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The Table Video

James Houston, Bruce Hindmarsh& Steve L. Porter

Conversation with James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh (Full Interview)

Emeritus Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
November 25, 2013

Steve Porter interviews James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh on the future of the spiritual formation movement, among other topics.


Bruce and Jim, you both have been involved with the spiritual formation movement for some time. What do you make of where we’ve come from, within, particularly, the Evangelical Church, when it comes to spiritual formation. What ground has been covered and where do you see us needing to go for the future?

I think there’s a way we’re in the second generation, aren’t we? We had the, I think, pioneering ministry of people, like Jim, and Dallas Willard, and so on. And I think there has been a prophetic ministry in the Church. The recognition about the whole person formation in Christ. And especially pushing back against the idea that somehow the Christian life is primarily just about cognitive content, and maybe behavioral exhortation. But that the recovery of spiritual vision, the recovery of a sense of being whole persons in Christ. I think one of my concerns right now is just the sense of fragmentation, and that there’s a way that certain kind of messages that are the right message, when heard in a certain kind of context, become different. And we still seem to be operating in a world that is so freelance, ad hoc, and programmatic, that I worry sometimes that it may blunt the force of the prophetic call to keep united what is easily pulled asunder into fragments. That it’s not the spiritual formation. It’s meant to be something different from theology. It’s the basic Christian life. And the idea that it becomes its own movement or its own thing has its own dangers, I think.

Jim: Yes. And I think, in response, there’s both a long history and a short history. And the long history is that since the classic of Gregory the Great on his pastoralia, which had a huge influence on the whole of Christendom, and the Carolingian, and then in the later medieval expressions of Christendom, the focus was on the pastor, on the priest. So, it really, it was on priestly formation. And even after the Reformation, we find that in the Protestant world, people like George Herbert, the poet, and as a pastor, has a wonderful homily on the whole subject of the country parson. And his character, and likewise, we find Richard Baxter in the reform pastor, giving us another example. So, the profiling of the ideal priest or pastor, I think is the origin of the concept. But I think the short history is that after Vatican II, there was a real concern on the part of the reformers within the Roman Church, that their priests should have a priestly formation that was appropriate to Vatican II. And it was, I think, from that background that, certainly in America, the ATS, the Association of Theological Schools, then adopted it for spiritual formation in the seminary. But because they were still viewing it for seminarians, the whole purpose was still that Gregorian tradition. So I think it’s more innovative, what has happened since then, is that we now think of spiritual formation for the priesthood of all believers, that all Christians should have some form of spiritual formation. So I think that’s the root of the movement.


Bruce, you mentioned the fragmentation that is involved in our culture, and coming out of a overly cognitive or behavioristic form of Christianity. What, if those are places where the Evangelical church is maybe coming out of, what’s ahead of us? What do… I mean, do you see kind of new or, places where there’s still room for growth, and do you see a sense of what the next kind of hurdle is for folks on this?


I think there’s two areas where I think we might think about it. I do think we’re seeing and will see increasing fragmentation. And even the whole notion of sort of what the Evangelical tradition represents, and what Evangelicalism is. I think we are seeing an increasing fragmenting of identity that is just part of the rapidity, the mobility, and the fragmentation of society generally. And I think the two areas where I would think would be most promising is, one is areas of activity that are not fundamentally programmatic. And it’s not simply a matter of how do we gather resources to take a new initiative, to plan, to gather resources, to implement, evaluate, and repeat. And that kind of model of resourcefulness is… And it’s not that we don’t need good institutions doing good things. But I think the whole sphere of the freedom to act, the freedom to act personally, even in the midst of institutional life. And it’s the… You know, we’re talking a little bit about C.S. Lewis because of the anniversary, and I just think of the importance of the friendships. The hidden history of friendship, the inklings. The hidden history of friendship as the source of fruitfulness of great enterprises. And often, sort of behind these initiatives, are just people acting in the freedom of their own persons to reach out in friendship, in hospitality. The second area I would think for us to be attentive to is the margins. I think so often, renewal comes, you know, not necessarily from the leadership of the pastor who comes off the mountain with a great vision. But it may be the youth group. I think about in the early modern world, how many renewal movements began among young people. You know there’s a death in the community, the young people gather to pray. And then the sense of spiritual concern spreads through the whole community. And so I think it’s good for us to be attentive. God is at work. He is building his kingdom. Where is it happening? But I think in the area of the intimate, the personal, even the private sphere, and on the margins, might be places to look.


