The Table Video

James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber & Todd Pickett

Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
Director, Center for Spiritual Renewal and Associate Professor of Spirituality and Psychology, Biola University
Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
March 28, 2014

James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett discuss: suspicions about psychology in Christian spirituality, ancient psychologists’ insight on spiritual formation, why the body is so important in Christian theology and spiritual practice, prayer, and formation of the whole person.


Betsy, do you find that some Christians would be puzzled that we would put together psychology and spiritual formation? In other words, do you think some Christians who are interested in spiritual formation might have a kind of suspicion about psychology and maybe not put those two things together? Or, what is it that informs the project?

I think, actually, the church probably has a better idea of what psychology is and spiritual formation is, right now.

James: Very good, yeah.

And, you know for me, they’re overlapping disciplines and both developmental in nature. Both come straight out of a creation mandate of God created us to be certain ways. So, spiritual formation, of course, is, by far, the ancient discipline. But I think the church probably has a better handle on psychology, overall, than spiritual formation, by that name.

Yeah, do you mean, there’s something about calling, say, talking about spiritual formation, as opposed to, say, discipleship, that makes it different?

Discipleship, or progressive sanctification. Many of the things that we do in spiritual formation go beyond traditional discipleship. We certainly begin there. It’s a necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, trajectory for our lives in Christ.

In some ways, would you say, the ancient church fathers and mothers were, in a sense, Christian psychologists? They had insights, maybe it wasn’t evidence based, maybe it wasn’t underwritten by the kind of social scientific research that we have. But in a way, they had intuitions about human nature and formation that we could still learn from today.

Well, certainly the sages, the Biblical wisdom literature, the desert fathers and mothers, absolutely. And I’m always impressed. My mom’s 93. She’s been walking with the Lord since she was 12. Never had any counseling in her life as far as I know.

But a woman of the word and a woman of prayer, and a church lady in a very real sense. And she is so well-formed, psychologically, at this point in her life, by the word, by the church, by the work of the Holy Spirit, in the natural outflow of what comes from life in Christ.

Yeah, that’s great.

I think where there may be some distinction in some Christian’s mind, between psychology and spiritual formation, there might be suspicion of psychology as being too internal, being too self-focused. And I know, Jamie, you have a concern about the internal view of Christian consciousness or a too, what you sometimes call, intellectualized view, but maybe coming from a different way. So, could you talk a little bit about how you see the internal versus the body?

Yeah and maybe part of it is, actually, resisting the internal, external dichotomy. [Betsy laughing] So, recognizing that, I do think some Christians have a bit of a tendency to treat sanctification, becoming Christ-like, as if it were primarily and intellectual project.

So, it’s about getting the right Biblical knowledge and information in my mind, and then I’m thinking Biblically. Which, of course is a wonderful thing to do. But I don’t think that that actually touches the whole person, because I think there are aspects of our being in the world that operate on the level of habits, imagination.

And those govern the way we act and the way we live. And so, I think a really holistic spiritual formation can’t just be informing the intellect; it has to be forming our habits, forming our loves, forming our longings. And that happens not just by disseminating information to our minds. It’s recruiting our convictions in a more tangible way, a more visceral way. So, I think that’s why I talk about the body more.



So, the example of many, though not all, of contemporary churches, maybe especially, but not only, the evangelical church, is the kind of pride of place given to the 45 minute sermon as an example of a kind of over-intellectualizing of spiritual formation. How did this even, historically, culturally, how did we come to a place where formation really centered on correct belief, the informational sermon, the 45 minute liturgy?

Propositional truth.

Yeah, how did this come to happen? And I’m presuming there was a time when that was not always the case.

Yeah, and I mean–

That’s a long and complicated story, but.

No, no, no, and it’s important. And I think we actually have to own up to the fact that there were some unintended byproducts of the Protestant Reformation, in this respect. And I think the Reform, I’m a reformed Christian, so I think the Reformation was on the right track in correcting a very superstitious way of thinking about spiritual life, that had arisen in the late Middle Ages.

