Spiritual Formation in a Reformed Context
Note: This essay has been somewhat revised from
the original, which was given to a group of Pastors and Doctor of Ministry students ministering
As I began to reflect on the overarching theme of this consultation, “Spirituality and Justice,” in light of the topic, “Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Discipline,” I realized that my task was both descriptive and constructive. It has required me to attempt to state a vision of spiritual formation, including some levels which I have until now only intuitively grasped. Your invitation has encouraged me to extend the breadth of the vision considerably, though you will recognize that my process of articulating a unified view of the theory and practice of spiritual formation in a twentieth century Reformed context is still far from complete. I fully expect to amend my thinking as its inconsistencies and voids appear.
This vision of spiritual formation emerges from a context, namely the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary, where I, with several colleagues including Howard Rice, am engaged in spiritual formation. The process of trying to articulate what we doing and why we are doing it has caused me to move in the direction expressed here. This presentation, however, represents my own attempt to articulate our common project. I thank you for the opportunity to bring these thoughts together.
Spiritual Formation: The Contemporary Situation
Let me begin by treating San Francisco Theological Seminary as a case study for spiritual formation. As I assumed my position as Associate Professor of Spiritual Life and Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality in 1987, I tried to listen and learn about what spiritual formation in an American Presbyterian seminary at this historical juncture might look like. At the encouragement of the Dean, I brought my initial reflections together into a paper. It begins with a statement by Dean Lewis Mudge: “Our people, and we among them, are perishing for lack of any centering vision or understanding of the faith,” and continues with the preamble:
Each faith community must find a language and adequate metaphors for its vision, discover ways to communicate it, and engage in critical reflection upon both its vision and practice. In short, articulating a central vision necessitates articulating a spirituality. As a seminary community responsible to a particular denominational body and its judicatories, we must reappropriate, revitalize and re-imagine a spirituality which is
· faithful to the common heritage of the Christian Church, and therefore ecumenical;
· faithful to the essential vision of the Reformed tradition, and therefore particular;
· sensitive to today's cultural and religious context, particularly of those persons still excluded for reasons of race, class, politics, and sex, and therefore prophetic. 
In the first section, I will offer a definition of spiritual formation and then briefly expand each of these three qualities.
Spiritual Formation: What Is It?
The following definition of spiritual formation could perhaps ground this discussion: “Spiritual formation is a process of reflection and practice through which Christians and their institutions within the community of faith are enabled to experience and to conform to the Spirit of Christ under the Word of God.”  Spiritual formation, therefore, refers to whatever process the community of faith uses to initiate and deepen the faith and Christian life of its members. The definition above, could be used in a variety of Christian contexts, though it is stated in theological language important to Reformed Christians.
Characteristics of Reformed Spirituality
The word “spirituality” sounds strange to Protestant Christians, and to Reformed Christians in particular. As a concept common in theological discourse, it has a relatively short life span.  For our purposes, let us employ Sandra Schneiders’s definition of Christian spirituality as “Christian religious experience as such.”  What might that look like in a Reformed context?
SFTS colleague Howard Rice describes spirituality as “the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us.” 
As with any particular style of living out the Christian life, Reformed spirituality was forged in response to the context within which it arose. Rice notes the following characteristics of Reformed spirituality:
A. It became characterized by its class location. In
B. Reformed Christianity has typically rejected works and stressed grace freely given. This characteristic of Reformed life raises a tension when, as has often been the case, Presbyterians become economically and politically privileged.
C. Reformed spirituality has rejected individualism and emphasized corporate piety. This characteristic could find a sympathetic reception in a Confucian culture.
D. Reformed piety has tended to reject sentimentality and to stress a balance of head and heart. I am not sure how this tension has shown up in the Korean Christian situation, but I suspect that the traditional respect for the educated class and the joining of the dispossessed scholars the masses of lower class persons in the early years of Korean Protestant Christianity as well as a twentieth century turn toward fundamentalism has created a particularly Korean version of this struggle.
