Spiritual Formation In The Academy: A Unifying Model
Gordon T. Smith, Canadian Bible College and Theological Seminary
We need a model of character formation within the Christian college or seminary that shows how formal study and programs of spiritual formation are complementary. The author contends that both are necessary if we are to enable men and women to grow in wisdom, character and maturity--both the disciplined study of truth in the classroom and the library, as well as spiritual formation, including corporate worship and retreats. Wisdom is presented as the goal of character formation. And wisdom is best achieved where there is a complementary relationship between formal education and spiritual formation. The author further emphasizes the transforming power of truth and the significance of a faculty who themselves are people of character, wisdom and maturity.
I remember the speaker, the setting, the tone in the air and my feelings as I listened to the presentation. The message that day was a call for character development in the men and women who attend theological schools. The speaker affirmed that we must develop character. But more, he insisted we had a choice to make: would we emphasize content or character?
Would we focus on education and academic excellence or would we commit ourselves to the formation of character? It was a sobering moment for me. It amazed me that formal education and spiritual formation were being placed in an adversarial position. I was also deeply disappointed. The message that day was simple: the classroom emphasized truth, as something comprising content, and this was not something that would be necessarily helpful in the formation of Christian character.
Yet in retrospect, I suspect that this does in some respects represent a common or popular notion. People tend to think that the academy is less than helpful in the formation of Christian character. And it is a popular perspective that often subtly influences the thought and behaviour of educators.
There has been a growing recognition of the need for character formation within and as part of one's formal education. And theological schools have responded. Programs have been developed to encourage the development of character and spiritual maturity.
This has been an appropriate response. But often it has been based on a false premise or assumption: that the academic process itself--formal education with all of its programs, assignments, classes and examinations--is not of itself part of the formation of character. Further, many are suspicious about these programs and activities, and view them as a threat for the limited time available for study. The two are pitted against each other. And polarities develop--with some urging that we give ourselves to character formation and others who are disgruntled because these co-curricular activities seem to be less than substantial contributions to the mission and purpose of the school. These are interruptions, they think.
We urgently need a model for an understanding of the place and role of spiritual development within the academy. How does it happen? What is the role of formal education in this process? How can the curriculum (broadly conceived) include spiritual formation in a way that complements the classroom?
First, some fundamental assumptions I bring to this discussion
The goal of theological education is to enable students to know God so they can help others to know and respond to the grace of God. In defining the objective of the college/seminary, we need a defining principle, a point of integration between the classroom itself and the co-curricular activities. If we do not have a clear sense of our objective, then we will inevitably see the different components of the academy as competing against one another.
Wisdom could serve us well as a unifying principle. The objective of
the academy, then, would be to enable men and women to become wise. Wisdom
is a helpful point of reference because it incorporates the development
of knowledge and understanding as well as the formation of character. Wise
people are mature in both their understanding and their behaviour. Further
wisdom assumes the integration and appropriation of truth--we both understand
and live the truth.
But we need to be more specific. Character formation will be a many-sided commitment; we are seeking to form whole people. But there are three critical dimensions of character formation that we cannot neglect in the pursuit of wisdom.
The first is vocational development. Few things are so central as a growing clarity about one's vocation--one's strengths, passions, potential and opportunities--in response to the enabling of God. Life-long effective service for Christ, whatever one's vocation, is dependent on clarity regarding one's vocation. And this arises out of a maturing self-knowledge.
The second is emotional development and growth. Nothing is so critical to long-term vocational effectivity as clarity, depth and balance in our emotions. Many careers are sabotaged because of unresolved emotional baggage that come to the surface in mid-life or mid-career. In this, it is essential that one learn learn how to deal with disappointment and failure. Further when we long for our graduates to develop interpersonal skills we are in many respects expressing a longing for mature emotional development.
Third, we surely need to give special attention to the matter of gender, sexuality and marriage. Few things are so essential in spiritual formation as a clear understanding concerning gender and sexuality and the development of the essential disciplines that enable one to live in truth and freedom as male or female.
Therefore, the college/seminary provides a major and invaluable contribution to a student when they provide a setting or context in which to reflect on vocation, work through one's emotional response to God, to others and to the world, and come to terms with critical aspects of sexuality and gender.
This identification of three critical areas of spiritual development is not comprehensive. But it can give a school focus. Sometimes we do little or nothing because we are attempting to do everything. Further, affirmation and development in these three areas would provide the solid foundation for the growth of the whole person.