Bruce mentioned the personal, and I know that’s been a theme that you’ve been talking about for many years now, of the importance of the relationship we have with one another, and the havoc that individualism has caused in the Western world. If I’m a pastor and I’m trying to minister to my people, but I have, whether a large congregation or a small congregation, too many needs, not enough time. I’m stretched thin. Too many responsibilities. And yet I’m convinced that my ministry needs to be moving towards this life on life. How does one do that? How do you suggest a pastor enter into a way of life that’s going to be able to particularize the people that he or she’s ministering to?


Well, I think we live in a culture of workaholism. And so, what I do determines who I am. And that mentality is, therefore, making ministry very self-conscious for us. So, naturally, if we could be more unconscious or forgetful about who we are, and what we’re doing, then the whole role of being personal is not eclipsed. But the personal is eclipsed by the official or the professional attitudes that we have. So, it’s a change of attitude. But I think it’s also an awareness that we ourselves are in a major cultural change, because I think the 20th century was the century, both of the rise, but also the graveyard of ideologies. That you belong to an ism. And this is all there is ism, whether it’s Marxism, or socialism, or fascism, tragically so. But even Evangelicalism, or Catholicism, these are all, in a sense, having an identity by association. The 21st Century’s got disenchanted with that. And so, part of the malaise that we’re feeling is the disenchantment with the human sciences not being human enough. And, as a consequence of that reaction that we’re facing, then, of course, the iPod, and everything else is i, i, i with the Apple and every other tech industry. So the tech revolution has intensified our individualism, but it could also maturely be very fruitfully more individuation. And so, when the Christian is much more responsible for his own Christianity, and he doesn’t go to the pastor for his soul, as he goes to the tax accountant for his taxes, or to the lawyer for his legal counsel. When we get away from that mentality, then I think that there’ll be a robust revival of Christian life, as being much more virile, a personal life. But, of course, the personal life has also got its own mystery to it, that basically the tension of I myself, ipse, as the Latin has it, has to be somehow in correlation with the idem, the same as. Well the last generation was much more concerned about being in the same as. This generation is going to be much more reactionary to the ipse. So, how in that tension is the Christian to operate? And what is personal is that you introduce a new verb that you might call othering. That I’m the self as the other, as Paul Ricoeur has expressed in one of his books. And I think that whole awareness that my identity is intentioned between the unique self and at the same time the relational self.

I remember years ago thinking about Steve’s question about the busy pastor who feels run ragged that I remember you said “Busyness is moral laziness.”


What did you mean by that?

Well I meant by that, that perspiration is no substitute for inspiration. And that busyness is a narcotic of the soul, because it gives me self-importance, but it’s a false source of self-fulfillment.



Yeah. I remember, Steve, being really impressed just feeling that those pressures just run ragged, and having this feeling that if I could just get to the end of it a little bit more and get a little more organized, then there’d be space for self-care, for prayer, for acting personally. And just, I was rebuked by looking at a number of figures in the history of the Church that were… You know, pre-modern life was pre-analgesic, pre-anacetic, and pre-anasthetic. People just hurt all the time, and realizing someone like Richard Baxter and his ministry and, that Jim referred to. Well, most of the time, he’s tubercular, coughing up blood and so on, and the same is true for a contemplative like Teresa of Avila or Bernard of Clairvaux, these are busy people, carrying enormous pressures, and just, I think, busyness actually is an excuse.

