The Role of Practice in the Study of Christian Spirituality

Elizabeth Liebert
Presidential Address for the
Society for the Study Of Christian Spirituality

©The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000
Reprinted with permission from
Spiritus 2 (2) 2002: 30-49.

"`Right (communal) doing' seems in some sense a precondition for right understanding," claims Miroslav Volf[2]This statement raises a number of intriguing questions about what constitutes real understanding and how we arrive at it, questions that have particular significance for those engaged in scholarly reflection upon spiritual experience. Some of the questions are epistemological: What does it mean to know? Are there different "knowings" for theory and practice? Or might they be figure and ground of the same reality? What particular kind of knowing constitutes "scholarship?" Other questions have to do with perspective: What is the nature of the perspective taken by the scholar vis-a-vis the object of study and between the scholar and the scholar's audience? Where, in fact, is scholarship best pursued? And still other questions are of a pastoral character: How can one come to understand the other, be it the other in the pastor's study or in the neighborhood, the socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and gendered other, the ecumenical or interfaith other, even the non-human other?

In this essay, I would like to reflect on Volf's first phrase, "right communal doing," and ask what it might look like in a particular case: that of the academic study of Christian spirituality. I propose that a particular kind of doing that I shall call "practice," when employed by the scholar in the study of. spirituality, is not merely something useful, but is a constitutive dimension of the discipline. Because of this, spirituality offers a useful and necessary perspective to other theological disciplines. Furthermore, when used in conjunction with appropriate scholarly. methods, "practice" advances the content of the study itself.

To construct this argument, I will proceed in three interlocking steps: First, by examining the recent history and development of another young discipline, pastoral theology,[3] I will note some comparisons and contrasts between this discipline and the academic study of spirituality. Second, I will address one of the commitments shared by both disciplines, namely, to "experience." Finally, using the notion of "experience" as the launching point, I will propose a constructive suggestion for the academic study of spirituality concerning "practice."

Pastoral Theology And Spirituality
In their report, "Teaching Christian Spirituality in Seminaries Today,[4] Arthur Holder and Lisa Dahill noted that theology and history dominate the degrees of specialization among those teaching the introductory course in Christian spirituality (together, fifty percent of their sample). They wondered: "Given the preponderance of historians and theologians among those who teach introductory courses in Christian Spirituality, it is not surprising that these courses tend to stress history and theology, with very little attention to social scientific or aesthetic or practical theological or even biblical perspectives." What would happen if we were to pay attention to the insights and methodologies of these other disciplines?

My graduate study occurred in the program in Religion and Personality at Vanderbilt, and its discipline was the young and fluid one called pastoral theology. In reflecting on my own history, it occurred to me that the vicissitudes in the development of pastoral theology as an academic discipline offer interesting similarities and contrasts to the development of our discipline. This reflection has also led me to a claim based on an aspect of the academic study of spirituality, namely, its intrinsic relationship to that notoriously slippery concept, "experience."

Pastoral theology traces its formation to such psychologists of religion as William James, G. Stanley Hall and James Leuba in the early years of the twentieth century, Anton Boisen and Russell Dicks in the 1920s and 1930s and to such systematizers as Seward Hiltner, Carroll Wise, Paul Johnson, Daniel Day Williams, Wayne Oates, and Howard Clinebell in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.[5] These scholar-practitioners employed various biblical, theological, philosophical and psychological systems to ground their work. In the late 1970s, as I began my study, pastoral theology as an academic discipline was not quite sure if it was supposed to prepare clinicians, pastors, theologians, or a hybrid of all three. Consequently students in various doctoral programs tried on all three personae. But all used, to a greater or lesser degree, a series of practices, both clinical and reflective, to ground the emerging discipline.

In its widest sense, pastoral theology attempts to relate the meanings and requirements of faith to concrete human problems and situations, using human experience to come to a more profound understanding of God. In this endeavor, it deals inescapably in concreteness, with this event, this relationship, this liturgy, this life-crisis, asking, What does it mean? What does it ask of me, of others? How does it affect an understanding of and relationship to God? Similarly, the correlation proceeds in the other direction: How does my understanding of and relationship to God affect the interpretation of this particular experience? If God/Christ/Church/ world is like this, then what can I make of this child's death, for example?[6]

The dynamic nature of pastoral theology appears in the following illustration. To read this diagram, begin on the lower right side, with the sphere marked "case," then move to the left, to the sphere marked "tradition," and finally to the three fruits emerging from their dialectical interaction.

Pastoral theology, as this illustration reveals, is the task of prayerfully holding in tension the particular event or case[7] in all its concreteness (that is, the individual's experience; the minister's experience; the community's experience; the sociological, cultural, psychological, economic and other dynamic realities) with the tradition in all its richness and plurality (that is, the texts of the Christian community, particularly the Scriptures and the foundational documents of the given faith community; the history of the praxis of the community; the sensus fidelium) until we can hear the word of God that is true to each simultaneously. Once that word of God has become evident, however provisional and specific to the particular situation, it provides threefold direction: it suggests appropriate responses to the situation; it provides touchstones for evaluating pastoral praxis, and it contributes data to the larger theological enterprise and its development.