And so you could see the emphasis on correction, and therefor thinking correctly about what we’re doing when we worship. The unfortunate byproduct of that, I think, was this over-emphasis on ideas, beliefs, doctrines, propositional truth, as you put it, as if that was the entirety of what orients us.

And so, then, you kind of effectively start thinking about human beings as if they were brains on a stick. And then your sort of set up Christian worship for that, which is a few songs and then sit down, because we have to get as much information in your head as we can right now. So we need a 50 minute lecture to transfer all of that informational, propositional data into your mind. So, I do think, in that respect, I think it’s ironic how modern evangelicals are. We don’t realize how much we’ve absorbed.

A view of the human person that is a product of the Enlightenment, for example. Whereas ancient Christian intuitions about this were much more embodied. So the desert fathers knew, if I’m going to overcome the vice of gluttony, it’s not a matter of making sure I hear the message and understanding the Biblical passage that convicts me. That’s good, I mean that will will be the start. But now I need rituals and regimens to undo my wanton lusts.

So talk about cultural liturgies. Talk about thick and thin liturgies and practices. That’s so insightful.

Yeah, so I tend to use the word liturgy, fairly expansively, to mean formative social practices that really touch our most fundamental longings and desires. And so that means there are cultural practices that function liturgically. They shape the very core of who we are, without us realizing.

Give an example.

Well, I often like to pick on the mall, just because I think the way you become a consumerist, the way you become convicted by the consumerist gospel, is not because you get to the mall and somebody hands you a tract and says here’s the sixteen things the mall believes. Here’s our set of propositional train. It’s not an intellectual exchange.

But it is a tactile, visceral, embodied experience that, over time, really is recruiting your heart, your loves and longings, to long for this vision of flourishing, this version of the good life. And when you analyze that Biblically, I think you’ll see that it’s a rival gospel. So, we don’t realize the extent to which practices are shaping our most fundamental orientation to God and the world.

And that’s because, I actually think, we have so emphasized the head, and we are so worried about the messages in culture that run counter to a Christian worldview, that we haven’t picked up on the practices of a culture that run counter to a Christian imagination, a Christian love, a Biblical vision of what shalom is and what flourishing is. So, those quote-unquote secular liturgies are the kinds of practices that, they might not be trying to convince you to think the wrong thing. But, even worse, they’re capturing your imagination so you love the wrong things. And if we are what we love, that turns out to be a pretty fundamental disordering of who we are.

And they do it through our bodies. So, for example, when I walk into my local mall, I walk in through the Macy’s entrance, and I see beautiful shoes, right off. I smell whatever they’re spraying in the Estee Lauder counter. And I also get a whiff of the Starbucks there, and blast of cool air hits me from the hot parking lot. And I walk in and I go, ah.

Yes, that’s very good.

Now when I walk into my church, I walk in and cooler air. I walk in and there’s holy water there. And I can dip my finger in and remind myself of my baptism in Christ. And I smell maybe some vestigial incense, or I hear the choir practicing. Now that sets a whole other chain. And I’m–

But it’s equally bodily, isn’t it?

Absolutely. That’s why ever since I read your book.

But what you just described is not the common evangelical experience in showing up at church.

I know, I’m Anglican. [all laughing]

But what’s interesting about what you’re saying is the marketers, and the sales folk, and the manufacturers, understand something about human anthropology that the church has lost.


And the church might counter by saying, well, no, we don’t wanna become like them. We don’t wanna go for just the body and desire; chiefly we wanna go for the mind. And I guess I wanna ask you a little bit about that.

Affect, and the body, and emotion, the body and affect are pretty closely tied together, have kind of been the awkward step child of modern Christianity. It’s kind of the embarrassed faculty that acts out and disrupts the mind. [Betsy laughing] But you re-understand affect as attention. And the positive role of affect, closely connected to the body in our formation. Can you talk about this re-understanding of emotion?

Yeah. And what’s interesting, I mean on the one hand I think that intuition comes out of my own Pentecostal charismatic background. So I would say one of the gifts of Pentecostal charismatic Christianity is that it actually re-values the emotion. Now, we could also have a conversation about how it, perhaps, over-values emotion. Fair enough. But at least it sort of says, oh, my emotions are also something that should be brought into alignment with what God desires for me. And those are a creational part of who I am.

