Category Archives: Christian Spirituality

Spirituality and Spiritual Formation | Defining Terms

The DITB project is an exercise both about and of spiritual formation. It is necessary, therefore, to clearly define this term. What is spiritual formation, and more precisely, how do I use this term in the context of this research? In order to answer that question, I must briefly address the relationship between the terms spiritual formation and spirituality. Many people today are more comfortable with the term spirituality, because it has broader application than Christianity or any form of organized religion. I prefer the term spiritual formation because it implies movement and change. This is, admittedly, a personal preference and I will use the terms interchangeably throughout this paper.[1]

Schneiders makes a distinction between the definition of spirituality and the definition of Christian spirituality. Spirituality, she says, is “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”[2] Christian spirituality “as an academic discipline is an attempt to realize, by bringing serious and personally transforming study to bear on the ultimate human value of union with God, what is arguably the most cited text in the Christian canon, Jesus’ promise, ‘if you remain in my word you will become my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (Jn. 8:31-33).”[3] She states that “the primary aim of the discipline of spirituality…is to understand the phenomena of the Christian spiritual life as experience…it is a function of interpretation (hermeneutics).”[4]

Schneiders’ perspective on spirituality gives further justification for the use of participatory action research and constructivist methodologies. The act of the research itself was a form of spiritual formation as the RT interacted with the social Trinity, each other, and the neighbor.

Another important aspect of spirituality that frames this research is the idea that spirituality is inherently a public practice, not only a private one. Philip Sheldrake is a key voice in this perspective.[5] He says

the mystical-contemplative dimension of spirituality—often described in terms of interiority—is a vital ingredient in our engagement with transformative practice in the outer, public world. Unfortunately, however, Western culture remains deeply polarized. The private sphere (inwardness, family, and close friends) is privileged as the backstage where the individual is truly him/herself, relaxing unobserved before putting on various personae which the self needs in order to play out different roles on the stage of social life. But, from a Christian point of view, is living in public a matter of a role that it is possible to shed or opt not to play…. Human existence and Christian discipleship inherently embody a common task. “The public” is thus better thought of as a dimension of identity, an aspect of the individual self.[6]

Schneiders’ and Sheldrakes’ definition create an important focus for the issues to which we must attend in this research project. Schneiders, in an attempt to create the broadest definition of spirituality possible, indicates that spirituality is:[7]

  1. Conscious involvement: Let us call this intentionality. Spirituality requires doing something. The individual has some agency.
  2. Life-integration through self-transcendence: Let us call this the means. There is a process in which (1) all of life takes on integrated meaning—it has purpose, and (2) the means to get there is to get beyond one’s self.
  3. Toward the ultimate value one perceives: Let us call this vision. Spirituality requires a goal—a telos—that compels the individual to take action and move toward self-transcendence.[8]

These categories are like empty boxes allowing each individual, operating from his or her own lifeworld, to fill in the blanks. What unifies all spiritualities is that they have these boxes, but what distinguishes them is what they place inside the boxes.

This system correlates with Dallas Willard’s proposal of VIM—Vision, Intention, Means.[9] I mention Dallas Willard in this context for the following reasons. First, it is my observation that there are two camps in the Spiritual Formation/Spirituality conversation in the academy today. The line seems to be drawn along similar contours of the classic fault line between Ecumenical Christians and Evangelical Christians that has characterized Western theology in the twentieth century.[10] Schneiders and Sheldrake represent the former and Willard and Foster[11] represent the latter. Second, Dallas Willard was a significant part of my spiritual formation.[12] Third, I believe an important move for the future of the missional church is for these two camps to begin cross-pollinating with more frequency.[13] Fourth, I believe that one of the primary reasons for this division is the ongoing debate between transcendence and immanence.[14]

The fourth point mentioned above is worth parsing out further. It gets at the heart of what I am trying to discern through this research project. It is my assumption that the model of the Trinity an individual operates within—either the Transcendent Immanent Trinity or the Immanent Economic Trinity—is related to how she “fills in the blanks” of Schneiders’ boxes.

Allow me to draw a caricature of each lifeworld in order to demonstrate the differences. On the one hand, the typical evangelical Christian functions within the lifeworld of dualistic, substance ontology—the Transcendent Immanent Trinity. This informs the Vision, Intention, and Means accordingly. The vision is to escape the physical world so that the individual might be united with God in Heaven. The intention rests solely on personal agency, fueled by radical individualism. The means, and definition of self-transcendence, is to (a) pray to accept Jesus as Savior (this is dying to self), and (b) work diligently to practice spiritual disciplines to promote personal holiness (read as separateness from the fallen world) and to be empowered to share the Gospel with others so that they might also escape the physical world. Self-Transcendence, then, is the ultimate, substantive transcendence to be with God in Heaven when you die, or when Jesus returns, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, the typical ecumenical Christian functions within the immanence lifeworld, in which there is only one substance—the physical universe—of which God is indistinguishable—the Immanent Economic Trinity. The vision is to either (a) bring about peace on earth through the eradication of war, poverty, hunger, and disease, or, (b) to find inner peace, tranquility, and to find resonance with the energy of the universe (God). The intention is pure individual agency. The means is through either (a) community participation—understanding that community is the voluntary association of individuals—getting everyone involved to work together toward the common good, or (b) spiritual practices like meditation and yoga that are intended to bring the physical body into alignment with the universe (God). The self-transcendence of the former is to put the good of the many over the good of the self. The self-transcendence of the latter is to release the illusion of the false-self—Ego—and connect to the true self that is one with the universe (God).[15]