This description focuses on the moment of doing of pastoral theology. It leaves assumed the prior step of careful description of the case. So, a more complete illustration might look like this:

By focusing on the process rather than the content, the description begins to look quite like the pastoral circle of liberation theology, which illumines the dynamic, repetitive nature of a process for determining focused intentional action in a given setting:

In my experience, systematic theologians often seem not to take pastoral theologians with much seriousness. From their point of view, pastoral theologians deal in soft methodologies, such as case study and verbatim recording of conversations for analysis, and engage in sloppy and fuzzy theological thinking, mucking around as they do in the particularity of human experience. The primary data of pastoral theology is not the second-order systematic thinking about God that developed over the history of Christian thought and systematically refined in the last several hundred years. The academic discipline of spirituality faces similar kinds of problems of perception and credibility as it establishes itself among other academic disciplines.

Today, in the field of pastoral theology, just as in the academic study of, spirituality, there is an explosion of dialogue partners. Groups of scholars fromboth disciplines are asking, "What are the boundaries of our discipline?" Both disciplines attempt to focus their scope in two ways: by crafting a definition that delimits the discipline, and by selecting appropriate methods with which to address this subject matter. The definitional issues in the field of spirituality have received a great deal of attention lately, so I will not dwell on these here.[8]

As for methodological parameters, pastoral theologians are guided by a particular case, or situation, in determining the critical discipline employed; this discipline in turn determines the range of appropriate methodologies by which to correlate theory and practice in a given situation. Analogously, in the academic study of spirituality the particular research question determines the dialogue partners and methodology.[9] But since there are an infinite number of cases and interesting research questions, both disciplines find their boundaries continually exploding and overlapping with other disciplines.

For pastoral theologians, as for scholars of Christian spirituality, the particular case is itself intrinsically challenging and worthy of critical reflection. It is the "stuff"-the contents-that the discipline studies. Likewise, the "problematic disciplines" of both communities of scholars,. to use Sandra Schneiders's language,[10] are precisely those that will assist one better to understand the experience (case) at hand with greater knowledge, accuracy, and empathy, and more importantly, to help the persons or group themselves to understand their own experience and that of others more deeply. In these respects, pastoral theology is a close cousin to Christian spirituality.[11] The term "pastoral theology," like the term "Christian spirituality," can refer, at different moments, to the phenomenon (experience/case) in the round, the in-depth reflection on the case (the actual doing of pastoral theology), and to the academic study of the history, methods, and philosophy of the field.[12]

Before proceeding, I do want to point out some obvious inconsistencies between these two realms of discourse. Perhaps because pastoral theology arose primarily in Protestant theological and ecclesial contexts, it has tended to dwell on the human person in crisis and the appropriate helping acts taken by a representative of the church on behalf of and accompanying the person in crisis, including helping him or her to connect with faith where possible. The angle of entry, if you will, and the goal of the enterprise differ from the academic study of spirituality, which focuses more on the experience of the Holy as manifested in various theaters of personal and communal life. But since the focus of pastoral theology is still on a human person, albeit one in crisis, pastoral theologians may make virtually identical theological assumptions as scholars of spirituality do about the self-transcending nature of the human person, though these understandings of personhood often focus more on the negative, determined, and "fallen" aspects. So, while there are significant differences in these disciplines, the common emphasis on experience is important for our purposes.

The Common Ground: Experience
Pastoral theology reveals this shared predilection for critical reflection on experience in its consistent use of the particular event or situation: the case. Christian spirituality shows it in its careful attention to Christian religious experience as such, in the self-implicating nature of the study, and in the insistence of many that the study of Christian spirituality as an academic discipline must be grounded in the lived spiritual discipline of the one studying as well as the person, movement, text, or event studied.[13]

But what exactly do we mean by "experience?" Conversations in the Christian spirituality guild usually assume the meaning is self-evident. In fact, it is a complex issue. Following my disciplinary roots, I will use resources from pastoral theology to tease out the meaning of this slippery term.

Experience, says pastoral theologian Brian Childs, is "participation in or encounter with reality. "[14] The term may also refer to "the practical knowledge gained through such participation or encounter." It is "whatever we have undergone and done, and the ways in which we have learned something from what we did and underwent."[15] When opposing experience and reflection, an unfortunate dichotomy we would do well to avoid, experience stresses the immediacy of the occurrence as opposed to reflection on that experience. But, Childs insists, experience actually includes reflection as well as the original immediacy.[16] This more holistic sense of experience grounds wisdom and practical knowledge.[17] Furthermore, human experience develops within a web of relationships. These relationships provide the contents, the objects, the environment, and the context of our experience.They provide the material from which our memories, thoughts, images, feelings, and decisions are formed. They comprise the world upon which we act. These "others" can be variously grouped: nature, self, other humans, socio-political structures, and the transcendent.[18] Thus, what enhances and makes conscious the web of relationships in, for example, the doctoral classroom, makes possible enhanced experience.