E. Reformed spirituality has been suspicious of otherworldliness and stressed the goodness of creation and our necessity to act in the world as people of God. This latter characteristic seems to be muted in both the recent Korean and American expressions of Reformed piety, with otherworldliness, fundamentalism and “positive thinking” taking root in unique ways in each cultural context.
Professor Rice claims that Reformed spirituality’s distinctive emphases include a commitment to justice in the world as an expression of authentic spirituality, to frugality and use of the world’s goods in moderation but with rejoicing, and to holiness or commitment to a process of sanctification. 
Rice’s characteristics of authentic Reformed piety are worth quoting at some length:
1. It will balance corporate and private devotion, so that the community of faith will be enriched by the practice of each one and the private lives of individuals will be corrected and deepened by the witness of the whole church.
2. It will balance emotion with thought, so that it is not merely sentimental but faithful. The scriptures will be central, and meditation and study of them will keep us honest about who our God really is.Yet, such study of scripture will not be coldly intellectual but will dare to experience the richness of the indwelling of Christ in the soul, the mystical union of the believer with Christ.
3. It will balance joyful acceptance of God’s good world with a careful stewardship that does not get entangled in idolatrous clinging to possessions. It will practice the discipline of frugality, so that we do not be come trapped by material possessions on the one hand, nor reject God’s good gifts on the other.
4. It will balance the desire for quietness and relationship with God with a desire, animated by the presence of Christ, to live out our faith in service to others in the world. It will be a public as well as a private faith. 
I must leave you to judge the extent to which this description of Reformed spirituality matches your experience in the Korean context. This descriptions does state my current understanding of the central emphases of Reformed spirituality and provides a common ground as we move toward an understanding of spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines.
The Contemporary World Context of Spiritual Formation
Spiritual formation always occurs in context. The present global context creates unique demands on a vision of spiritual formation. Some salient characteristics of the current global context include:
· The “shrinking” of the world with a corresponding increase in global consciousness
· Widespread increase in communication (this paper came to you by fax) and travel (five SFTS professors are here!)
· Quest for and affirmation of “small identities” seen in, for example, the fracturing of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European block and the desire of the Korean people to be free of foreign domination of its political and economic life
· Large scale economic system; capitalism without viable competing economic system to balance and critique its weaknesses
· Failure of global economy and political structures to provide for the needs of the world's people or to secure peace and stability for large numbers of the world's population
· Increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of the rich; increasing divide between the rich and the poor, both locally and on a world scale, increasing economic gap between the northern and southern hemispheres
· The “irruption of the poor,” that is, the awakening organization of the dispossessed and the oppressed masses of people, with their movements asking for the restructuring of human relationships 
· The growing world-wide consciousness by women of their (at least relatively) marginal status; feminist contributions to scholarship and church life
· The damage to the global environment approaching an irreversible crisis, fueled by heavy use of petrochemicals and nuclear fuel; world-wide military-industrial complex diverting the world's resources into short term power and consequent sacrificing long-term sustainability in use of the world's limited resources.
The Korean Context
I do not presume to understand the complexity
of Korean context; I have not lived it nor even had the opportunity to study it very deeply.
