Spiritual Formation and the Classroom

SpiritualFormationClassroom

Perhaps when you think of seminary you think of a classroom where trivial details of theology are expounded by an incoherent professor who wears the same powder blue polyester suit from 1972. Or maybe you associate seminaries with World War II bunkers, isolated from the world yet lodging grenades at its enemies at every given opportunity. Personally, I have experienced my time in seminary as a refreshing yet challenging environment of robust spirituality and healthy theological debate. Certainly this is not always the case, but I am thankful for my experience and growth which has occurred while sitting at the feet of men and women who have taught me to understand the word of God and adequately teach it to others.

That’s why when I read Nathan Finn on seminary professors as spiritual directors, I immediately thought of the various mentors who have guided me along my path of seminary education. These mentors exhibited a godly humility which was infectious and worthy of imitation. They helped me see areas of weakness in my theology and personal life while always pointing the way to the grace of God in Christ. Finn writes:

In the classroom, we need to be intentional in applying our respective disciplines, not only to vocational ministry, but also to personal godliness. We must regularly and explicitly encourage our students to follow Christ, mortify sin, cultivate godly virtues, and practice disciplines that aid them in their spiritual journeys. We need to recognize that we are not just professors to them, but we are also spiritual role models who should be encouraging students to follow us as we follow Christ (1 Cor. 1:11). I have no doubt I am describing the present classroom practices of many professors.

The classroom is to be a space for spiritual formation. It invokes a sort of liturgy, a rhythm of forming men and women into Christ-followers. While the local church is the primary means, as Finn asserts, the classroom must also be a critical point of spiritual formation. Professors should not just inculcate biblical knowledge, but love for Christ. Writing on this James K.A. Smith asserts, “There is no neutral, nonformative education….More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 26-7). Professors help students understand the otherworldly calling of living for Christ. Debra Dean Murphy concurs noting, “Christians…live by stories that do in fact announce that the modern world is wrong” (Murphy, Teaching that Transforms, 43). Teaching should have an explicitly doxological function, leading students to worship the Creator. Again Murphy observes, “If doxological is the purpose of worship, insofar as we can say that worship has a purpose, it is in and through the doxological that the shaping and ongoing training of the Christian self occurs” (Murphy, 15). Teachers should teach to affect one’s desires towards Christ.  Teaching to desires does not negate the use of doctrinal concepts and theological terms, in fact, it demands them.

Smith ponders, “What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of ‘the good life’ – and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?” (Smith, 18). Teaching to desire seeks to form and inform individuals of the greatest love contained in the redemptive work of God and thus experience this within the context of worship through the Word, the table of the Lord and the fellowship of the saints. This is the goal of a seminary professor who functions as a spiritual director. We are what we love and the goal of Christian education is to form the heart towards loving the triune God and his plan of redemption.  We love in order to know and we worship in order to love. Such is the task of Christian education and the church. I have benefited from countless hours in the classroom, in the professor’s office, in coffee shops and the lunchroom where professors have listened and provided thoughtful and challenging feedback. I relish these and future formative experiences. May we all learn to love rightly and may our hearts be oriented by desire for the triune God by teaching to the heart alongside the mind.

For more on Nathan Finn’s excellent article, click here.

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