But, interestingly, even someone like Jonathan Edwards, probably still the most brilliant American theologian that has ever written on this side of the Atlantic. The affections are defining for him. I think you’re totally right though, Tom, that marketers are our culture’s most brilliant psychologists. They understand how this works. They understand the kinds of creatures we are. And my worry is that they understand it much better than the church does.

Which is why it’s so much more successful in forming us, sometimes, than the church is, because marketing knows to appeal to the affections. Not just to fool us, but because that’s a legitimate part of who we are. And then the church might see what’s wrong with that but then we think that the solution is intellectual, and what we need are experiences like you just described, Betsy, which are worship experiences, spaces, practices, that equally recruit our affections. And that happens, I would say, almost aesthetically.

Everything you described there were all the senses. And it’s interesting how, historically, worship was a much more visual, tactile, aesthetic experience. Not because it’s pretty. But because that’s how the story gets into your bones.

Plus there were most folks couldn’t read. So the pictures had to be in the windows, in the statues, in the practices, in the church year. And Jesus, I mean, we’re on such firm ground here. Coming right out of the Old Testament we have Jesus, and baptism, and feasts, and touching and healing, and posture in prayer, as well as proclamation.

And he fed people too. I mean it’s all there, and it’s ours. The church just needs to take it back. And it’s not that, for example, even propositional communication isn’t important, but notice how even Jesus, so much of Jesus’ propositional communication is embedded, say, in parables, which function narratively. And so they just work on a different register than merely processing data and information.

You know, let’s talk about that, because you’re very sympathetic to a story, and narrative, and poetry, and even the little stories, and images, and symbols that are contained in that. And again the argument is that you believe that these things help fire up our imagination. And imagination recruits desire.

So talk a little bit about this, you’ve been helped a lot by neuroscientists, and some philosophers, and kind of re-understanding the role of imagination even in kind of anchoring in us a world view. We tend to thing of the world view as a more analytical kind of practice. But you say, no, the imagination is really at the core of a world view. Talk about how we need to understand the imagination.

And it’s tough because I’m sort of using the imagination as a word to name what I think other people would just call our intuitions about the world. But it’s this, in other words, to imagine your world is to make sense of it pre-analytically. Maybe that’s a way of getting at it.

You’re talking about, also, pre consciously?

And also pre consciously .

Talk about it, it’s kind of unconscious.

It is a kind of unconscious.

We say what I know by heart.

Yeah, exactly. And yet it’s not a hard wired thing. So we’re not just, there’s a biological platform on which this operates. And yet what we’re talking about are habitual ways of learning how to perceive the world that often we don’t articulate, and yet kind of govern our feel for the world. It’s more like a know how.

And it just strikes me that a lot of recent research in neuroscience, cognitive science, even social psychology, I think kind of confirms a lot of ancient Christian intuitions about spiritual formation, which is this is a sort of know-how that you carry in your gut, that you learn, it’s caught more than it’s taught.

And yet, that doesn’t mean that it’s not intentional, aimed at the world. It’s even it own kind of understanding. But it builds on operations, I would say, I’m not a psychologist so I’m always intimidated to tread on your terrain here.

Go for it.

It seems like it’s working on a register between body and mind. A French philosopher that I draw on a lot, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, makes a lot out of this sense of the between. That the imagination is between intellect and instinct.

It’s this know-how that is built up over time. And sometime you have to un-learn things that you’ve acquired in your imagination. You have to learn how to re-imagine who you are, what you are. And I think the reason why story is so important is, in some ways, Christian formation is the re-narration of our identity in Christ. It’s like all of us carry a story in our bones. And some of us, actually, have absorbed a story that’s not true. We’ve absorbed a false story.

And these are the secular liturgies that maybe you talked about.

Yeah, and I mean, and the scary thing is, too, this can happen for Christians.

It can happen in church.

You can be raised in the church and come from a really dysfunctional family context, or a really toxic Christian context, and it turns out that you’ve absorbed a story that is other than the gospel story. And so then, what has to happen, is, yes, you might intellectually grasp the good news of the Gospel. But it might take an entire season of your life, it might take a lifetime to re-learn, at that imagination level, that the Father loves you.