Yes, it is. It is a form of moral depletion, and so I never was busier because of my wife with her dementia, and I’m solely her care, and so I have to be with her all the time, but at the same time, I’ve never been more relaxed,

Steve: Hmm.

Because I think what transforms the workaholic into a meditative Christian is praying in the midst of everything you do.

Steve: Amen.

That you pray without ceasing. And so that meditative spirit that you have conjoined with all the pressures that you’re doing day-by-day gives you a whole different paradigm in the way of living.

Jim, how did you find your way into that prayer without ceasing, that meditative way of life? What are some of the things that were helpful for you?

Well, you might say that one’s prayer life should be considered as one’s spiritual fingerprints. In other words, prayer is a gift of a unique relationship you have with God, that you have with no one else. And one of the problems that I found in my earlier life, when I was struggling to pray was that the more books you read on prayer, the more certainty you’ll have that you’ll not pray, because you’re always trying to imitate what these great classics or these great prayer warriors are doing. And so, no, prayer has to be your own gifted relationship with God. And it’s not imitative. It’s something that you simply have like Moses had at the burning bush.


There you’ve encountered the I Am That I Am. And then you celebrate that uniqueness of your prayer life with the Lord. It’s not being selfish about it because obviously it has huge social consequences.

Steve, I think one of the things for me that unlocked my own soul, when I was sort of stuck in prayer, reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s dense little classic on prayer.

And just the very first chapter–

Jim: Yes.

he just wrote about how we’re made for prayer,


It’s not like holding some extreme downward yoga position

No, no.

for as long as you can, until you fall over.

Jim: Yes.

That it’s actually


our most human selves.


He talks about the room has always already been prepared. = Yes.

And to realize that this is a matter of recovering our humanity.

Jim: Yes.

Not departing from it. That’s actually my go-to place whenever I get stuck.

Yes. Sure, we can be stoics in prayer.


And stoicism is not a good climate for prayer.

No, mm-hm.

Both of you have done a lot of academic work, and just even our conversation today with spiritual classics, and the role of spiritual classics, the importance of spiritual classics–

It is.

Devotionally the classics of Christian spirituality. Talk about that a little bit. What is it that, coming before a spiritual classic… What is it that opens up to us? What’s the benefit of that?

Well, what I wanted to do is… in my struggling in my middle years of life, was to be counter-cultural. And so the best way I discovered of being counter-cultural is to enter the culture of another period, and to see things from the eyes of Bernard of Clairvaux, or from the eyes of Augustine and his confessions, and then you begin to realize that you’re now inhabiting a different world. So that helps you to be counter-cultural. But basically I think the approach that I found, for a number of years, was I was learning to be theologically-minded later in life. It wasn’t the seminary training I had because I had none, but it was realizing that, perhaps through the classics, I could do my homework for being a thoughtful Christian. And then to discover that there are one to two classics that fit hand-to-glove that identify you with your narrative, and you give that kind of “Ah-ha!” So then you recognize that others have not been as quirky and isolated as you thought you were, that you’re on their wavelength too. And, in fact, they were much richer and wiser and deeper about it, so then you begin to discover that that beginning of a new trajectory of spiritual life is going to be reinforced into full flight when you start reading these classics. So I found it always important that you know the person that you’re advising, and knowing that person, you give them an appropriate classic. There may be other classics which are quite inappropriate for them. But in their stage of the journey, or their type of personality, or their particular pressures that they’re under, find something that’s appropriate for them and then they’ll enrich and deepen their own life.


Hmm. Bruce, same thing.


