic misconception that we should shun this world. (I liked this observation because I’m a fan of Southern gospel music, but it creeps me out how jaunty they sound about the Rapture.)

Nordling said we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make sure that our church music is balanced, conveying both immanence and transcendence, God’s own attributes as well as our experience of God. We need creedal hymns that talk about God to teach the congregation, but also hymns that speak to God, because that draws us closer to Him. As I reflect back on my favorite Episcopal hymns, I’m thinking that we have a lot more “about” songs (“The church’s one foundation”), or songs addressed to the congregation (“Come ye faithful, raise the strain”), and not too many direct addresses to God. Time for us to drop our stodgy manners!

Dr. David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer College and the president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, spoke about spiritual formation and the sanctity of life. This was by far my favorite presentation at the conference. From the title, I was expecting a pro-life talk, but Gushee’s vision was far broader. He was a principal drafter of evangelical declarations against torture and global warming. What he is trying to do is to develop something like the Catholics’ “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment” worldview among evangelicals. He has been frustrated that both liberal and conservative Christians only seem to get half the picture on the sanctity of human life. Liberals are good on issues like torture, war, capital punishment, and civil rights for minorities, while conservatives are good on abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics. Our society, he said, is deeply utilitarian and honors the sacredness of life only in fragmentary and politicized ways. Here’s Gushee’s own manifesto:

“The sanctity of life is the conviction that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, nationality, gender, character, behavior, physical ability or disability, potential, class, social status, etc., or any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as sacred, as persons of equal and immeasurable worth, and of inviolable dignity. Therefore they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevated moral status, beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection, and flourishing of their lives.”

In practice, Gushee said, this governs his opposition to abortion on demand, stem-cell research, the coarseness of our violent media and humiliating reality-TV, assisted suicide, inadequate health care, our routine resort to war and complacent acceptance of nuclear weapons as US foreign policy, lack of care for the environment, the death penalty, sex trafficking, the Christian “demonization of homosexuals”, and the frequent internal viciousness of Christian culture. (It’s only fair for me to mention, given the crabby gay activist tone of my Wheaton posts this year, that this positive comment was the only reference to the i
ssue by any of the speakers. Thank you, David.) Gushee is not an absolute pacifist, but he urged Christians to work harder to find creative alternatives to war.

Gushee was very clear and convincing about the Christian theological underpinnings of this position. The inward journey of spiritual formation, he said, must never be disconnected from the outward engagement with our suffering world. “Just me and Jesus” is a distortion that flows from privilege, or conversely from such personal misery that we need to withdraw. Sometimes the privileged invite the miserable to join them in escaping the world, but that’s not right.

God, the majestic, just, holy and loving God, created and redeems the universe. The human being is infinitely sacred in God’s sight. (During the Q&A, Gushee extended this imperative to non-human creatures and the environment, though not in a way that made them equivalent to humans.) Jesus connected these two ideas with his great commandment to love God and neighbor. Everything hangs on the quality of both of these loves. Social justice is a subset of the sanctity of life. Christian spiritual formation must be about never sacrificing any group of neighbors for any reason!

Only God is strong enough to ground the sanctity of human life. Romans 12:1: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Only a totally committed Christian spirituality will give us the strength and single-mindedness to resist normal violent ways of doing things. Gushee didn’t think secular human rights movements could take us all the way there, because they have the Christian values but can’t articulate a non-utilitarian basis for them. The sanctity of life is grounded in our faith that God created us in His image, made us for eternal life, and commands in His eternal law that we treat each other with reverence, not least because Jesus took on human form and died for us.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection for grounding the sanctity of life. The paradox is that when divinity stooped to us, humanity revealed its vicious lowliness, and yet was elevated forever by God’s love. It is unearned and inalienable. If God became human, no human being can be treated as worthless–not only Christians but everyone, everywhere, equally. Because the arc of Jesus’ life included every stage of human existence, we include the unborn all the way to old age and death. Matthew 25 links Incarnation to the sanctity of life. God came not just to dwell in one man but in all of us. Mother Teresa saw Christ’s face in everyone. Karl Barth, after World War II, said that every man is Christ’s brother.

Jesus came in a human body that experienced suffering and death, and was resurrected in a glorified body. The real mystery of Easter, according to Barth, is not that God is exalted by that humanity is exalted. Because Christians believe that God is spirit, we have struggled not to denigrate the body. But God cares what happens to the bodies of our friends and enemies, and so must we. Think of what the cross implies for the sanctity of life. How can we grieve over Christ’s suffering yet permit our enemies to be tortured and humiliated? Commitment to the majestic worth of the human person is based on awareness of the majesty of the God we love. It’s an aesthetic issue–how do we see each other? As the song says in “Les Miz”, “to love another person is to see the face of God”. To hate, or demean, or ignore another’s suffering is to spit on the face of God.