So this matter of the Father loves me. We, all of us, I honestly think this is what scripture’s gonna, when it talks about now we see through a glass darkly, then we’ll know as as we’re known. It’s that when we see him face to face, then we’re gonna go, oh, that’s you. Oh, that’s me. Because we’ll see ourselves mirrored in his eyes, and it will be the real us that he’s been loving all along.

James: That’s beautiful.

Psalm 86:11 talks about unite my heart that I may praise your name. So we’re all living, to some extent, with a divided heart. We’re all living under a false identity. Now to the extent that our parents were good enough parents, as one of God would say.

To the extent that our parents could care for the little people we were, and tolerate our emotions, and explain the world to us, and train us. Then when we come and hear the good news of the Gospel, it’s gonna be good news. But I honestly know somebody who loves the Lord dearly, and came to me for spiritual direction, which is different than therapy.

And we’re talking about her prayer life. And so I ask her, you know, when you talk to God about this, how do you sense he’s receiving you? And she said, “oh, I would never bring this up to God. “Why would I wanna call his attention to me? “I’m just hoping, when I die, he’ll let me in.”

And so there we see how her, exactly what you’re talking about, this early, the wrong message, the lie that she was given of your job is to be quiet and sit in the corner. And if you’re lucky, we’ll feed ya. And so then when she hears about God, she loves him but she doesn’t know him and she certainly doesn’t know that he knows her.

And it’s almost like there can be a gap between your intellectual grasp of the Gospel, which is absolutely crucial. And your existential absorption of the reality of that good news.

Your God concept. Versus your God image.

So I am interested in attachment theory, myself. And of course attachment theories emphasize the fact that our early formation in relationship with our caregiver, our parent, really does make such an imprint that it effects all future relationships, including our relationship with God. Our relationship with God, initially, is a kind of echo of whatever our experience of relationships were early on. Which means that we can sometimes have a distorted view of God if we had inadequate caregiving.

And I wanna ask a little bit about that, because I do have a theorist friend of mine, attachment theorist in psychology, who says that, basically, we have to be loved into loving. We love because God first loved us. And so I wanna ask a little bit about, since you’re such a strong advocate of repeated practices, sometimes I hear that, well, God’s kind of in the deep background of a practice.

We’re doing the practice of prayer, or the practice of confession, and he’s working on us, unaware. We have good days and bad days, days we feel close to him, didn’t feel so close. But where, for you, is the existential, relational, Psalmist-like interaction with God amid the practices? Which practices help us really attach to God relationally? Not just merely as a kind of habit of practice. And where is this place for this deep interaction with the person of God, in immediacy, in relationship, amid these repeated practices?

That’s a great question. I wanna say almost any of those practices will, at different moments, be thin places, in which the Father is met in the Son, in ways that will take me by surprise. Yeah, I don’t want us to paint the picture of liturgical practices, Christian worship practices, where we’re just going through the motions and God is kind of elsewhere.

It’s funny, to give an example, in my tradition, worship always ends with a benediction, where we are sent from worship, now, to take up our image-bearing task in culture. And it’s a charge but it’s also a blessing. And the pastor will raise his or her hands and bless us. I’m interested in the attachment theory because I come from, actually, a really messed up family, and have never known the love of a father. And what I do, whenever the benediction is offered, I hold out my hands to receive it, because that’s the only father who has ever said I bless you. And for me, I think some people might look at that as this really formal, liturgical thing. For me, that is a thin place. That’s an experience of intimacy.

And is there a conversation that even takes place in that moment, sometimes with you? Like you hold out your hands and it’s kinda like Lord I need you? I mean, what is the–

Yeah, I mean, and I suppose, probably, it makes a difference, I almost enter these liturgical practices differently, probably because my affections were also cultivated by charismatic experience. It breeds a sense of intimacy. I bet that’s not true of everyone. Maybe if somebody was a cradle Lutheran, and all they’ve ever done is gone through these rhythms, they might not experience the intimacy in the same way I’m looking for it there, because of those other past experiences. It’s funny, also, it might be really weird but, for me, the regular ritual of confession and assurance of pardon, is, for me, a deeply intimate meeting of a father who I have to be honest with, and who says, I forgive you every single time.