"Practice" In The Academic Study Of Spirituality
Perhaps because of this disciplinary home in pastoral theology with its foundation in immediate experience, and also perhaps because I spend most of my time teaching ministry students for whom the issue of spiritual formation is both "hot" and hotly debated, I find myself diverging from some of my spirituality colleagues on the issue of the admissibility of "practice" into the academic study of spirituality, and consequently, into the quintessential venue for the academic study of spirituality, the doctoral program classroom.

What is "practice"? How is it related to experience? In general terms, according to theologian Rebecca Chopp, practices are

socially shared forms of behavior that mediate between what are often called subjective and objective dimensions. A practice is a pattern of meaning and action that is both culturally constructed and individually instantiated. The notion of practice draws us to inquire into the shared activities of groups of persons that provide meaning and orientation to the world, and that guide action."[19]

In terms of Christian spirituality, I propose to use the term "practice" as follows: "Practice" is the intentional and repeated bringing of one's lived spirituality into the various theaters of one's scholarly work and attending to what happens when one does. I have deliberately chosen the word "practice" because it exists as both a noun and a verb. The word "practice" typically connotes a particular spiritual discipline. But as I am using it, "practice" stands for the activity of continually bringing-practicing-lived spirituality into our scholarship. Lived spirituality, is "attending with as much authenticity as one can muster to the truth of one's own experience,[20] including the truth of the other that challenges and de-centers us. As we do our scholarship, we attend to this basic experiential level intentionally, repeatedly, publicly, and self-critically toward some goal beyond itself. Lived spirituality, Mary Frolich insists, remains the focus of engagement for any study of spirituality.[21] Thus, scholars of Christian spirituality practice reflecting together on the truth of our experience until it becomes second nature to us. We practice until our whole way of approaching a text or a figure or an event is informed by it. We practice attending to our lived spirituality in front of students and we give them opportunities to practice in the very learning of the discipline. In short, we develop a particular habitus that leads to growth in understanding.[22]

For me, then, "practice" means much more than just importing classic or contemporary spiritual disciplines into the classroom, though that too could be included under certain circumstances. It is a matter of doing always what it is that we study (as well as studying what we do). This shared and self-critically reflective experience of lived spirituality, is, in shorthand terms, "practice."

I can well imagine the kind of objections to these assertions that will inevitably arise: "But how will the necessary scholarly rigor be maintained?" "That might work in a seminary classroom, but you can't do it in the university, especially a public university." "That may work with some contemporary or more existential topics, but it won't work for ancient or classical texts." "But I don't do that kind of work." "But. . ."

Sandra Schneiders has stated the problem most cogently in her 1997 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality:

How to integrate a holistic approach to research with full accountability to the standards of criticism, personal commitment to what one is studying with appropriate methodological perspective, and practical involvement with theoretical integrity is, in my view, one of the major challenges the discipline of spirituality faces as it develops its identity in the academy.[23]

She has also stated the objections most forcefully in "A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality"[24]:

In the research sphere, however; I would have very serious reservations about the inclusion of any kind of mandatory practice or the direct use of such personal practice in the construction or prosecution of research projects. In the research arena the purpose of the study is, as in any research field, the expansion of knowledge in the field.

While Schneiders does make room for experience in the study of Christian spirituality in several important ways,[25] she also insists on bracketing any form of mandatory practice designed to foster the spiritual life of the student, and to restrict such practice to ministerial formation programs. Leaving aside my reservation about making any given discipline mandatory for all persons, I still wonder if the situation is this clear and distinct. I contend that in most situations it is not clear that one and only one of these realities, namely "mandatory practice intended to foster the spiritual life of students" versus a scholarly investigation of the material at hand, is occurring at a given moment. For example, I teach lectio divina to divinity students simultaneously as a form of personal prayer that they may find conducive in their own personal spiritual life, as a means of enhancing and deepening the various ways they access biblical texts in sermon preparation, and as a method of group prayer useful in many congregational settings. But if I were teaching Benedictine spirituality in a strictly academic setting such as a doctoral seminar, I might still invite all of us to immerse ourselves for a time in both lectio divina and the Divine Office. My primary intent in this situation is not the personal spiritual formation of the student (though I won't object if that occurs), but helping the students understand more deeply aspects of Benedictine spirituality. Even in the doctoral seminar; one means might be to invite immersion in some of the methods that took root in and were transmitted to the wider church through Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. I actually have a second goal that is straightforwardly pedagogical: to involve the student in a variety of avenues for appropriating the material as suggested by the material itself. I want to offer many avenues where students can really grasp and be grasped by the material we are together investigating. That is, I want to create a space where the self-implicating and transformative nature of our discipline can potentially take root. I maintain that when experience "comes into the room," it makes the study of the experience immediate and compelling.