You yourselves must name the characteristics of your political, economic, cultural and
religious context. This seed-bed, for better or for worse, will nourish the future Christian
and Reformed witness. However, I do wish to note several aspects of your situation which
have struck me from my perspective as a member of a Roman Catholic order of sisters who
teaches spirituality in a Presbyterian seminary on the western coast of the
In a summary of the “Nevius Method,” one
of the early mission strategies adopted by the Council on
I have formulated these remarks from a
study of the shifts in theology, ecclesiology, psychology and spirituality in the
My third observation: how difficult it
is for Presbyterians in both the
Characteristics of Spiritual Formation in a Reformed Context
Certain characteristics flow from the above definition of spiritual formation, the description of Reformed spirituality and the summary of the global and local context. An adequate program in spiritual formation, would, I believe
· be biblically grounded, that is, initiated and critiqued by a carefully interpreted and hermeneutically sophisticated Biblical witness
· be cognizant of the Reformers' insights as well as the long tradition of the Church. Christian spiritual life begins with the earliest Christian communities, and their richness can assist us even in contemporary times
· flow from and feed into the corporate worship of the faith community
· recognize the historical contingency of various expressions spirituality and reflect a variety of cultural contexts. It is no longer possible to claim that there is one version of Christian life which all should live out, but rather that there are many viable Christian life styles, each with something to offer the whole church, but each with blindnesses and destructive tendencies as well
· be organic with respect to the practice of faith, touching all aspects of life rather than splitting into some version of a sacred/secular dichotomy
· balance in a dynamic fashion the experiential with the critical, and inner depth with informed life in the world, that is, keeping mind and heart and prayer and action together
· focus on developing the tools for continued growth in the life of the Spirit outside an explicitly formative context; giving people the skills to discern for themselves as they move through their daily lives
· be process-oriented rather than goal-oriented; how we proceed is more a matter for spiritual formation than that we arrive at any particular goal
· be understood as the responsibility of the entire church, rather than exclusively that of a separate institution, whether it be seminary or congregation 
Summary By Way of a Thesis
Spiritual formation must be carried on in context. In light of these statements of world, national and ecclesial contexts, spiritual formation must now be reconceived in a way which explicitly connects the intrapersonal, interpersonal, systemic and environmental contexts in which we live in order to prove adequate for the contemporary church.
A New Vision of Spiritual Formation
Elaborating a new vision of spiritual formation rests on several essential experiences and interpretive tools. I cannot develop these very deeply here, but without them, spiritual formation in the new mode will be significantly impaired. These include, as I see it now:
A. Affective/experiential as well as intellectual/critical experiences of God/people/world. We need a hermeneutic which values the role of experience as a source of spirituality, as well as an understanding of how persons gain access to their experience in order to enable then to reflect upon it. Spiritual formation in the new mode assumes that God works through our experience, and that the inevitable experiences of dis-ease, dis-function and dis-continuity may provide avenues for us to experience God's call.
B. A method of Biblical interpretation that allows the Biblical culture and contemporary cultures, both macro and micro, to address each other. Modern European historical critical exegesis may not provide such a link without an over-arching Biblical hermeneutic. 
C. A view of history as sacramental; awareness of history as part of the context and of the present situation in which spiritual formation occurs. Such a view of history allows us to look for the action of God in civil and political life, business and commerce and other social structures but without doing so in simplistic historicized terms. 
D. A theological method that admits that religious experience precedes theological reflection, accepts the inescapable theological pluralism of the present era, and proceeds inductively rather than deductively. The task of theology does include adjudicating the adequacy of various spiritualities, but from within a dynamic relationship with spirituality rather by dominating it. 
A Reflection Method
Let us move to a more practical level. Based on the four perspectives above, I wish to propose a method for reflecting on our experiences in order to allow them to become spiritually formative. This method is based on the work Einor Shea and John Mostyn and others at the Center for Spirituality and Justice, and extends it in modest ways.  In order to introduce this reflection method, I must set the context at several points.
When contemporary Christians use the word “spiritual,” it often carries with several connotations which have unfortunate consequences. “Spiritual” seems to imply the opposite of mundane, the opposite of material or of embodied and, less often, the opposite of temporal. Thus, “spiritual” often connotes other-worldly, immaterial and disembodied approaches to God.
The original New Testament use of “spiritual,” however, signifies something quite different from these connotations. “Spiritual” meant living as one indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God (see I Cor. 2:14-15). Thus, the earliest Christian use of the term “spiritual,” ascendant until the 12th Century, meant “life according to the Holy Spirit, and the consequences of living out that life.”  This return to the original New Testament and early Christian understanding of the term “spiritual” cannot be stressed enough in what follows. “Spiritual” here means any and all aspects of human life lived at their deepest level, which, in terms of Christian faith, means living under the power of the Holy Spirit.
