Alister McGrath, on Spiritual Formation

From Metamorpha:

When I began my life as a Christian, I found my attention focussing on understanding my faith. I continue to regard this as being of the utmost importance. There is a marvellous coherence to Christian doctrine, and wrestling with the great truths of our faith provided me with both spiritual encouragement and intellectual challenge. Yet it often seemed to me that my ‘knowledge’ of the Christian faith was rather dry and cerebral. My faith seemed to lack depth. It was as if my emotions were untouched by what I believed. Sometime, it seemed to me, was wrong.

My realization of the importance of spirituality began about 1989, but really blossomed from about 1992. I was invited to lead a regular summer school course in Oxford on ‘medieval and Reformation spirituality’. This allowed me to engage with some of the great texts of Christian spirituality. As my students and I wrestled with these texts, we found ourselves challenged to deepen the quality of our Christian faith though being more open to God. I found that the quality of my Christian life deepened considerably as a result….

So how can we deepen our faith in this way? As I wrestled with deepening my appreciation of the rich spirituality of the Bible, I found three principles to be helpful:

  1. When dealing with a biblical image, it is essential to pause and allow the passage to generate a mental picture. We have to enter into the world of that image. We need to project ourselves into the image, and become part of it, experiencing its richness and implications. Our faith stimulates our imaginations as well as our minds! One of the reasons why writers such as C S Lewis and George MacDonald enjoy such popularity is that they nourish both reason and imagination.
  2. When dealing with a gospel story, we must enter into it, standing alongside those who witnessed the saviour of the world. We need to meditate on these gospel narratives as though they were happening in the present moment.
  3. When dealing with a biblical idea or theme, it is not enough to understand it. It needs to be applied to our lives, so that it becomes a lived reality, rather than an abstract and lifeless notion. Christianity is not simply about ideas; it is about the transformation of spiritual reality. It needs to become real to us, instead of just rattling round inside our minds.
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  • Clay Knick

    Splendid. I love McGrath. I really loved his bio of Lewis.

  • Good advice here. Notice it takes one away from abstractions and from “systematic” theology. The little I know McGrath, I imagine he’s for systematics as well (as implied in his opening paragraph), and supports basic orthodoxy as settled largely in the 4th century. To me, however, systematics led Christians down a largely unproductive and unfortunate (dare I say “untruthful”?) path. Perhaps there is some corrective in following his emphasis here… and in acknowledging the power of images and stories that do not HAVE to be fit into a “systematic” and formal theology that tries to nail down more than can reasonably be nailed down, including things like “substitutionary atonement.”

  • Chuck Sigler

    Wonderful, clear simple advice on spiritual formation. McGrath continues to bring understanding and clarity to my faith walk.

  • Marshall

    Knowledge and Emotions. Ok, what about Experience? That is, in addition to _applying_ biblical ideas/themes to our own lives, there’s _observing_ the same growing out of our lives and the way the world works in general. Immanuel! Many seem to regard this as a dangerous notion; no clue why.