I really, truly loved Gushee’s talk and will be buying his book on this subject when it comes out. He articulated the ethical implications of the Trinity in an outstanding way. I wish more people understood the connection between human rights and the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Maybe then the creed wouldn’t seem like such an abstract and scary litmus test for some of my liberal Christian friends.

Dr. He Qi, the leading Chinese Christian artist, gave a presentation about his work, which was on display in the college’s Billy Graham Center museum. His paintings aren’t the style I usually go for, but I appreciated the joy and peace in his compositions and his wonderfully bright colors. His humble and sweet personal manner suited the “peaceful message” he hoped to convey in his work. He said he was trying to change the image of Christianity as a foreign thing in China by blending Eastern and Western techniques and cultural references in his art. He Qi told how he’d ruffled some feathers in China with an article criticizing Chinese Christians for building Neo-Gothic cathedrals instead of using indigenous and contemporary architectural styles. Once, he said, a Chinese pastor asked him to paint a copy of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and he refused. Da Vinci’s characters, he said, were the indigenous art of his time and place, Renaissance Italy. European styles are not the only way to express universal Christian ideas.

Dr. Dallas Willard brought our exhausting and enriching day to a close with his keynote speech on “Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation”. His basic point was that churches tend to emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification. True, we are cleansed from sin, instantly and completely, when we accept Christ, but the process of actually being transformed into a disciple requires lifelong effort. “Getting saved” doesn’t produce transformation all by itself.

Spiritual formation in Christ is not primarily behavior modification, though a change in behavior results. Nor is it acculturation into a particular tradition. That would be legalism all over again. It’s the process of reshaping the inner life until one has the peace, joy, mind and heart of Jesus. It is formation of the human spirit, by means of the Holy Spirit. Obedience is not the end goal (legalism again) but the outcome of knowing and loving God, which turns you into the kind of person who routinely obeys God’s will.

Salvation is by grace through faith. That is often misunderstood to mean that nothing we do (even, perhaps, the act of belief!) has any impact. Grace is unmerited. It is always “cheap” for the person who receives it, but you can’t solve the problem by making grace expensive, only by making it active. Grace is not incompatible with effort, only with earning.

Willard went through some Bible passages about the “new life” in Christ and showed how they were about more than going to heaven when we die. They’re about becoming a different kind of person in this world, too. In fact, if you’re not living differently, living more lovingly, you don’t have Christ in you. In John’s epistles, for instance, he constantly says that he who loves his brother abides in life, and he who is without love abides in death.

Confidence in Jesus as the real Lord of the universe is the first step in growing into this new life. It is this, and not a heavenly credit transfer, that constitutes a personal relationship with Jesus. But it requires more than assent to doctrine; we must actually live as if God were in charge and working for our good.


And now for something a little bit different…I had to turn comments off this winter, because this blog was being taken over by homophobic attacks, but I do miss the dialogue with my regular readers, so I’ll occasionally excerpt their emails to me in a blog post. Teresa Wymore at Flesh & Spirit had these insightful remarks about my Wheaton posts and the struggle for feminists to find a home in the church:

How jealous I am of your attendance at the Wheaton Conference! From your blog, it sounds like it was a lot of food for thought if not food for the soul, although maybe some of that, too. Your summary reminded me that we live in a time when Christians, perhaps more than any sect, live with a profound lack of faith–not to mention idolatry. The Bible is about the last place I would go to meet God, written and shaped as it was by patriarchal agendas in a classist, racist, misogynistic world. Unfortunately, it’s the only indirect experience of God to add to our own experience….

My 6-year-old daughter argued with me the other day because I called God “Her”. I said God is a mother. She said he is a father and a boy. I asked her how she knew. She couldn’t really tell me. No one had ever explicitly said that to her. She’s in Catholic religious education which is all about God’s love and how special she and every child is. They make paper mache butterflies, grow plants, and draw rainbows. Good stuff, right? But the insidious use of exclusive pronouns and codified prayers has taken its toll already.

People ask me how I can be Catholic, and honestly, it’s hard. But Cunningham is right. There is a full house of things to pick from, something the Church has tried to get hold of with terms like “cafeteria catholic”. But dissent to the current authority is as much a part of the tradition as anything else. I cling to that!

As you quoted in a post from last year, the Church displays a lack of “openness to the complexity of creation.” The myopia that says everyone else is creating their own worlds (not humbling themselves to God’s plan), while the Church is not, is scandalous — in the very essence of that word. Many Christians are being driven away and those who continue to cling are being driving to ever greater hypocrisies. It’s all so Girardian….

The gender issue is a big one for me as well as the gay issue. They are essentially the same.

I’ve always thought the Christian emphasis on forgiveness, unconditional love, and primacy of relationship made it natural to express god as mother, but the patriarchy dichotomizes gender to begin with — relegating the practical burdens of providing nurture to women and then co-ops the glamour parts to a masculine god.

Read more of Teresa’s incisive writing about spirituality and sexuality here.