In order to grasp the depth of the human person under the power of the Holy Spirit, we need to examine at least four aspects of human life. These aspects exist, not as separate and distinct “levels,” but as four interrelated and interpenetrating moment—or arenas—in our perception of reality. These arenas include the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, the systemic and the environmental. Each human being exists simultaneously within all four arenas, yet the nature of human consciousness limits our awareness to one at a time. It is quite possible, even probable, that reflection on the action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life focuses on only one or two of these arenas, leaving the others largely outside consciousness.
When we realize the disembodied and immaterial connotations which the word “spiritual” has carried, we can see that our examination of the role and action of the Holy Spirit in human life--that is, what it means to be spiritual--have been focused only on the intrapersonal aspects of an individual or upon the interpersonal relationships in which that person lives. Spiritual formation has generally contented itself with the “interior life” or, at most, with the interpersonal relationships of the individual Christian.
What I am proposing here is that the Holy Spirit is equally operative within two other dimensions of human life, namely the systems in which we live, and the environment which sustains all life. How can we learn to look for the action of the Holy Spirit in these dimensions? How can we extend our understanding of spiritual formation to include these other two dimensions of human life in which the Holy Spirit is also active?
The persons at the Center for Spirituality and Justice were Roman Catholic. Thus, they readily turned for their theological anthropology to Karl Rahner, perhaps the most significant Roman Catholic systematic theologian of the years following Vatican II. Rahner proposed what might be called a “principle of simultaneity”: namely, the experience of God is simultaneously the experience of self and the experience of neighbor. Put another way, when one becomes aware of the deepest dimensions of oneself, one will find in that process the Holy Spirit at work. When one becomes aware of one’s neighbor, the Holy Spirit is equally present in that relationship.
The critical new move happens when we join this awareness of God’s simultaneous presence in and between human beings with an understanding of the interpenetrating dimensions of human life. We then may claim that God’s Spirit is simultaneously to be found operating in systems (that is organizations of all kinds, whether “religious” or not) and in the whole environment—however secret or subtle the Holy Spirit’s action in these dimensions might appear to us. The role of spiritual formation, then, becomes two fold: (1) to develop eyes of faith to see how and where the Holy Spirit might be working to bring all things into one in Christ, and then (2) to listen for how we, both individuals and communities, might be called to join in the transformation of all aspects of creation into the reign of God.
Rahner provides a further insight. As he pondered the notion of experience, he realized that our consciousness of our experience occurs at several degrees of explicitness, from non-thematic to reflective to interpretive. Our consciousness of what is happening to us at a given moment may be very diffuse and inarticulate (that is, non-thematic). But note that the deeper the experience, the more inarticulate about it we may become as well, but in this case because the experience is shrouded in paradox, rather than because one’s ability to notice and name is still relatively undeveloped. This second understanding of “non-thematic” will yield important implications for spiritual formation. Upon attending, relishing and further elaborating on our experience, we may reach a new level of consciousness (affective-reflective). Finally, we may think critically and make decisions about meaning for our lives and appropriate action (interpretive).Again, these levels are not rigid steps in a progression, but fluid levels of attention which flow into each other in no predetermined order. At one moment, our awareness is focused and reflective, at another, non-thematic, and at still another, interpretive.
There remained another step in the development of the reflective process. Since our usual tools of theological reflection and spiritual formation have not provided us with ways to “see” at systemic and environmental levels, we need a way to reflect systematically on systems and environment. The members of the Center for Spirituality and Justice found such a tool in the “pastoral cycle” as articulated by Joe Holland and Peter Henriot.  With a way to examine systems in the light of faith in hand, the members of the Center for Spirituality and Justice had the necessary steps for developing a means of reflecting adequate to realities we have sketched at length above. I shall not pause to present the “pastoral cycle” here, but instead move to the results of their several years of reflection.
The work of the Center for Spirituality and Justice culminated in a structured way to allow the simultaneous experience of the Holy Spirit’s action in all four arenas of human life to surface by learning to attend to the non-thematic, affective-imaginative and interpretive dimensions of human experience. Note that one may enter the process of reflection at any dimension and that the Holy Spirit is working simultaneously in all arenas of human life. 