Insights From Educational Theory
An interesting pedagogical strategy has appeared in religious studies that bears on our topic, namely using service projects as a primary means for the learning of the course to occur. Proponents of service learning see the desire to base the study of religion solely on an objective, scientific approach as both epistemologically and pedagogically unsatisfactory. It is epistemologically unsatisfactory because it distances the topic of study from the subjects, professors, and students in the name of neutrality and objectivity. These advocates of service learning claim, with Parker Palmer[26] that there is an intricate connection between epistemology, pedagogy, and ethics. The relationship of the knower to the known becomes the basis for the relationship of the actor to the world. Thus, an objective, arm's-length study of religion or spirituality keeps the teachers and students disconnected from what they know and what they want to know, and may also inhibit appropriate action in relation to what they know. Spirituality, like religion, is precisely about the way people generate order and meaning in their lives in relationship to themselves, others, and God. Distancing oneself from the nature of spirituality in order to study it may actually prevent one from fully grasping the essence of various spiritualities and their vitality.[27]

Pedagogically, their argument goes like this: As we have come to realize in this postmodern era, there are no neutral starting points or standing points. What one believes and what one has experienced inevitably influence what one knows (and how one teaches). Better not to try to banish the unbanishable, but to bring it selfconsciously but critically into the discussion and dialogue with the study of spirituality in a way that is inclusive, respectful, and productive of greater insight and understanding.[28]

Shifting our attention to educational theory offers further insight about the pedagogical aspects of my thesis that the disciplined reflection on lived spirituality is constitutive of the discipline of Christian spirituality. Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences brings home the need for multiple entry points to the same material. In The Disciplined Mind,[29] Gardner offers three important general strategies.

1. Provide multiple points of entry. How to engage students initially in the topic at hand is an important pedagogical decision. Different students will find various entry points more conducive to involving them in the study, and there is no reason that all students should even engage the same one at the same time. In our class on Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, one person might enter through the practice of lectio divina, another through a narrative of the life of Benedict and the spread of Benedictine spirituality throughout Europe, a third through the Benedictine patronage of the arts, and still another through the recent struggle of the Prioress of the Benedictines of Erie (PA) to define the scope of Benedictine obedience in the face of Vatican demands.

2. Offer apt analogies. The educator's crucial task consists in conveying the power of the analogy, but, equally important, conveying the limitations as well. The pedagogical challenge consists in figuring out which entry points hold promise for particular understandings, try them out and evaluate them, and make explicit the assumptions, contexts, possibilities, and limits of the analogies employed. The example of asking doctoral students to engage for some time in lectio divina is illuminative. Uncritically appropriated, such a practice can obscure even as it illuminates. Just because we have employed lectio divina, do we then know what lectio divina was like in Benedict's time? Not necessarily. Mary Frolich offers a welcome move beyond the morass we can get ourselves into by bringing experience and practice into the doing of academic spirituality. She recognizes that simply asserting that we begin from "lived spirituality" will not fully answer our most important questions at either the personal or academic levels. She notes:

A first methodological principle, then, will be to ask the questions, What are we doing with the experiential dimension? What sort of implicit or explicit appeal are we making on its basis? By what steps do we move from the place of living to the place of speaking, writing, and making claims? Are the forms of appeal and the steps we make appropriate to the actual context in which we are living, studying and/or teaching spirituality ?[30]

Thus, it is not merely importing lived experience into our scholarship and teaching that by itself constitutes effective "practice." We must also develop skills and nuance and critical awareness about the way in which experience functions in our scholarship and pedagogy. We must "practice our practice," so to speak, in order that it develop into an intentional methodological perspective on the materials with which we engage.

3. Provide multiple representations of the central or core ideas. Powerful and effective educators can represent the issue in several sets of language, and can evaluate and teach others to evaluate new attempts to express the same topic. An impressive example from the field of Christian spirituality of both multiple entry points and multiple representations of core ideas is Belden Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Its power lies, I believe, precisely in his decision to juxtapose three different entry points: his own experiences of loss and grief, his immersion into particular places of desert and mountain, and the spiritual tradition of the via negativa, creating a brilliant and evocative treatment of desert spirituality.[31] This kind of multiple-leveled engagement, including "practice," is exactly what I am proposing we continue to develop as a self-conscious strategy in our scholarly writing and teaching.

The Importance Of Practice In Spirituality
I have so far argued the notion that studying the human experience of the transcendent while carefully excluding many of the possible avenues for experiencing the transcendent offered by our particular topic of study is pedagogically unwarranted. There is no guarantee that doing so will preserve one from bias, and it may, at least subliminally, perpetuate a seriously truncated notion of spirituality. But my constructive move pushes further than simply useful pedagogy or even pedagogy that takes seriously the nature of spirituality. Let me re-state it in its fullest form. Not only should the practice of spirituality not be banned from the academic study of Christian Spirituality (and therefore from the classroom where such academic study takes place), practice provides one of the constitutive elements of our discipline's approach. Because of it, spirituality offers both a useful and necessary perspective to other theological disciplines, such as systematic theology and history, that may focus on the same content. Practice offers a possible context for access to the immediate experience of the spiritual life, the subject matter of the discipline. When experience "comes into the room," it makes the study of the experience of the Christian life immediate and compelling. But, more importantly for the development of the discipline, it advances the content of the study itself.

Many scholars of Christian spirituality work almost exclusively with texts: biblical texts, texts of various literary forms that have been recognized as part of our Christian heritage, texts left by important Christian thinkers, pastors, and spiritual guides. The key questions our discipline poses to texts of all kinds and eras include, What is the lived spiritual experience of this text? The experience that gave rise to it? The experience that it met in its first hearers or readers, as much as this can be reclaimed, and its experience in me and in my students today? In light of this discussion, we can now further ask, What new experience is created in the act of investigating this text and wrestling with its provenance, interpretation, and existential usefulness? What experiences of my own would help me enter faithfully into the world of this text? What shared practices would help us come to understand this text and its world and ourselves as interpreters?