These two Christian Spiritualities are radically different and form a seemingly irreconcilable duality. Ironically, they exist as two sides of the same modern dogma. They exist because of the dualisms prevalent in modernity—the Platonic dualism that divides God from creation, the Cartesian dualism that divides observer from object and spawns rationalism, and the Kantian dualism that divides perceiver from object, and spawns subjectivism. It is my proposal that a postfoundational theology—which is formed within the social Trinity—provides a third way that can reconcile these divergent Christian Spiritualities and invite the body of Christ to imagine new rhythms of spiritual formation that reform the church in a missional imagination to be prophetic public companions witnessing to the hope of God’s preferred and promised future. It is my further proposition that both Schneiders/Sheldrake—on the ecumenical side—and Willard—on the Evangelical side—are already making those moves through a phenomenological understanding of knowledge and communicative action.[16]

Footnotes

[1] I agree with Wuthnow that the spirituality needed today is beyond the sedimentary spirituality of dwelling common in the 1950s, and more grounded than the spirituality of seeking common in the 1960s-90s. Wuthnow proposes a practiced spirituality, akin to the Exercises of Ignatius Loyola or the Rules of Benedict. Some, in the Lutheran tradition, have resisted the term spiritual formation because it denotes a theology of glory or a works-based righteousness. I disagree. Yes, God has given us the gift of salvation and for this there is nothing we can do. However, God has also called us into relationship with God and others. All relationships require work. We are God’s children and our relationship with God is one of ongoing development, not for earning love or grace, but for growing within the gift of grace as we relate to the others around us. See Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[2] Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” 6.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Schneiders, “A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” 57.

[5] Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality; Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice; Philip Sheldrake, “Practicing Catholic “Place”: The Eucharist,” Horizons 28, no. 2 (2001); Sheldrake, “Spirituality and Social Change: Rebuilding the Human City; Sheldrake, “Imaginative Theology: A Strategy of Subversion; Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God; Sheldrake, “Spirituality and the Integrity of Theology; Philip Sheldrake, “The Study of Spirituality,” Theological Trends.

[6] Philip Sheldrake, “Christian Spirituality as a Way of Living Publicly: A Dialectic of the Mystical and Prophetic,” in Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 289.

[7] Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” 6.

[8] Schwartz provides an excellent discussion of telos as it relates to practical wisdom—which I associate with spirituality. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom the Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Simon & Schuster Audio,), sound recording

[9] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 85-91.

[10] We can also label this the classic theologically liberal vs. conservative schism.

[11] See Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline : The Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998); Richard J. Foster, “Spiritual Formation Agenda: Richard Foster Shares His Three Priorities for the Next 30 Years,” Christianity Today 53, no. 1 (2009); Richard J. Foster and Julia L. Roller, A Year with God: Living out the Spiritual Disciplines, 1st ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009).

[12] See appendix A.

[13] There is hopeful evidence of this happening in the membership of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality which is a sub-set of the American Academy of Religion.

[14] I will discuss this in the next chapter.

[15] The topic of self-transcendence is much more nuanced than the polarities that I am presenting in this argument, of course. I have engaged in the discussion of this apparent dichotomy to (a) further explore the dichotomies of my own lived experience between the ecumenical and evangelical perspectives, and (b) further demonstrate how the social Trinity provides an alternative “third way” that brings both extremes into constructive dialogue. For more on self-transcendence, see Conn, Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender.

[16] I am deeply indebted to Gary Black for helping me draw these lines of connection between Willard and phenomenology. Gary Black, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

Deep in the Burbs Workshop for Mid-Winter Convocation at Luther Seminary

Please pray for me tomorrow and Thursday. I will present a workshop at the Mid-Winter Convocation at Luther Seminary both days. This workshop is based on the Deep in the Burbs Project I did last year for the dissertation. This will be my first workshop in this new arena. butterflies…

Here is the Prezi.

Abide in Me | Plugged In

John-15-remain-in-the-vine

Here is an updated illustration of John 15:1-5. I’m trying to connect Jesus’ metaphor of the Vine to a contemporary metaphor of electricity. In John 15, the Creator is the Vinegrower, Jesus is the Vine, the Spirit is the power of life flowing from every direction, we are the branches, and the fruit is the result of the branch remaining in the vine.