There’s a course I teach every year, the Classics of Christian Spirituality. We read a book a week. It’s kind of lectura accelleratio. We kind of read them and read them carefully and know that we’ll return to them all of our lives, but it’s one of my favorite courses to teach. Just to watch the way in which it opens up… Just think if you have the riches of one generation and you have the books written within your own generation, and there’s tremendous wisdom and breadth that can help us. But imagine having the wisdom of 70 generations. Imagine inviting Martin Luther and Richard Baxter and Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux and Augustine to your bible study! And just imagine how the conversation gets, you know, improves a little. [laughing] There’s a different level of depth, as I mention. I think what Jim was saying, “The past is prophetic” because people had different outlooks and it lets you see your own. But also it’s just… We would be… We’re at a great loss when we don’t have the wisdom of these books that have been tested. And a classic is something that, as Gatimer says, “resists the corrosion of history.” It continues to speak beyond its own generation, and so you privilege a classic. A classic isn’t perfect. You can critique a classic, but you privilege it because, why wouldn’t you? If John Cassian has been read for 1,500 years in Benedictine monasteries and all over the world. And it’s been consistently read and people have found it fruitful. Why wouldn’t I read it with the expectation–


Jim: Yes!


that here is going to be wisdom and something to help me?


You could sum up by saying that reading the classics is more richly appreciating and experiencing than the Communion of Saints. The Total Body of Christ.


Well, and maybe that’s the answer to the next question, but I was thinking what about the Christian who hears this and says, “Why should I be reading Christian classics? “I just need the bible. “And as long as I have the bible, “that’s all I need. “Most of these classics were written “by folks who weren’t biblical “or they believed things “that were erroneous is some way.” So what do you say to the… What the apologetic? What do you say to the person who, who’s resistant to the spiritual classics, or just weary about them? They’re untried, they’re untested, in their experience.


Well, I wouldn’t argue with that kind of person.


I would say, “I want to be your friend.” [laughing]


One of the things that we’re discussing at the Center for Christian Thought this semester, or really our overall theme is what role does contemporary psychology… I know that’s a broad… That encompasses a lot, but when you think about things that are going on in psychology today, and in the last century and a half, since psychology’s been with us, what do we have to learn from psychological theory and practice when it comes to understanding life with Christ and growing in life with Christ? What do you see as fruitful or potentially beneficial.


Well, there’s, of course, tremendous, tremendous insight in empirical psychology and many, many areas of psychology provide insight into the human condition, insight into self-deception, insight into the pathologies of the human mind, insight into healing and so on, but I think my concern is that you cannot derive an anthropology from simply clinical observation and the close, close attention to people. We need more than that to develop a true anthropology and develop our deeper convictions about the human condition, and about human nature. And so I think my concern is just a matter of sort of foreground and background, and that we be able to nest the insights of psychology within a much, much larger frame, and the tendency always in the modern period, as Charles Taylor says, is we’ve occluded our sources, our moral sources, and we tend to always reduce the good and our sense of the good to what he calls nicely “production and reproduction.” Our goods are a sort of intimate companion at pair bonding. You want to be intimate with someone. And economic prosperity, and if we do not historicize psychology, I think the danger is we’ll simply use it as a way to sort of achieve those kinds of moral ends. How can a person be more happy, be more content, be more functional, and so on? So there’s tremendous insight. Lovers notice details. It’s a way of noticing details and being attentive to the human condition, but I think my concern is that we’re able still to understand the human person in terms of being made for transcendence. And in terms of our origin in God, our destiny in God, and in terms of our… The human psyche is not eminent. It is not enclosed. It is porous. And so I think we need a larger framework.


