A Spirituality of Graduate School: Mission and Formation (Scholar’s Compass)

gothic arches photoGreg Thompson once said in my hearing, “Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” Head pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and Executive Director of New City Commons (a think tank devoted to exploring the intersections of the Church’s mission and contemporary culture), Greg is the consummate pastor-scholar and generally when he speaks, I listen. His commentary is always illuminating and incisive. But this particular comment was different.

It wasn’t that he had said something I had never thought of before. Quite the opposite: He had put words to something I knew in my bones but did not know how to describe. In that brief aphorism he had captured what, for me, had long been only a jumble of inarticulate groans and half-formed intuitions. The chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that we all know far more than we can say, and that part of the joy of discovery is when you finally discover a way to say what you already partially, inarticulately knew in your bones. In Greg’s comment I discovered language I had been looking for for years.

I doubt I am alone in thinking this. Surely, many of us must sense that there is something deeply wrong with, say, the person or the church that pushes spiritual disciplines, and liturgy, and the cultivation of virtue, but is allergic to overt evangelical witness and sees any attempt to persuade someone of the objective truth of the gospel as being somehow in bad taste. It’s not that their emphasis on spiritual formation is fine so far as it goes, and that they need only to add a little evangelism to their diets. It’s that their very emphasis on spiritual formation itself, separated from evangelical witness, has become warped, curved in on itself, making practitioners of such spiritual formation curved in on themselves. Homo incurvatus in se (“Humans curved in on themselves”), was how Martin Luther described humanity in the state of sin. Spiritual formation disconnected from witness becomes self-serving, narcissistic, merely therapeutic, and, in the end, unspiritual.

Similarly, the person or church that is aflame with evangelistic zeal but lacks a corresponding zeal for the patient, painstaking task of cultivating Christian character will often wind up preaching either “cheap grace,” on the one hand, or a patently false gospel of instantaneous moral transformation (that is bound to lead to disillusionment, deception, or despair), on the other. Likewise, an evangelistically zealous person or church, if they do not take seriously the necessity of rigorously thinking through the implications of the gospel for their politics, their economics, their art, their culture, will wind up not only being shallow but also preaching a gospel of private spirituality and of a “god” who is, to borrow J.B. Phillips’s phrase, “too small.”

InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries identify as our core values 1) spiritual formation, 2) the integration of faith, learning and practice, 3) the development of authentic Christian community, and 4) evangelism and service (or, better, evangelism-cum-service). I joined GFM precisely because I share these core values and believe deeply that they are essential not only to our mission on campus but also to the mission of the Church as a whole in our emerging secular age. However, that being said, merely enumerating these core values as I have just done can leave one with the impression that they represent merely an ad hoc selection of “stuff Christians like,” a sort of grab-bag of disparate theological or spiritual goods. If that were the case, then it would be quite possible to imagine that some GFM staff might be perfectly able to take some of these core values while leaving (or, at any rate, de-emphasizing) others, and still do justice to the values for which they have an affinity. (e.g., “I’m not so much an evangelism kind of person. Spiritual formation is more my thing.”)

But my sense is that these values are anything but ad hoc and separable. A deep, underlying logic binds them together such that you cannot do a disservice to one without undermining or warping the others. “Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” Each of these values, while distinct, must go together if they are to be authentically lived out at all.

Over my next few posts here on ESN I will try to examine some of the interconnections between our spiritual formation, the task of integrating our faith with all of life, our life together as the Body of Christ, and the mission of the Church. In order to see the interconnections between these values and tasks we will need to situate them within a broader theological framework, namely, within the Missio Dei, “the mission of God.” Here is where we’re going:

  • Missio Dei: The Context of Our Callings
  • Vocatio Christi: The Contours of Our Callings
  • Vocatio Christi: The Cost of Our Callings
  • Formatio: The Task of Our Callings
  • Communio Sanctorum: Our Common Calling

I hope you will read along and share your thoughts.


Image courtesy of Raw2Jpeg at Pixabay.com

Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and David’s Missio Dei Spirituality of Graduate School Series on the Emerging Scholars Blog. Part 1. More to come!

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David Williams

David is a campus staff for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries at New York University, where he serves as a university chaplain, and as a pastor and advisor for the school's medical, dental and law student fellowships. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, David joined InterVarsity in 2011 and spent his first two years on staff serving the Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School. David holds masters' degrees in biblical studies and theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, and is a devoted lifelong learner. David is passionate about helping non-Christians to meet Jesus and about helping Christians — both Christian scholars and laypeople — to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. David and his lovely wife, Alissa, live in New York City. You can follow David’s ministry at his blog, 10000places.com and you can support his pastoral and writing ministries here.

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