Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ben Witherington on Spiritual Formation and Sanctification

I greatly value NT scholar Ben Witherington. He's writing some things on spiritual formation and its connection to sanctification. He is concerned about an overemphasis in spiritual formation literature on a monastic approach. He seems to place Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster in this group. I don't think Ben is correct about this. I wonder if he has a false dichotomy going between solitude and community.
The way I teach spiritual formation is as a dialectical movement between solitude and community. I coach pastors to take much alone-time with God, just them and God. Jesus "spent time alone in the woods." So I think if Jesus needed to do this, we should too. In my seminary classes the students re-group after alone time with God and share together about their experience with God while alone with God. This is my community piece. Alone, together; alone, together; and so on. Surely that describes Nouwen and Foster. They are not true monastics, but were and are heavily invested in community.

I think alone-time with God IS "the stuff of spiritual formation," or at least essential stuff.

Ben mentions "busy normal Christian people." My idea is that this is, in general, not a good model. I see a whole lot of "Christian doing" that does not come out of a deep, abiding God-relationship. Such "doing" later gets baptized in prayer. Jesus went to a lonely place to find out what the Father wanted him to do. So should we. And of course authentic community helps us with this.

My interest is not in finding a view of spiritual formation that fits with "busy normal Christian people," or "busy normal clergy." The latter are flaming out all around us. In my classes we call them back to the richness of alone-time with God. I'm seeing great benefits from this. In this regard I especially value Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor.

Ben is writing a book on this subject. I look forward to reading it.