What is spiritual formation? And how does a church do it? A professor and pastor discuss the new language of making disciples.
Above the entrance to the philosophy department at the University of Southern California, where Dallas Willard has taught for forty years, is a figure of Diogenes. The fourth century B.C. philosopher was known to carry a lamp through the streets of Athens in the daylight in search of one honest man. To some Diogenes was a madman; to others he was a provocative revealer of truth.
Twentieth Century philosophical thought has expressed itself for the most part through two great Movements: the phenomenological and the analytical. Each movement originated in reaction against idealistic—or at least anti-realistic—views of "the world". And each has collapsed back into an idealism not different in effect from that which it initially rejected. Both movements began with an appeal to meanings or concepts, regarded as objective realities capable of entering the flow of experience without loss of their objective status or of their power to reveal to us an objective world as it would be if there were no subjective apprehensions of it. Both movements ended with a surrender of the objectivity of meanings and concepts in this strong sense, coming to treat them as at most more-or-less shareable components of a somehow communalized experience, but in any case incapable of revealing how things are irrespective of actual human experience. For the...
We said, "Take the gloves off, Dallas. Tell us what we really need to hear." We had read all of Dallas’ books and been deeply impacted by them—not least by his latest, The Divine Conspiracy. But Brian had just finished presenting some thoughts on new models of leadership—leaders marked not so much by conquest and technique, but by spiritual goodness and wisdom. And so we sat there, slumped pensively in our chairs, until someone finally said, "Dallas...please talk to us about how we become those kind of people." So, during a break, Dallas began listing some of his thoughts on a whiteboard. And then in his gracious, careful way, he challenged us to become the kind of leaders this world so desperately needs. The following is some of what he told us.
Only a few decades ago, well past the Second World War and into the early Sixties, American culture was almost universally regarded as based upon Christianity. Most leaders, as well as people generally, not only accepted this basis as a fact, but also more-or-less firmly agreed that that is how things ought to be.
This was especially true of educational institutions. Speeches by the Presidents of even the state schools, such as the University of California at Berkeley, often could have passed for Christian sermons. And even as late as 1965, when I came on the faculty of the University of Southern California, the prayers which the Chaplain delivered on public occasions were noticeably Christian prayers by a clearly Christian person. While that was viewed by some individuals with scepticism, boredom, or even resentment, the cultural prerogative that Christianity enjoyed was generally conceded a certain right.
I decided to discuss the use of pornography [(porne = prostitute) + (graphy = drawing)] because: (1) it presents us with a peculiarly vivid case of spiritual formation and possible spiritual transformation, and (2) it is such a wide spread problem for people today, and also among Christians and those in ministry—and a problem which generates a lot of hopelessness in those involved.
The human being stands in his or her world condemned to act, and to act on the basis of whatever ideas, images, beliefs, impulses, desires and emotions they may have in the moment of action. We have no choice about that. We may have some choice about what ideas, beliefs, impulses, etc. will be available to us in future situations where we must act. That will largely depend upon what is given to us from the world we come into and what we are prepared to do now. But whatever world we come into, the human problem is to find in knowledge a solid basis for action.
Students in our colleges and universities live constantly in a tension between two authority systems: one more or less vaguely associated with science and the other with religion. Both systems are “blind” in the sense that the edicts they impose on thought and behavior are never, for the vast majority of people, reduced to anything close to understanding, verification, or proof. An illustration comes from a recent experience reported by one of my students.
What is business (manufacturing, commerce) for? Today the spontaneous response to this question is: The business of business is to make money for those who are engaged in it. In fact, this answer is now regarded as so obvious that you might be thought stupid or uninformed if you even ask the question. But that is only one of the effects of the pervasive miseducation that goes on in contemporary society, which fosters an understanding of success essentially in terms of fame, position and material goods. However, that only reflects a quite recent view of the professions—of which we will here assume business to be one—and, even today, is definitely not the view of success in professional life shared by the public in general. No business or other profession that advertises its ‘services’ announces to the public that it is there for the purpose of enriching itself or those involved...
When I was approached last December about the possibility of bringing this commencement address, it was because of the thought, or hope, that I might be able to cast light on the problem of how to balance the intellectual life with the spiritual life. I work as a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, which calls for something in the way of an intellectual life – or at least a sturdy appearance thereof – and I have recently published a book on the spiritual life and its disciplines. These facts are perhaps what stimulated the generous thought that I could say something interesting and useful about this problem of balance within the individual Christian, and within the body of the Church; of the intellectual life and the spiritual.
Let us understand "wisdom" in the following manner: a person has wisdom provided that (i) he understands the certain and the probable sources of frustration and joy in his self, in his relations to others, and in his relations to his non-human environment, and (ii) he habitually utilizes this understanding in selecting those routes of thought and behavior which maximize the fulfillment of his total system of needs and wants. This understanding of "wisdom" harmonizes with the discussions of wisdom in both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is agreed on all sides that wisdom involves the direction of life by relevant knowledge, and thus, that it incorporates both a theoretical and a practical element.
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