How is it with your soul?

This week marked the beginning of a new academic year.  As in years past, I have spent a few days describing the nature of our spiritual formation program to new students.

Over a decade ago the program looked very different from the one we have today.  We relied on outside facilitators.  The student experience varied greatly.  And oversight for the program was assigned to someone whose primary responsibilities lay elsewhere.  The program was also required for certain degree programs, but no one received credit.  Predictably, it was difficult for students to take the task of spiritual formation seriously and the program felt a bit like an addendum to the other work that they did.  Students often observed that the program was “Like the Book of Judges — everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.”

The situation is very different today.  The program is still required, but the students receive credit for their efforts.  Members of the full-time and adjunct faculty facilitate the formation groups.  The work of the formation groups serves as a structured introduction to spiritual disciplines, organized around a common syllabus and texts.  And we have supplemented our core program with elective course work in the field of spirituality, a track devoted to issues in spirituality in the Doctor of Ministry program, and a certificate program in spiritual direction for both clergy and the laity.

All of this, of course, restores an emphasis lost or omitted long ago in much of what counts for theological education — an emphasis that once lay at the heart of a seminary’s work: the formation not just of the mind, but the soul.  There are a number of reasons that this endeavor slipped to the margins of theological education, but one of the important factors has been the triumph of the university model of education.

The university model stresses atomization and specialization as the best means of subject mastery.  Faculty members are socialized into the model by their graduate programs and then, in turn, they socialize their students.  The model has its strengths: Faculty are able to deeply familiarize themselves with a distinguishable body of literature and issues; and students benefit from their intimacy with that subject matter.

The problem, of course, is that (for the most part) seminaries don’t prepare academics.  They prepare clergy.  And the task of the clergy is (or should be) soul formation.  In other words, their task is integrative and its basic impulse is the very opposite of the university model.  That is why theological education as a bit like the experience of sitting on the floor of your den at 1am on Christmas morning with hundreds of parts to a child’s toy with instructions for assembling it in a language you don’t understand.

There will be those who argue that the failure of the seminaries to grapple directly with that issue is license for jettisoning theological education completely.  I can’t share their blithe confidence in the virtues of self-imposed ignorance.  But until the theological academy finds the courage to revisit the basic assumptions that lie behind the enterprise, future generations of seminarians will need to do the integrative task themselves, asking not just what they have been taught, but how it contributes (or doesn’t) to the formation of their souls and their relationship with God.

There is no substitute for sitting prayerfully with the varied, unassembled pieces of an experience like a seminary education — and a question we don’t ask often enough: “How is it with your soul?”  That is and always has been the question.  And if clergy give the question attention, they will be better equipped to help others ask the question as well.

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