The only way in which this agenda of formation in wisdom can happen is if there is a complementary relationship between the classroom and its formal agenda and the program of spiritual formation that complements the classroom. Growth in wisdom, and in each dimension of character formation, comes through the development of knowledge and understandingin the classroom and the library. But it also comes through the integration that one experiences in prayer, worship, spiritual direction, personal accountability and service. It is not a matter of the one or the other. It is not a matter of character development in our spiritual formation programs and the development of the mind in the classroom. We must reject this kind of dichotomy. The objective is a complementary, intentional partnership, between the two.
As a passing note, I wonder if we do not need to be more explicit with our students about our agenda in character formation. Do our students have a clear sense of what our objectives are beyond just completing the courses for a degree program? Do they know what we mean by maturity? Perhaps we need to have this outlined clearly for our incoming students, reviewed (at least annually) and evaluated at the end of their program. We probably need to do this if we are going to be intentional and proactive and not just passive when it comes to character development.
There is an extensive body of literature delineating ways in which a school could achieve the objective of character formation. Some schools have chosen to require a course in spirituality--so that there is a theological and theoretical basis for the practice of the Christian life. Other schools choose to grant formal, academic credit for spiritual formation. The rationale is that students will take seriously only that for which the school grants credit. Other schools insist on community experience, insisting that we grow in wisdom as active members of a community, as we learn and grow together, in small groups, for example.
These are each noteworthy and commendable responses to the concern for spiritual formation. But I wish to emphasize two factors that are the most definitive and crucial means to realize character formation in an academic institution.
First, character formation is ultimately the fruit of the truth. It is truth that transforms; it is by the truth that minds are renewed and it is by the truth that we know wisdom. Central in this is the role of Scripture. I have a growing disease with the development of all kinds of approaches to spiritual formation--small groups, psychological tests and counselling methods, instruction in the spiritual disciplines, and so on--when we view these as achieving an end that can only be accomplished by the Word. These are valuable and essential in a program of spiritual formation. But they are only valuable to the degree that they are informed by truth--a conscious and deliberate effort to know, understand and obey the truth.
The question really becomes: Do we believe in the transforming power of Scripture? Do we really believe that the Spirit changes lives through the medium of the truth? We urgently need a coherent vision for theological education that grants Scripture a central and defining place. When this occurs, the Scriptures are studied, the Scriptures inform studies, but more, the Scriptures are also central to the worship and devotion of the community.
Do we believe this? We don't when we fail to see that a classroom lecture and discussion on the Sermon on the Mount may be the most significant factor in the development of mature and wise interpersonal skills. When people note that individuals lack character or maturity, we tend to look to the course or technique. While the course or technique may help, it is ultimately the Scriptures that Spirit uses to accomplish the end of spiritual maturity and wisdom.
Further, we don't really believe in the transforming power of Scripture when the worship of the academy--chapel gatherings--is a time of song and celebration but not an event in which to preach the Word. I am not suggesting that every chapel event should include a sermon. But it does mean that the preaching of the Scriptures is central in some form to the chapel events of the community. The reason: because of the transforming power of Scripture.
Can truth, as embodied in the Scriptures, become the central defining principle of our schools? If so, the truth itself will bring the integration between education and spirituality for which we long.
Finally, in speaking of the objective of character formation, I must stress a second element. The second definitive element in the formation of the student is the faculty member him/herself--not the curriculum, not the academic program, not the co-curricular activities, and not even the chapel services. It is the faculty members who embody the ideals of the academy.
In faculty recruitment, we must evaluate and expect professional and instructional competence. But with similar rigor, we must also look for characterdepth of piety, mature emotional well-being and a vital commitment to Christ and his kingdom. We can evaluate professional credentials; but it is much more difficult to determine whether an individual has the emotional, spiritual and relational integrity essential to be an adequate model within the college/seminary.
One good focus in recruitment is to decide whether the candidate shows evidence of gratitude and humility on the one hand, and resolved grievances on the other. Does the candidate have a pattern of resolving wrongs and forgiving? Further, does the candidate display an ability to seek and experience the means of grace to respond to the stress points of life? Finally, confirm one way or the other when a candidate has a sense of humour!
The point is that if we are going to speak of the integration of faith and learning, of intellectual and spiritual development, it must be modeled in our faculty.
Theological education is an essential part of spiritual formation; spiritual formation is an essential part of theological education. They are each most effective when they complement one another in a way that is mutually reinforcing. Further, they are effective when our objective is clear--the pursuit of wisdom--and when our means our clear--through truth and through the example of our faculty.