I have been asked to plan a course for next year that explores different maps for spiritual formation. I went to bed last night with the terrain in my head, wondering what are the essential questions that must be addressed. Phyllis Tickle came to mind – in her book The Great Emergence she lists the three big questions that are up for grabs every 500 years or so when our culture makes a major shift. They relate to anthropology, epistemology, and religious pluralism.
Anthropology must be the starting point for any model of spiritual formation. We have to answer the big question, “What does it mean to be human?” More specifically, what does it mean to be made in God’s image? And what does a fully alive person look like? This gets at the telos question — the fully mature person. But as part of this question, we also have to explore what is broken in us.
Jamie Smith has cued us to another piece — we are liturgical beings. To be human is to love. What is the role of desire in growth in Christ, and what distortions of desire will aim to distract us? Jamie works out of Augustine to explore this question, and it was Augustine who also richly framed the Trinitarian piece. That cues us to another aspect of personhood – how does the individual relate to the community in spiritual maturity? And how do will, emotion, cognition and the sensing person interact in spiritual life?
Epistemology frames the question of knowledge. How do we know what we know? And specifically, what does it mean to know Christ? Exploring this question will also lay bare some of our cultural assumptions around knowledge, and thus also cue us to the shifting tides in our cultural context. Anselm said, “Credo ut intelligam.” But Bernard of Clairvaux had a different frame, “Credo ut experiar.” I know in order to experience. Eugene Peterson reminds us that John was asked to “eat this book.” That’s a different conversation in spiritual theology than one of mere cognition.
While knowledge seems like a positive category, we have also learned that uncertainty is important in growth in grace. Related, paradox and “opening space” have a role in change. How do we address these elements in spiritual formation? The spiritually mature often attest that what once appeared as a black and white world in later years seems much more mysterious.
Finally, pedagogy. Christian leaders facilitate the growth of others. What are the key methods? How do we help others to grow as disciples of Jesus? How do we engage a variety of learning styles? Here again we relate different elements that seem to address different parts of the human situation. Formal teaching, learning by example and by practice, even learning through confusion and paradox as with zen practices. We are back to anthropology here, more than merely learning styles. Can one grow through practices like singing and dance, or are these merely celebratory practices?