And I wholly agree with what you’re saying, Bruce, about that and would suggest that the pulse beat of the Christian should be whether psychologists or otherwise is the devil knowledge of Augustine. “Let me know thee, oh God, let me know myself.” That there’s no anthropology without theology. And the people that scare me to death are Christian psychologists who, as motivational psychologists, perhaps in their business, are able to provide happy pagans with a therapeutically joyous, happy life that doesn’t need God. I mean that is outrageous to think that Christian in psychology can be so focused on their profession as psychologists that they’re actually enabling pagans to be happy, healthy, secure pagans. I think one of the dangers for the Christian is novelty and the whole nature of a PhD is that nobody has ever done this research before. And so this whole concept that we latch onto something new is always going to create instability for our life. I think another problem that we face is imbalance. And so you could say that the sense of the transcendent was so strong in the desert fathers in their concern for their soul and their relationship with God that in the process, they forgot the body. And their extreme asceticism went far too far. So probably Jonathan Edwards is very wise when he’s giving the profile of the 12 features or what he thinks to be the portrait of a godly Christian that the middle virtue is balance. Symmetry. And I think symmetry and balance only come from dialog with each other. So the most wonderful thing in the world is to have a wife who doesn’t agree with one thing of what you believe. And her contradictions help to reshape your dogmatism.


Bruce: You wouldn’t be speaking from personal experience, would you? [laughing]


I think I would sit to read to my wife. “You’re not cartesian. I think, therefore I am.” You simply say, “I contradict, “therefore I am.” [laughing] That’s very healthy.


Bruce: She’s a means of grace.


She’s a means of grace.


Say, on this theme of psychology and thinking about, again, some of the spiritual classics, and some of the ancient Christian writers, it seems that in different periods in church history, and you two know this better than I, we see a tacit, sometimes fairly explicit, Christian psychology with the desert fathers and mothers, for instance, or with Augustine’s confessions of this exploratory, self-reflective journey. So do we have some of the resources that we are in need of for this theo-anthropology within the riches of the Christian tradition itself? And to the degree that we do, to what degree does contemporary psychological work add to or further some of those findings? I think the psychology inherent within the Christian tradition is oriented towards an eternal end. And I think that’s exactly what we need is the psychology of Jonathan Edwards, the psychology of Augustine, the psychology of the desert fathers, and there’s a way that people today might just complain and say, “Well that looks kinda “simply tonic dualism there. “There’s a suspicion of the material world, “there’s an escape, “there’s alone to the lone.” It’s easy to critique it, but that means, okay, we can easily see those things. Those aren’t gonna be our same dangers. But what are we missing? And I think, in modernity, it’s just written in letters too large to read. And unless we go back to this psychology, we’ll simply deal with people as our compact, enclosed selves.


Jim: That’s right.


We won’t see the granduer, the glory of the human person




standing upright in the presence of God. What it means to be a human being. The glory is irony outside of a human being truly alive. So I think we need that psychology, and I think those are exactly the kind of resources for us to turn to.


And if I may just add, I think that one thing that we really can be richly blessed from the desert fathers is what we might now call the ecosystems of the seven vices. To recognize that in the language of ecosystems that we’re familiar now with systems thinking that, or ecologically thinking, that each of these is identifying a kind of environment that we have to be aware of. So what are the environments that will help a skilled Christian psychologist to discern that needs corrected?


What, go ahead.


I was just gonna say Jim, your concern for the personal. I’ve been so impressed by, in the Desert Fathers, the sense that the word of God is a personalized word that comes from the word of the elder.


And so it’s an oral word, it’s not reified.


And it’s the personal word that comes in the context of a relationship, and it’s specified, it’s personalized.


And it is the authority of the word of God, it’s not the authority of the elder, but it comes through the elder. And there’s maybe something, even, about the orality of that culture.


Moving towards literacy. But the orality of that culture that makes that a particularly prophetic witness.

And you know, the story of the one desert father, who the disciple went to him, and he said, Father, give me a word. Well, having been given the word, he didn’t go back and ask him any more. It was enough, for life.