In the contemporary metaphor, the Creator is the generator, Jesus is the power grid, the Spirit is the electricity, we are the power strip, and anything that uses electricity is the result of staying plugged in to the grid.

What Did We Learn About Spiritual Formation?

It is time to attempt a simple synthesis of what the research revealed in direct relation to the research question itself. The data seem to indicate that an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT members in two primary ways.

A Directional Shift

Vertical-Personal Spirituality

First, it provided new language and attentiveness to the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. Each team member entered the project with some awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The team members most able to express the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, at the beginning of the project, did so in such a way that the Spirit was the presence of God that helped guide the individual in either (a) personal devotion and relationship with God, or (b) the process of making life decisions. The ideation of the Holy Spirit, prior to the DITB project, seemed to reflect one of an internal and personal relationship with God. Let’s call this a vertical-personal spirituality in which God is perceived as being up there and the Holy Spirit is in here, within the individual. The role of the Holy Spirit, they reported, is to help the individual look up to God and grow spiritually in an internal manner. This vertical-personal relationship does not negate the horizontal, social relationships that individuals have with others. In fact, many team members indicated that small group involvement and corporate worship were important parts of their spiritual practices prior to the DITB project. However, the important dimension of the vertical-personal spirituality is that the horizontal relationships with others are not necessary to spiritual formation. In other words, it is possible, in the vertical-personal spirituality, to have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit apart from social interaction with other people. This, I would argue, reflects the typical, modern, Western individualism that is especially expressed in the suburban context.

vertical-personal spirituality

 

Figure 6. Vertical-Personal Spirituality

Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

The DITB project provided the RT with new language and a new awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit and, in my interpretation, helped them shift from a vertical-personal spirituality to a horizontal-communal spirituality. The horizontal-communal spirituality does not diminish the vertical-personal relationship of the individual with God, but expands the horizon of that relationship to become multi-dimensional. The RT team members expressed their increased awareness of how important, and even essential, relationships are to spirituality. The RT related that, when they began to use the language of relationality and entanglement to discuss the essence of God, and the possibility that it is the relationships of the three persons of the Triune God that creates and sustains life, it helped them to imagine how the Holy Spirit could be actively at work in the world apart from their own individual lives and even apart from the church. God’s presence was expressed in terms like air, wind, fire, and energy swirling around, in, and through us. The horizontal relationships that each of us, as individuals, has with everything and everyone around us is not only reflective of, but also essential to the essence of God. This kind of language was new, exciting, somewhat confusing, but also liberating to the majority of the RT.

Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

Figure 7. Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

A Wholistic Umbrella

The second way that the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT team is that it helped the team realize that all activity in life can be included under the wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation. This second point greatly overlaps with the first point. The shift from vertical-personal spirituality to horizontal-communal spirituality opened up the RT’s awareness that being attentive to the neighbor and to the environment is as much a part of spiritual formation as the classic disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and meditation. This is a subtle, but important shift for similar reasons to those stated in the first point. The vertical-personal spirituality views the horizontal relationships as secondary and/or derivative to the primary relationship of the individual and God. In other words, the individual disciple must first cultivate the personal relationship with God and then the fruit of the spirit will overflow into the horizontal relationships with others. The shift to the horizontal-communal spirituality places the horizontal relationships on an equal level with the vertical-personal relationship and disrupts the linear progression of God-individual-other. The horizontal-communal spirituality recognizes that it is only through loving in the horizontal relationships—family, neighbor, enemy, environment, etc.—that we can actually love God in the vertical relationship.

We must pause and acknowledge the limitation of the terms vertical and horizontal. These terms may be helpful in one way to describe the difference between God and creation, but it is equally problematic because it creates a false dichotomy between the two. The language of social/relational/entangled Trinity helped give the RT language to understand how the love of neighbor is both different from loving God and the same as loving God. We love God by loving the other, and we can only love the other when we are connected to the love of God. This is not a linear, top-down flow of God’s love and power, but is a multi-directional, capillary, perichoretic flow of God’s love and God’s power in the world.

The evidence for the shift to a more wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation is found in the nature of the action projects that the RT chose to pursue. One would think that, if a group was heavily dominated by vertical-personal spirituality, it would have created projects that emphasized the more classic internal spiritual disciplines. Further, one would think that if the RT engaged in the social Trinity purely as an abstract idea—as an object of study—that they would have created projects that would have engaged others in the pursuit of studying the object of the social Trinity. The opposite was true. The majority of the action projects involved the RT engaging in relationship with other people for the purpose of creating community and/or providing service. Granted, some of the projects were a form of personal journaling. However, the content of the journal reflections revolved around the idea that God is actively involved in every aspect of life, not just those activities that have been traditionally considered sacred or spiritual.