I do not mean that one can simply read one's own self into the text. All the appropriate exegetical moves must occur, including establishing the accuracy of the text as it exists, the adequacy of any translation employed, the serious study of the context, the author, the author's community, the literary form, the reason that the author is writing this text as far as it can be ascertained, and the position and frame of reference of those to whom the text was addressed. We must also try to become aware of our own assumptions and biases and attempt to set them aside during the investigative phase of our work with the text. But when that foundational work has been done, what are we faced with? A text that in its otherness is struggling to communicate with us across vast gulfs in cultures, languages, worldviews. Do we allow ourselves to be transformed by the disciplined practice of uncovering all the levels of experience present in the encounter, the ones the text brought and the ones we brought? Do we allow the disciplined practice of lived spirituality to help us to rethink the text? What scholars of Christian spirituality do, I believe, is "to interpret the experience [spirituality] studies in order to make it understandable and meaningful in the present without violating its historical reality. "[32] Making it meaningful and understandable in the present, that is, by engaging it in the present but on its own terms.

The careful work of the scholar, Wendy Wright insists, can be both self-implicating and transformative precisely in the way it brings us face to face with the radical otherness of what it is that we study. And in the very wrestling with this otherness, we might even be transformed. That is, not only might our scholarly opinions and conclusions be revised, but also the very way we pray, act, and live might also change .[33]

One of the reasons scholars of Christian spirituality banish practice from the academic study of spirituality is, I suspect, because the immediacy of direct experience can make critical distance more difficult. But I believe it is not impossible. It does require careful attention to the need for and process of holding in tension the experience/case, one's own lived spirituality and the canons of good scholarship. And the benefits can be substantial for one's scholarly work as well as for one's person.

The Practice Of Spirituality

What might this notion of practice as the intentional and repeated bringing of one's lived spirituality into one's scholarly work look like concretely? First, let me offer an example of research and writing and then one of teaching.

The process that my two co-authors and I recently concluded as we wrote The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Wome[34] provides an example of this kind of practice. Let me highlight some of the ways that emerged in our collaboration.

We had several goals for this work: We wanted to advance the scholarship on the Spiritual Exercises. We wanted to offer a feminist perspective. We wanted to make the Exercises available to contemporary women and thereby advance their practice. One of our first decisions committed us to a way of being together that would support the vocation of scholarship, but we only gradually learned what that meant in practice. For more than a year, we talked, read, reflected. We talked together about our experiences of the Exercises, what worked and didn't work for us, and talked to contemporary women who have completed them and who have also served as directors of others who have completed them. We conversed and argued back and forth with the text, trying to let it say what it said, not what we thought it said or wanted it to say. We reviewed the history of interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises and of the period and context in which they were written. We talked to the women again and again. We tried to pay attention to the anger, the energy, the disjunction, the frustration and every other experience that arose in all these conversation partners and in ourselves. We frequently disagreed on substance or emphasis and often had to hold our different perspectives in tension for a long time before the way through appeared. We began writing. All the writing came back to the three of us, often numerous times, for comment, critique, and finally, celebration.

Since we were working with a text that gives directions for prayer, we realized that our appropriation of the text would be incomplete if we stood outside the prayer to which the text invites. We had all completed the Spiritual Exercises in the thirty-day retreat form at some point in the past and all had directed and taught the Exercises in our various settings. But we needed to engage the Exercises together and on their own terms if our collective interpretation process was to move into new ground. So, every day that we worked together, one of us took the responsibility to prepare some kind of common prayer related to the aspect of the Spiritual Exercises that we were presently struggling with. Sometimes the struggle resolved itself. Sometimes it didn't. But our scholarship advanced through this common prayer. We gleaned perspectives that we might never have seen without this practice as an integral part of our writing.

There are some predictable pitfalls to this kind of work. One is that publishers may not know what to do with the result. It doesn't look quite like the typical scholarly book. We included a contemporary rewriting of the dynamics in the form of a modern morality play. We had to justify not once but several times the presence of the play in the text. For us, it offered not only a way to summarize our insights, but also to draw others into their own experiences of the Spiritual Exercises and to enhance that experience through their common experience of "readers' theater."[35] Our experience suggests that it will take a while to learn to write and publish a new kind of scholarship for a developing discipline.

The other venue for our scholarship is the classroom. How can scholars of Christian spirituality practice intentionally and critically bringing lived spirituality into the classroom dedicated to the academic study of spirituality? One of my colleagues has made some interesting discoveries about practice as he taughtpsalms to various constituencies over time. These discoveries have changed the way he teaches at a basic level?[36]

The impetus for his using practice as an intentional strategy came from students preparing for ministry. "If psalms are sung prayer, can't we sing them in class?" some students asked. Little by little and across introductory and advanced versions of psalms courses, he began to recognize that something different happens when students and other interpreters perform a text than if they simply read it."[37] This difference appears on several levels. First, performance helps internalize the text; like lectio divina, it draws attention to certain words, motifs, and repetitions that don't get noticed otherwise. Students learn these texts from the inside out, and remember and connect them to other texts as they increase their exegetical range. Second, performance allows an immediate understanding of how different people interpret the same text, and reconfirms the position that there is no absolutely correct interpretation. Third, this approach embodies the belief that both synchronic and diachronic approaches to Biblical texts are important and necessary in order for the interpreter to complete the task of interpretation.

