My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): The Mind as a Neglected Sphere of Spiritual Formation

Thursday, September 12th, 2019

This is the third part in this series taken from my Fall convocation message to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. In the first part I explored the problem we face with the loss of the ability to frame a moral argument in our culture, and sadly, within the church itself. I then went on to propose three “shifts” in our actions to address this problem. Today’s article highlights the second shift.

The next major shift which we need to be attentive to is the neglected sphere of the mind as one of the focal points of holistic spiritual formation. In a post-Christendom, increasingly post-Christian world, faith exists only in a diminished, domesticated, privatized form with its locus in the heart. Even we, at times, get lulled into the notion that spiritual formation is only a matter of the heart. When we look back over church history and think about explosive, divisive moments in our story one quickly thinks about the Great Schism of 1054 which marks the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One might think about the year 1517 which marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Certainly these are momentous events in the history of the church. But, perhaps we have failed to recall the importance of the split or separation between theology and spirituality that occurred at the end of the 13th century. Before 1300 all of the great theologians of the church, whether Chrysostom, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, or Bernard of Clairvaux, were formed by spiritual disciplines and, yet, were at their core theologians. Clairvaux, for example, was the chief writer in drawing up the synodal statues at the Council of Troyes. He was famous for his theological debates with Peter Abelard, and yet he was also founding monasteries and giving us lectio divina. After 1300 none of the great masters of spirituality, Meister Eckhart (died 1328), Teresa of Avila (died 1582), Blaise Pascal (died 1662), or Thomas Merton, were academic theologians.

The division of theology and spirituality as two separate disciplines has ended up harming both. One of the restorations embodied by the Wesleyan vision is that great nuptial embrace which forms the head and the heart. Charles Wesley captured it in his hymn, the fifth verse which declares, “unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined, and truth and love, let all men see . . . ” It is a singular tribute to the holistic Wesleyan vision that the late Thomas Oden, one of the premier theologians of our movement, also produced books such as Kerygma and Counseling and Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy. John Wesley is sometimes wrongly accused of not being a “real” theologian because he was also interested in the disciplines which give rise to authentic spirituality. Yet, beloved, this was not a weakness of Wesley, but his very genius; he reunited what had been divided for over 300 years.

As the world is drawn to our wholeness and they ask us for the reason, we need to be able to give a well-reasoned defense for the hope that is within us. We cannot currently do this because we ourselves have gradually become tentative about the Christian proclamation. Divine revelation and self-disclosure has been, in our day, downgraded to nothing more than “our personal perspective,” or “what works for us.”

Christian ministers must embody afresh the deep commitment that central to formation is the formation of the mind; learning to think well about things and having the courage to articulate it. We must engage with the world’s ways of thinking about things, and respond with a thoughtful Christian alternative. We must recognize the powerful catechesis which unintentionally takes place in the wider culture which affirms a whole array of non-Christian assumptions. Therefore, we must counter that catechesis with a deep commitment to Christian discipleship which reclaims our distinctive voice in a myriad of competing voices and the loss of a moral center. We must reclaim the hard work of discipleship and forming the heart and the mind to occupy the newly emerging cultural landscape. We must reclaim the patristic tradition of the Apologists who engaged with rigorous fervor the intellectual climate of their day. Our struggles over same sex marriage and gender re-assignment are just two vivid examples of how much homework we have to do. We are experiencing the rise of a new Gnosticism. This challenge will force us to go back and do the difficult work articulating a Christian theology of the body and deeply understanding how these challenges relate to the grand theological life of the church. Many books have been released by people claiming to be Wesleyan leaders. However, their encouragement to abandon long-standing Christian views of the body, and of marriage, and the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ are largely theologically empty and tepid. The church should roll up its sleeves and determine to do better, if for no other reason than to rescue our movement from perpetual public embarrassment.

Indeed, there is a whole spectrum of work to be done along many lines, and a myriad of other challenges, and it cannot be done until we fully give ourselves to the formation of the mind. Without this, we will end up like the schoolboy who refused to do his homework and then wonders why he failed the exam. The culture is testing us and we must do our homework in order to have coherent answers for the moral quagmires of our time. We must also recognize the many distractions which keep us from articulating the gospel in compelling and confident ways. The once congenial world of Christendom and broad shared cultural assumptions is now clearly in the rear view mirror and we must rise to the new realities we are facing.

Our next article will focus on the third solution to this quagmire we are in.

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