How Dallas Willard’s VIM connects with Schneiders’ Definition of Spirituality

I wrote the following passage today while working on the Spiritual Formation Frame of my dissertation. It kind of wrote itself as I was working. What I mean is that I had no intention of including Willard in this section. Then, when I looked more closely at Schneiders’ definition of spirituality, the following ideas just jumped out at me. I love those moments. I’m putting it up here to see if anyone who reads it thinks it makes any sense.

Defining Terms

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.”[1] 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).’”[2] 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).”[3]

Schneiders’ perspective on spirituality gives further justification for the use of action research and constructivist methodologies. The act of the research itself will be a form of spiritual formation as the researchers (meaning the congregation members) interact 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.[4] 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.[5]

Vision, Intention, Means

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:

  1. Conscious involvement: Let’s call this intentionality. Spirituality requires doing something. The individual has some agency.
  2. Life-integration through self-transcendence: Let’s 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’s call this vision. Spirituality requires a goal—a telos—that compels the individual to take action and move toward self-transcendence.[6]

These categories are like empty boxes allowing each individual, operating from 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.[7]  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. Schneiders and Sheldrake represent the former and Willard and Foster[8] represent the latter. Second, Dallas Willard was a significant part of my spiritual formation, as I mentioned in the introduction. 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.[9] Fourth, I believe that one of the primary reasons for this division is the ongoing debate between transcendence and immanence that I noted in the Trinity Frame.[10]

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.

Caricatures of Christian Spirituality

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 to 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 empower to share the Gospel with others so that they might also escape the physical world. Self-Transcendence, then, is the ultimate 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, (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).

A Third Way

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 post foundational theology—which is formed within the social/relational/entangled 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.[11]

Footnotes

[1] Schneiders in Dreyer and Burrows, 6.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] 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.

[5] Dreyer and Burrows, 289.

[6] 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.

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

[8] 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). see also http://www.renovare.org/ (accessed August 1, 2014)

[9] There is evidence of this in the membership of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS) which is a sub-set of the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

[10] see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[11] 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).