God is right there. He’s right there for you.

I think one of the things, and this is really great question, and I don’t have all the answers to it. But I think it’s worth thinking about more, because I think, culturally, we’ve absorbed certain standard tropes of intimacy, or certain repertoires of intimacy, and therefor we foster certain kinds of worship experiences that we think breed intimacy. And I think we might not realize that intimacy will look different for different people. If that makes sense.

Yeah, and you know, a couple times in your conversation you used the example of laying the hands out. And I just want you to take a moment to talk about how is confessing like this different from, or the benediction was the example. How is the benediction different for you, and why, from just holding my hands down, and putting my hands out. So now we’re using the body. Why is that important? And why does that make sense that there’s a bodily practice that ought to be, in some cases, connected to this relational or liturgical practice?

I think, again, it’s a Psalmist’s intuition here, that we are en-souled bodies and embodied souls and we are, there’s something spiritually that happens in the posture of my body, because I am my body. I’m not just a soul trucking around in this vehicle. I am also my body.

You’re not a ghost in the machine?


No, exactly. And so, for me, this is a tangible, holistic expression of a posture that I am also trying to cultivate spiritually. But, I’ll also be honest. You know what? There’s lots of Sundays I don’t feel like doing this. It’s not expressive. It’s not, oh, I’m doing this to show that I’m open to the Father. Sometimes I’m doing it to try to make myself open to the father.

So this is one of your practices.

Yeah, and the body leads the spirit, in a way, in this regard. It’s a little bit like belonging before believing. It’s acting before I’m there spiritually, sometimes.

So it’s acting as if. And yet, I’m listening to you and I’m thinking, and yet this is the Holy Spirit’s life in him. This is the trinity has come and made his home in you. And therefor, it makes a difference in what you do.

The same reason why, you know what, some days I don’t feel like raising my hands in praise. But the Bible commands it. And I get it. It’s almost like your body can be ahead of the curve of where your spirit needs to be. And so you practice your way into that posture.

Talk a little bit about private prayer versus corporate prayer. What’s the difference between me, myself, in my prayer closet, my prayer chair, or me and all my brothers and sisters, who I love or don’t love, nor don’t know, and know stuff about, and now we’re here doing something with our bodies together.

What’s interesting, we call it the body of Christ. So yeah, talk about what a difference does it have to be doing some of these practices with other bodies, and alone.

So talk about that a little bit.

Do you mean, I certainly think there’s something at stake when we gather communally in these worship practices. We can do something collectively that we couldn’t do individually. So, it’s not just, the gathering of the body of Christ, is not just a collection of individuals who are now having their own private relationship with God.

It is the forging of a people who now are acting communally and collectively. I’ll give you one example. And again, I come from a fairly liturgical tradition. So, in worship every week, we would say the creed. I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and Earth.

Tom: You’re talking about you reform church, not your Pentecostal.

In the reformed tradition.

Betsy: They have a different creed [laughs].

And so, one of the things I sometimes tell my kids to do is, you know what, some weeks just listen to everybody else saying the creed. I want them to say it. But some weeks, actually, the aural experience of hearing all of these saints surrounding me professing their faith, and I’m part of them.

There will be weeks when I need them to believe for me. That’s just being honest about the ups and downs of a progressive, sanctified life, is recognizing, you know what, there are some weeks where I’m kind of not there. And yet, I’m there [laugh]. So that’s a first conviction. And there’s something about hearing the body singing praises to Christ, that, itself, happens for me. And I think that communal aspect is important.

We were hearing somebody talk about grieving, and they talked at the table earlier this semester. And they were talking about when I couldn’t pray, the church prayed for me. When I couldn’t sing, the church sang for me.

The hardest spiritual experience I’ve ever had, or one of them, our niece Sophie died very suddenly, and tragically, when she was 17 months old. And our extended family come from a very free church tradition. I’m not a pastor, I’m not ordained. But Dianna’s sister and her husband asked if I would help officiate the funeral. This was a nightmare. And we got to the final song, and we were going to sing In Christ Alone, which some folks might be familiar with.