In visual form, the resulting reflection
process appears in what might be called the “
God is the depth of all experience, and hence is represented at the center of this diagram. The goal of spiritual formation is to allow ourselves to become aware of and responsive to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit (God's life in Christ) in the context of our place as part of the natural world. The concentric circles represent the dimensions of reflection, with the non-thematic dimension closest to the center, the affective-imaginative represented by the intermediate concentric circle, and the interpretive by the outermost circle. These dimensions of interpretation flow in and out of each other, signified by dashed circles rather than solid ones. The entire circle is divided into quadrants, each representing a different arena of human experience. The simultaneity of these four arenas is difficult to demonstrate schematically, but I encourage you not to lose the interpenetration and simultaneity of the four arenas because of the visual device used to depict them.
How might we assist one another to reflect
using the “
The spiritual guide plays a significant role in articulating this expanded view of experience. He or she assists the seeker to arrive at conscious interpretations for the less focused and thematic intuitions about the Holy Spirit's call at a given moment and in a given arena of one’s life. But it is equally important that the spiritual guide assist the seeker to stay present to God’s presence at the heart of our experience. The spiritual guide begins wherever the seeker's focus rests at the moment, and assists with “following the thread of simultaneity” to discover how the Spirit's work in one dimension is connected to the Spirit’s work in another dimension of the seeker’s life. The spiritual guide also assists with the all important task of discerning what is of God from what is not; all experience needs careful discernment in order to distinguish the action and call of God within all that is happening.
Ideally, at this juncture, I would provide you with a concise and clear example illustrating the movement through the various levels of awareness and across the four arenas of human experience. Space and time prohibit such an example and I refer you to one provided by Elinor Shea.  Suffice it to say that early experience confirms that the intrapersonal and interpersonal arenas are much easier for seekers to apprehend. Only after some period of faithful inquiry do some seekers eventually begin to sense the call of the Holy Spirit to them from within the systematic and environmental arenas of their lives. This suggests that spiritual formation is a life-long process, one which contains surprises for even the most faithful seeker.
The implications of this vision of spiritual formation are enormous. As I begin to reflect on them, I realize that this vision will challenge our very conception of what it means to be a Christian in today's world. Our understanding of spiritual disciplines will be turned upside down and vastly expanded. For example, what kind of discernment will help me judge my call with respect to my employment, my family, the political order? What do I do if I discover, for example, that my government systematically lies to its citizens and distorts how it presents its role in the world to avoid obeying its own law? How might the Community of Faith be called to respond in this situation? How am I to pray and to act in response to such discernment? This vision of spiritual formation will challenge our churches at levels which they may have difficulty sustaining, and thus, living out our call may prove to be costly both at the individual and community levels. How will we prepare for and sustain each other for the “long haul?”
 “Spiritual Formation at San Francisco Theological Seminary: An Attempt to Articulate a Vision,” unpublished paper circulated within the seminary, June, 1988, p. 1. Dean Mudge's statement appeared in another internal document, “The Situation on Presbyterian Theological Education Today,” October 14, 1987 draft, p. 3).
 This history is summarized in Sandra Schneiders, “Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals or Partners?” Horizons 13 (fall, 1986): 257-260 or in Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History (New York: Crossroad, 1992): 34-36.
 The above characteristics, as well as the phrase “irruption of the poor” come from Samuel Rayan, “Spiritual Formation,” Ministerial Formation, Programme on Theological Education, World Council of Churches, September 1987, pp. 5-6.
 Sandra Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), especially Chapters 1 and 6, offers a promising treatment of this problem.
 The genesis of this reflection method is detailed in Elinor Shea, “Spiritual Direction and Social Consciousness” 54 (Autumn, 1985): 30-42. My further elaborations are based on several conversations with John Mostyn, who was a founding member of the Center for Spirituality and Justice.
 See Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, Revised and Enlarged
 The original work of the Center for Spirituality and Justice involved a “grid” of three levels of attention and three dimensions of human awareness. In our reflections at SFTS, we have extended work of the Center for Spirituality and Justice to include a fourth dimension of experience, and adopted a circular rather than linear descriptive tool.