Granted, the psalms are a special case, because through them we address God, rather than listen to God's address to us. However, the principles garnered in this special case have wider application. In my colleague's other biblical courses, he now tends to ask, "Does approaching the text inductively, through such practices as singing, listening to or performing musical renditions of a text, looking at artistic interpretations, or allowing movement or dramatic interpretation or response, help to solidify learning about this text?" His criteria for appropriate practices grew out of his commitment to the learning gleaned through performance: "Does the activity we are engaged in help us to become more deeply immersed in the text, to know and understand what is in the text, to grasp various ways to interpret it, and to command something of the history of interpretation?"

Not only are psalms a special case within the biblical canon, but in one sense the biblical canon is a special case within Christian literature; Christians understand it as a record of God's word to humankind. In Christian life and spirituality, the bible is approached as a living text. But what about other Christian texts? Any text with which one interacts deeply and personally and at a transformative level,[38] as well as intellectually and critically, becomes a living text in that very interaction. Thus, any text that offers us contents for the study of Christian spirituality benefits from critical reflection on the lived spirituality of the interpreter. "Practice" is thus constitutive of our discipline.

Before we leave the classroom context, it is worth noting a style of teaching called "phenomenological." Phenomenology involves reflecting on experience and letting conclusions emerge from these reflections. It assumes that experience is accessible to the inquirer and seeks to understand the intentionality of both the experiencing subject and the experienced other.[39] This basic teaching method allows for many variations and contexts,[40] but always takes experience seriously,including the experience of lived spirituality that I have been calling "practice."

Can there be too much practice in the classroom? The question arises naturally when practices are used as a means of enticing students into the material the teacher wishes to communicate. But when practice shifts to the understanding promoted in this essay, namely the critical reflection on lived spirituality, then it becomes intrinsic to the learning process. At this point the question evaporates.

Throughout this essay, I have assumed that the scholar of Christian spirituality is Christian, and works from within this tradition. Is this perspective valid for the scholar who studies Christian spirituality but as an adherent of another spiritual tradition? Likewise, what of the Christian scholar who looks at another spiritual tradition? Can these scholars still employ practices as constitutive of their scholarly work? Although I work from within the Christian tradition, almost exclusively examining aspects of that same tradition, I believe that this understanding of practice as constitutive of the work of scholars of Christian spirituality still extends to these other situations. Both emic and etic perspectives[41] benefit from critical reflection on lived spiritual practice. When one is an outsider to a tradition, however, one must exercise particular sensitivity to the practices selected and the interpretations rendered, giving priority to interpretations from within the tradition where these are available, and taking care not to assume easy correspondences in apparently similar practices from different traditions. Important insights can come from both perspectives.[42]

It is, I believe, time to quit being so timid about practice as a constitutive aspect of our discipline. We "have a tiger by the tail," and are not quite sure what to do with it, how to tame it sufficiently to allow it into the study and the classroom. But we also have something uniquely useful to offer scholars in other disciplines. When lived spiritual experience comes into the room, it makes the study of Christian spirituality immediate, transformative, compelling, selfimplicating, and life changing.


[1] An earlier version of this essay was delivered on the occasion of the Presidential Address, Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, November 2001. I thank Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality members Maria Bowen, Mary Rose Bumpus, Joseph Driskill, and John Endres, and my other colleagues at the Graduate Theological Union and San Francisco Theological Seminary, especially Sandra Brown, for their conversation on earlier drafts. Lisa Dahill graciously shared early research on practices from a three-year study of theological education being conducted as part of the Lilly funded Preparation for the Professions.

[2] Miroslav Volf, "Theology for a Way of Life," in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 257.

[3] By making this comparison, I do not intend to re-open the issue of the relationship of spirituality to theology. See Sandra Schneiders's discussion in "The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin (Spring 1998): 1, 3-12 for a discussion of this issue and for a provisional, though not exactly tidy, resolution of this relationship.

[4] Christian Spirituality Bulletin 7 (Fall/Winter 1999): 11.

[5] G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence (1904); William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1908); Anton Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World (1936); Richard Cabot and Russell Dicks, The Art of Ministering to the Sick (1936); Russell Dicks, And Ye Visited Me (1939); Carroll Wise, Religion in Illness and Health (1942) and Pastoral Counseling: Its Theory and Practice (1951); Seward Hiltner, Pastoral Counseling (1949) and Preface to Pastoral Theology (1958); Daniel Day Williams, The Minister and the Cure of Souls (1961); Wayne Oates, Protestant Pastoral Counseling (1962); Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling (1966); and Paul Johnson, Person and Counselor (1967).