And I looked down at Jen and Luke, and said to them, “we’re not asking you to sing. “We can’t possibly expect you to sing. “We will sing for you.”

And that’s the body acting out. This is why I think sometimes our liturgies lead us to places that we couldn’t get to on our own. They are invitations into a spiritual place that we couldn’t muster on our own willpower. It’s one of the reasons why, even individually, if you think if your in your prayer closet. So, again, this isn’t maybe typical evangelical piety.

But for me, it’s things like the divine hours, or the Book of Common Prayer, that I receive as a gift for my personal spirituality. Because I’m not an extrovert. I’m not an expressive person. I’ve seen young people who are introverted. And youth group spirituality tends to be very extroverted and expressive, and happy clappy, and chipper. And I see introverted young people who look at that and say, “I can’t be that.”

Not me.

But they think that’s what a Christian is. And so they’re like, “well I can’t make this stuff up “all the time. “I can’t be on all the time.” And so you give them something like the Book of Common Prayer, and you say this is the gift of tongues. Here, God is giving you the words of his scripture to pray in a regimented. And you see these lights go on.

And it’s like, you mean I don’t have to be this chipper, perky, on person. I can be in Christ and be immersed in these practices. And in lots of ways disciplines like that take you through the whole counsel of scripture in ways that my own little personal supplications don’t. And they become more formative.

Trains run better on tracks than they do on the ground.

That’s a great metaphor.

And the wheel has been invented. [all laughing]

Right, right.

Btsy: And it’s round [laughing].

But you are touching on something that maybe some people hearing this interview would be very unfamiliar with, which is these repeated liturgical practices, week in and week out. And the sense is that this is gonna lead to a kind of deadening, or routine. There seems to be some kind of allergy to repetition in some contemporary churches.

And you’ve already, in part, said, well, you know, one of the goods of this repetition is sometimes you need to be carried in this. ‘Cause not every day can we muster the love and affection and kind of energy. So these things carry us. But talk a little bit more about this kind of allergy to repetition among some contemporary churches, and why we need not fear it, why, in fact, it is this real gift of formation.

Great question. My concern is that if we don’t come up with a positive account of repetition, and why repetition is a good thing spiritually, we will just keep being deformed by secular liturgies, because they get how important repetition is.

It’s a tournament of liturgies.

Yeah, absolutely, that’s good. [Betsy laughing] And I think this is where the psychology and neuroscience would nourish the account that we’re giving here, which is, look, your intuitions and perception of the world are ingrained in you because you are immersed in practices over time, and that starts to seep into your unconscious.

And so how ironic then, that Christians, somehow, we’ve decided that novelty in worship is the most important thing. So what are we gonna do next week to make it interesting and not boring? And I think that’s because we’ve assumed that worship is just an expressive activity by which we show our devotion to God. And we’ve missed the formative part that, no, this is how God is getting a hold of us. So, there is no formation where there is no repetition.

Can I talk about that from neuro-psych, just a little bit?


So, when I go to these neuro-psych conferences, they say the neurons that fire together, wire together. And so they fire. And it’s the repetitive firing that then makes the neural nets that sets up the practices. For example, it’s a stupid example, but when you put on your pants in the morning, you don’t think, like a little toddler does, okay, I sit down, I try to hold it open, I try to put.

We pick up our jeans and we always put the one leg in first. I mean, it’s a motor program. We don’t think of it. It’s like when you’re driving a stick shift. When you started it was, I’m gonna put in the clutch, and now I’m gonna slowly [making gear change noises]. But now, we just get in, we start the car, and we go. ‘Cause it’s a motor program. So what you’re talking about is motor programs of worship that take care of us having to painfully think about it and make the decision every time. But motor programs of worship that just [sighs], now I’m in his presence and I can bring my stuff.

And it’s not just so that you can show that you’re that kind of automaton, or something. The point is you’re being immersed in those practices over and over again, so that the Spirit can be transforming how, now, you act in the world. So that when you do have to think about things, it’s already informed by the background imagination and perception that you’ve acquired through those repeated practices.