So the need for the personalization of the Christian life, in relationship with the other. Sometimes that can happen through marriage, and even in marriages where you’re constantly being contradicted. Sometimes people are blessed enough, and lucky enough to have close spiritual friendships. And sometimes we’re living in a time and place where even though we’re reaching out to others who we might be able to both give and receive from, there’s just not, there’s not a lot available. Spiritual direction is sometimes a place where people turn to receive more of that desert father kind of, to receive a word. But therapy could be as well. Could you speak to those forms of soul care, and their place in the Christian life? Spiritual direction, and even therapy as a place of encounter with God speaking through another person.

Well, I think all the time that self consciousness is a detriment to being a vessel of grace. And so, the problem that I find in America is we’re a culture that has colonized the continent, and wants to keep on colonizing other continents. And so that mentality is what has to change. It’s that sense that, a messianic complex that possibly we have, that really doesn’t help us to live in grace. So, many times, I think we have to ask God for unconscious self forgetfulness about what we’re doing. And the difficulty about our professional life, is it’s all self conscious activity. So, that’s the, when I’m a person, I’m much less conscious of being a person. Because I’m just my attitude, and the shaping of my life, the shaping of my identity, it’s just relational. And I can’t imagine how I could live without the other.

Though I can hear my psychologist friends saying, well, that’s a fairly healthy person you just described there. And I’m dealing with people who are so self absorbed, yes, but so destructive, and there’s so much self loathing, or whatever it is. That the pathway from where they’re at to that sort of place, it looks very long.


And there’s gonna be a long period of healing. And that that’s gonna involve the ministry of others to come along.

Well then, you want to make sure that such a Christian psychologist doesn’t practice psychology in the home as he practices it in his practice. [laughing]

Steve: Yes, I see.

That’s why sometimes, the children of a psychotherapist are in a worse state than the clients of the psychotherapist.

I have a friend who’s a therapist, and he says, my clients get the best of me, and you know. But he says that as a confession, but.


But what he brings home is often times not the best.

So this is all the self consciousness stuff, you see. That somehow, we have to say Lord, help me to forget myself.

I wonder, Steve, I mean I think in the situation where we are, the kind of, in the midst of things, I have no question that the kind of healing that can come with a Christian therapist, you know. And the obstacles that can be got out of the way, and that this is a part of what God uses in people’s lives right now in healing. And even spiritual direction, even in kind of an ad hoc, freelance, unlicensed, not very eclesial environment sometimes, is something that absolutely God is using. But I think in some ways, it’s also kind of a confession of failure that these things have become divorced from the simple eclesial pastoral life of the church. Where in an unpaid, un-client professional relationship, but just in the context of church ministry, and in the context of the Eucharist, and in the context the life of the church. There are the very personal interactions that allow for these things to be addressed. I mean, I think certainly in terms of the wisdom that’s being gained in terms of psychopathology, and the kinds of ways, I mean, therapy is going to be important for many people, I think there’s no question it’s going to be important.

But I think another thing is ageism. I think that the separation of the generations in the church means that all the wisdom that all the people could give young people is totally lost. It’s a huge potential that is just uncultivated. And if there was more intergenerational integration together in our lives, like we used to have as families. But even the old people are now shut off in old people’s homes. The result is that all these generational stages of life are totally truncated. And the truncation of that is why there’s so much more demand for psychological help.

Jim, one time you said, and perhaps you were quoting someone else. But something to the effect that, is it Evangelicalism, in North America, is 3000 miles wide and only an inch deep. And I’m wondering if, if I got the dimensions right, what your assessment would be today, how are we doing?

Well, and all credit to him, it was Jim Packer that originally said that. And I loved it as a quotation, so I’ve used it too. But it’s the recognition that too much space doesn’t give much opportunity for place. And human place is much more limited. So when we were coming over from England with our young family, the thing that my wife most wept about was, how can I bring up a family on a continent? And I think the intensity of traffic this weekend for Thanksgiving indicates that it’s a huge issue in America.

Spoken as a true geographer.


That’s right.

Place is not space. Place is very limited space for genuine relationships. So that’s the neighbor, the neighbor concept is the one who’s contingent to me.