[6] J. R. Burck and R. J. Hunte "Pastoral theology, Protestant," Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, ed. Rodney J. Hunter. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 867.

[7] By "case" I mean a situation, event, dilemma or system that has been abstracted sufficiently from its dynamic flow so that its reality can be described. I also mean a description in the round or "thick description" itself. I am not specifically referring to the method of Evans and Parker in Christian Theology: A Case Study Approach (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1976), though their approach would fit into my use of the term. For a good summary of the types, benefits, and disadvantages of case as a method, see Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore, Teaching from the Heart: Theology and Educational Method (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998). Significantly, Moore stresses case study's connection to particularity.

[8] See, for example, Bernard McGinn, "The Letter and the Spirit: Spirituality as an Academic Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1 (Fall 1993): 1, 2-10; Sandra Schneiders, "Spirituality as an Academic Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1 (Fall 1993): 10-15; and the four essays in Bradley Hanson, ed., Modern Christian Spirituality: Methodological and Historical Essays (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990).

[9] Sandra Schneiders, "Spirituality in the Academy," Modern Christian Spirituality: Methodological and Historical Essays, ed. Bradley C. Hanson (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990), 32 and elsewhere.

[10] Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality," 3-4.

[11] Schneiders, "Spirituality in the Academy," 17: ". . . the term spirituality, like the term psychology, is unavoidably ambiguous, referring to (1) a fundamental dimension of the human being, (2) the lived experience which actualizes that dimension, and (3) the academic discipline which studies that experience." From p. 32: "Spirituality is interested in the experience as experience, i.e. in its phenomenological wholeness, that it must utilize whatever approaches are relevant to the reality being studied . . . spirituality is not the practical application of theoretical principles, theological or other, to concrete life experience. It is the critical study of such experience."

[12] Different degrees of abstraction occur when speaking at these levels: one uses first order religious language to describe the initial, immediate experience; second order religious language for the explication and critical evaluation or appropriation of the basic meaning; and third order religious language if the process continues to reflect on the way in which such judgments are made and a critical evaluation of the procedures. See Theodore Jennings, "Pastoral Theological Methodology," Dictionary o f Pastoral Care and Counseling, ed. Rodney J. Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 862.

[13] I am following the "anthropological" approach here; this category is suggested by Bernard McGinn, "The Letter and the Spirit: Spirituality as an Academic Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1 (Fall 1993): 1, 3-10. Sandra Schneiders has strongly proposed this perspective as the most adequate to the complex reality to be studied, but see also Mary Frohlich, "Spiritual Discipline, Discipline of Spirituality: Revisiting Questions of Definition and Method," Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 1:1 (Spring 2001): 65-78; and Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), especially Chapter 2.

[14] Brian Childs, "Experience," Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, ed. Rodney J. Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 388.

[15] Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary: Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 91.

[16] Childs, "Experience," 388.

[17] We see this inclusive sense of "experience" in Evan Howard's recent study, The Affirming Touch of God: A Psychological and Philosophical Exploration of Christian Discernment (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), 292-304. Here, Howard does some of the necessary groundwork on the term "experience" using the disciplines of cognitive studies and philosophy. Experience, for Howard, is a process consisting of a number of stages that can be isolated and studied, as do these disciplines. The first level, if you will, the "raw material" out of which all human experience arises, is Being Aware (Howard capitalizes the terms for the levels), or bare consciousness of such variables as range, intensity, energy, and level. The second stage is characterized by Experiencing (stimulus, sensation, perception, initial memory processing, imagery). The third stage is Understanding (cognitive psychology's conceptual processing, general knowledge, and language processing; and emotion research's appraisal and regulation). Fourth, judging, deals with such questions as "what is the case?" and "is it really the case?" At this point, affective experience completes its appraisal and moves toward emotion formation. Deciding and Acting follow judging, involving investment of the person in the judgment previously made. In the judging stage, affections reach the expressive level and give rise to a tendency to act, phenomenal feelings, mental preoccupation, physiological changes, and the like. The final aspect of the experience process is World-view Adjusting. Every action reinforces or shapes the nature of our developing selves. This, says Howard, is the ordinary progression of experience.

[18] Howard, The Affirming Touch of God, 298-303. Howard's view of these "others" is similar to the theoretical perspective adopted by San Francisco Theological Seminary's spirituality program under the title of "The Experience Circle." See also Nancy Wiens St. John, "The Definition and Role of Environment in Christian Spiritual Discernment," unpublished paper, Graduate Theological Union, December 14, 1998.

[19] Rebecca Chopp, Saving Work: Feminist Practices in Theological Education (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 15. A growing conversation around the notion of "practice," in theological education, has taken its impetus from Alasdair MacIntyre's treatment in After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 181-203. For example, in To Understand God Truly: What's Theological about a Theological School (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 118, David Kelsey defines "practice" as "any form of socially established cooperative human activity that is complex and internally coherent, is subject to standards of excellence that partly define it, and is done to some end but does not necessarily have a product." As cooperative human behaviors, the actions Kelsey has in mind are bodily, social, interactive, cooperative, and share rule-like regularities. They contain standards of excellence, and thus necessitate self-critical reflection as part of a larger communal discourse. See also Craig Dykstra, "Reconceiving Practice," in Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education, ed. Barbara Wheeler and Edward Farley (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 35-66; Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Practicing Our Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999); and Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds., Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). These works, rooted in McIntyre, focus on larger-scale communal practices over longer periods of time that address fundamental human needs and that together constitute a way of life. This essay, however, follows the alternate usage in the social sciences, in which "practice" can refer to any socially meaningful action, and therefore can include smaller and more discrete actions than would be included, for example, in Dykstra, Bass, and Volf.