Yeah, I think it’s puzzling. I think lots of Christians affirm repetition in all kinds of other spheres of their cultural life, whether they’re musicians, athletes, teachers, whatever it might be, and then somehow we think repetition is illegitimate in the spiritual realm. But as you have pointed out already, that’s a very modern, new idea.

Do you think that maybe it’s one of the lies of the enemy?

I could imagine a Screwtape letter on exactly this point. Convince Christians that they need to keep doing it differently [laughs].

I think you say, in one of your books, don’t let the enemy have all the good repetitions.

Exactly. That’s right. [Betsy laughing]

Well, let me ask you too about, I wanna ask a little bit about higher education and seminaries. Because, of course, the pastors of our churches come out of higher education settings, in many cases, seminaries. And seminaries, just like classroom learning in all colleges, has a kind of very basic liturgy of walk in, sit down, listen to a lecture, have a discussion, take notes. It is a kind of brain-on-a-stick model.

And I know there’s more creative pedological practices. But this is the training ground for people, including pastors. And let’s face it, people tend to run their churches, as pastors, how they were taught in seminaries. So, if there is a default tendency towards the brain-on-a-stick model for churches, it could be that that was learned in seminaries. And so my question is, do the traditional liturgies of the classroom of higher education, or any place Christians are being formed in a college classroom, do those need to start changing? And how, would you say, they need to change?


I think, on the one hand, of course, a Christian university and a seminary are not the church. So, it’s fair enough to say they are intellectual institutions; they are defined by that project of research, and learning, and exploration. That, however, doesn’t settle the pedagogical–

Well, and pragmatically speaking, while pastors should separate those things, they may just go on and not make the distinction.

That could very well–

They may make the church a kind of little university. So, go on.

Right. No, no, no, that’s right.

I’ve seen that.

And it’s funny, ’cause some readers of my work worry that I’m trying to make the university into a big church. So that’s why I sometimes–

Are you? [Tom laughing]

No. What I do want, I want to see the university and the seminary as embedded institutions within the church’s life. So these are the places we come to think. Thinking is good. But I think now what we need to ask ourselves is what would be the practices and ethos of those institutions that would equip us to think well and love well, and to have our habits shaped? I think we are just starting to have that conversation. How would the ethos of a Christian university or seminary change if it was also going to be a formative space and not just an informative space?

So what I am hearing, it sounds like there is space for a conversation to happen at universities and seminaries about what other practices could be admitted. Because it seems to me that, especially in undergraduate colleges, Christian colleges, students are living together, they are eating together, they’re worshiping together, they’re learning together.

And these are all parts of an education that you’ve taken seriously, because these are a kind of constellation of practices that they’re getting. And so my concern is that we need to train students, even at this educational level, in all of these, because they, inevitably, will teach as they have been taught.

Yes, and I agree. Both college and seminary are such fantastic seasons of life to invite students to try on new practices, which then you hope take, and will continue to shape them for a lifetime. I think we need to be much more intentional. It’s why the Student Affairs Division and the Academic Division have to be in sync and feeding and fueling one another.

Which has not traditionally been the model. Often spiritual formation, while theology has been discussed in the classrooms, spiritual formation, or spiritual life, has been outsourced to the co-curricular.

As if, well, that has to do more with practices, and the heart, and things like this. And that’s my concern is that this distinction that we somehow inherited, I think it goes back to the modernist university, and kind of sending theology down the road.

And this is why the pre-modern university is another resource for us. So if you go back to, think of how the University of Paris, or Oxford, or Cambridge, began. They bubbled up out of monastic communities. Do you know what I mean? They were spaces of a holistic community of practice in which, then, was embedded intellectual investigation. ‘Cause I think you’re right, we don’t wanna compartmentalize this and bifurcate it. You also, sometimes the piety and spirituality that is fostered in the extracurricular, undercuts the intellectual project. I’ve seen that happen. So there’s no extracurricular. There’s just co-curricular. And all of that has to be framed towards the end of loving God and loving learning for God’s sake.

Yeah, 1 Timothy 1:5, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart.” My question is does that apply to the university, as well as the church? It was written, at first, to counsel the churches.


