Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Foundation of a Seminary Education Is Transformation of the Heart

(Munson Park, across from my house)

In 1977, upon graduating from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, my theology professor, Dr. Tom Finger, asked me: “What course do you think the Theology Department needs to add?” Immediately I responded, “A course on prayer.” Tom said, “I agree. I want you to teach it.” “But I need to develop a prayer life, and am in no position to teach on it,” I said. The end result was that, in the fall of 1978, I taught a course on prayer at NBTS, and was told that it was the most heavily attended class that semester.

I wanted a course on prayer because, as wonderful as my seminary education was, it had not taught me how to drink from the living waters of the well of God. Mine was a very left-brained experience, and at the time this did not disappoint me. My bachelor’s degree was in philosophy, and I loved the mind-expanding abstractions of logic and the analysis of ideas. While these things are good, my seminary education mostly reinforced my love of pure academic studies but, for the most part, did not expand my heart. The result was that I gained even more head knowledge without being developed in the experiential realities of the God-relationship.

As I prepared to teach that first class on prayer, I researched other seminary curricula and found that Protestant seminaries offered no such courses. Roman Catholic seminaries, on the other hand, had a long history of spirit-cultivation of their students. I eventually read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and Foster showed me that the foundation of all authentic and relevant ministry is the ongoing spiritual and renewal that happens when individuals and communities regularly abide in the presence of God.

How did Protestant seminaries lost touch with spiritual formation? Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech, in Soul Friend: The Practice of Christian Spirituality, attributes the loss of experiential spirituality in the Protestant seminary to the growth of the pastoral counseling movement that began in the first half of the twentieth century and gained special prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. While there are similarities between pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, the differences are significant. Leech lists three of them.

First, Leech says that “the pastoral counselor’s concern has tended to be with states of emotional distress.” (96) The emphasis is on problems and problem solving. “The ministry of spiritual direction [on the other hand] is more important when there are no spiritual crises. It is a continuous ministry and involves the healthy as well as the sick.” (Ib.)

Secondly, “the counseling movement has been clinic-based or office-based rather than church-based or community-based… Spiritual direction, on the other hand, is firmly located within the liturgical sacramental framework, within the Body of Christ.” (97)

Thirdly, the pastoral counseling movement has tended to focus excessively on the problems of individuals, a fault which it has shared with social work and with the church at various stages of its history. In 1959 Barbara Wootton warned of the reluctance to examine the imperfections of our institutions as thoroughly as we examine the faults or misfortunes of individuals.” (97-98) Spiritual direction looks at the meaning of koinonia as best achieved when individuals who regularly engage in personal spiritual disciplines come together to share what they truly have in common; viz., the ongoing relationship of abiding in Christ.

My personal experience includes having functioned as a spiritual director for over eight hundred pastors and Christian leaders from all over the world. I have read the journals of these seminary graduates and beheld the over-developed head and the under-developed soul. While, to use our example above, the pastoral counseling movement has been significant, and seminaries were right in giving their seminarians pastoral counseling skills, for the reasons cited above such skills do not essentially address the seminarian’s ongoing, primal relationship with God. Our seminaries need to train their students how to, in the first place, love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To not do this is to send the message that ongoing soul-nurture is not so important when compared to academic study. To be-studied by God is essential. While learning to exegete texts is important, it seems more fundamentally important to dwell in God’s presence and be-exegeted by the Spirit.

In my estimation a major example of someone who both was studied by God and studied for the sake of God was Howard Thurman. It is significant that Thurman’s autobiography is entitled “With Head and Heart.” Thurman was correct in seeing the significance of both. Seminaries that train only the head to the neglect of the renovation of the heart will be doing a half job. In this regard I find these typical words of Thurman truthful and instructive:

“There is a spirit of mind without which it is impossible to discern truth. It is this set of mind that makes possible the experience of truth and distinguishes it from the experience of error. It is this spirit that recognizes or senses the false, the dishonest, the bogus thing. It this attitude that determines the use to which facts are put… This spirit of mind is the factor upon which the integrity of performance rests. Constantly, I must seek the renewal of the spirit of my mind, lest I become insensitive, dulled, unresponsive to the creative movement of the Spirit of God with which life is instinct.” (Meditations of the Heart, 171-172)

With these words in mind, seminaries will do well to train seminarians in “the mind of Christ” which then engages with and interprets facts, and thus can discern “the use to which facts are put.”