[20] Frohlich, "Spiritual Discipline," 68.

[21] Frohlich, "Spiritual Discipline," 68, 76.

[22] Social anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu defines habitus as "the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations." That is, habitus is the unconscious regulator that both reproduces and adjusts our responses to social situations that appear to us to be self-evident. See Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 78. See also Kelsey, To Understand God Truly, 126, and Chopp, Saving Work, 5-14, 76, 103-4.

[23] Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality," 10.

[24] Sandra M. Schneiders, "A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 2 (Spring 1994): 13.

[25] Two are methods, namely controlled introspection to access one's own internal processes, and the practicum wherein students get in touch with the lived spirituality of other persons. The third is an awareness: recognizing that our own thoughtful and passionate work in the discipline of spirituality transforms us-our work is inevitably self-implicating, and its disciplined prosecution is itself a form of spiritual practice. See Schneiders, "A Hermeneutical Approach," 13-14.

[26] Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 51.

[27] Joseph Favazza and Fred Glennon, "Service Learning and Religious Studies: Propaganda or Pedagogy," Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, 29 (November 2000): 106.

[28] Favazza and Glennon, "Service Learning," 106.

[29] Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 18S-99.

[30] Frohlich, "Spiritual Discipline," 69.

[31] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4. In his words, "This book makes no claim to be a thoroughgoing historical-critical study of the apophatic tradition. Nor does it offer an ethnographic analysis of specific cultural understandings of desert and mountain environments. What it attempts, instead, is something of a performance (rather than a mere description) of apophatic spirituality .... The book therefore invites the reader into several of the pivotal texts (and contexts) out of which such events of vulnerability and union have repeatedly been generated in the history of the tradition. Its purpose is to allow these texts (and this terrain) to engage the reader at a deep level of personal risk, through the intimate involvement of the interpreter's own voice in the process of saying and unsaying what is otherwise wholly unavailable to discourse."

[32] Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality," 3.

[33] Wendy M. Wright, "Keeping One's Distance: Presence and Absence in the History of Christian Spirituality," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 4 (Summer 1996): 21.

[34] Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and Elizabeth Liebert, The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women (New York: Paulist Press, 2001).

[35] Belden Lane, "Spirituality as the Performance of Desire: Calvin on the World as a Theatre of God's Glory, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 1:1 (Spring 2001): 23. "Absorbed in the mystery of the making and unmaking of worlds, a theatrical performance forces the audience into multiple and simultaneous levels of perception. Even as it gives pleasure, it also profoundly disturbs, suggesting at times a complete reversal of things previously held certain... it is a performance that demands participation."

[36] I am indebted to John Endres and the numerous conversations about what goes on in his psalms courses that we have shared during the course of our collaborative writing.

[37] In this vein, Belden Lane has recently defined spirituality, following John Calvin, as "the performance of desire." See "Spirituality as the Performance of Desire," 1.

[38] Frohlich, "Spiritual Discipline," 71.

[39] Moore, Teaching from the Heart, 94. Stated as a method: First, one must identify the experience that is the focal point of the study. Second, one identifies and brackets one's own prejudgments and assumptions about the experience. Next, one observes and describes the experience. As we have seen, both pastoral theology and the academic study of spirituality suggest that one or more appropriate critical disciplines be brought to bear on the description in order to understand the experience from a variety of perspectives. We engage these disciplines prior to or along with theological reflection. The final step involves decision about and implementation of an appropriate action. These actions can be quite varied, from intending to pursue this line of inquiry farther to a decision to write or teach about this reality, to mobilizing a community for a particular behavior-in other words, decisions for action are related to the reality under study, the one studying and the various communities where these realities intersect. See pp. 120-22.

[40] Maria Lichtman, "Teaching and the Contemplative Life" Christian Spirituality Bulletin 6 (Fall 1998): 21, offers some ways to begin, including free-writing at the beginning or end of class, a time of centering to allow students to put aside their distractions, sharing writing in nonthreatening ways, working collaboratively, cards with questions at the end of class, ritual openings and closings, body movement, sharing food, pauses in either writing or speaking, "ah-ha" papers, and inviting (and welcoming) nonlinear or nonverbal responses to texts and figures without dispensing with the usual array of scholarly responses. In terms of the meta-structure of the classroom, one might employ case studies or offer entry points, responses or interpretations through art, literature, drama, music, or film.

[41] "Emic" refers to a single, unified system, and "etic" to raw data considered independently from the system as a whole. Emic and etic can refer to the perspective from which we examine data: the examiner is a part of the whole being examined (emic) or examines data from a perspective outside the whole (etic).

[42] Amy Plantinga Pauw, "Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices," in Practicing Theology, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 41, 43.

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