Absolutely, without a question.

Okay, and my question is what about if your university is your computer, and you’re doing distance learning? Which is a wonderful and horrible opportunity for us. [James laughing] And we have to do it. And there will be people we can reach that, with a Christian university, that otherwise would never have this.

And yet, it seems to me, any time we put something online, we are making every single one of our students learning disabled, because now they’re isolated in some way, and they aren’t, it’s not a breath relationship. And so how do we do formation online?

It’s a mode of learning that is almost de facto about information transfer. And as you say, if you’re comparing that to nothing, it’s a benefit. If you’re comparing that to the full-orbed, formational communal project that we know as traditional, residential, undergraduate, liberal arts education, it’s hard to imagine those two things side by side. The one innovation I’ve heard of that tries to at least honor this challenge is looking for ways to let online learners in other places find one another for communities of practice.

And/or finding congregations and communities that will, basically, host peer learning groups that make this more embodied, more communal, more practiced. You could imagine, for example, that everyone in our class, even though we’re all across the country and around the globe, we, nonetheless, actually commit to certain practices, say, of morning and evening prayer. And even though we are isolated, in common, we are praying the divine hours, or something like that. That’s, again, I’m not convinced that’s the ideal. But maybe in the real, that’s not a bad strategy of response.

Right, we’ve talked about, for our spiritual formation classes, as we put them online, sending along a light this candle, smell this incense, get down on your knees, and now we’re gonna all pray together, in that kind of instant Skype networking way that we can do.

It does show the challenge though, doesn’t it, of the cultural liturgies of media and communication? That sometimes they are just loaded to be reductionistic. And they, ironically, reduce us to minds that connect online, even though we are obviously bodies.

But they may awaken desire, which then this person will go out and find the church wherever they are.

This is why the intellectual project is so crucial. The other thing that’s going on in an education is you are actually inviting people to think about the practices that they are immersed in so that they can then have new intentionality. What communities of practice do you wanna shape you? Or what communities of practice have you been immersed in that you didn’t realize were communities of practice and were functioning liturgically? That’s an intellectual insight that is part of a Christian education.

One of the temptations I find, even with talking to people online, if I’m Skyping or other things, it seem like the online screen, which is usually filled with links, links that you can go elsewhere if you’re bored for a moment. So you can leave. The screen almost intuitively, even as I approach it, I feel my body, if I’m bored for a second, I’ll get to leave go someplace more exciting.

Betsy: Facebook. [James laughing]

Yeah, and so, that is gonna be the one temptation, even as we create a kind of interpersonal experience on computers. While I may walk away from somebody in-person, and that would be pretty rude [laughs], there is this extra temptation on a screen that has formed me habitually to want to go elsewhere in a moment.

And so, how do we form ourselves to check in with the Holy Spirit, even in front of the screen, and saying, Lord, what do you have for me right now? You’re with me in this body. What do you have for me?

Well, and there could be very concrete institutional architecture that frames it so that, for example, you kind of eliminate those temptations in your online interface.

Tom: Take them off the screen. I’m kind of pro-paternalism, in some of these respects. It’s what Cass Sunstein calls nudging. Nudging is where you basically set up institutional spaces that just constrain your choice architecture. But it’s for your good. And so then you’re propelled. Otherwise, again, we’re thrown back on the individual willpower. And I don’t have that. I need the Spirit, and I need the community, to help me live this out.

You know what I really like about the conversation we’ve had is that you’ve, in a sense, expanded the options. So much of explorations in church work and growth is kind of saying, well, it’s just this piece here that you’re missing; it’s just this piece here. But you’ve returned us to some ancient wisdom.

You returned us to the reality of how God actually made us, not just as minds, but as bodies, and as sensations and as affects. And you’ve actually taken some of the work that’s being done, in general relation, in neuroscience, and psychology, and sociology, and you’ve said, if this helps us understand what it means to be human before God, then we need to appropriate this for our purposes.


I feel like this discussion has really expanded our imagination for how God shapes us. So, thank you.

I’ve enjoyed it.

Thank you for helping us.

Thank you Jamie, thank you.

Thank you so much, thank you, great fun.

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