Practicing Jesus: Part 1, The First Mistake of Spiritual Formation

I teach a class at ACU called "Psychology and Christianity" where I explore intersections between psychology and Christian faith and practice. In the class I have a unit about "the psychology of spiritual formation." This series will share some of that material.

I start the unit by sharing that our spiritual formation efforts typically make four mistakes.

The first mistake is the mistake highlighted by the work of James Smith in his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love.

Smith's work has been widely read, so many readers likely know the main points. Smith makes the point that our spiritual formation efforts tend to be overly, even excessively, education-based. We're formed into the image of Jesus through knowledge acquisition.  This is the first mistake of spiritual formation, treating discipleship as an educational issue.

We see evidence of this mistake everywhere. We go to Sunday School. We attend Bible classes. We engage in Bible study. We listen on Sunday to the pastor's teaching. We read lots of Christian books.

Beyond this, there's Christian Education, Inc. Christian homeschooling. K-12 Christian private schools. Christian Higher Eduction, like my university. The key feature in each of these endeavors is making study of the Bible an integral part the curriculum. The homeschool curriculum teaches a "biblical worldview." The Christian private school has required Bible classes.

I don't want to throw all of this effort under the bus. I work, obviously, at a Christian university. I write Christian books. And I teach a Bible class at my church. I think there's a lot of good these things do. And yet, there are some limitations with this approach toward spiritual formation that need to be squarely confronted and remediated.

The critical issue can be easily stated: Does mastery of Biblical and theological knowledge reliably produce the fruit of the Spirit in your life?

As an example, take one of the big issues in the Christian homeschooling movement, instilling in children a "biblical worldview." A big part of these curricula is teaching Creation science to rebut the theory of Darwinian evolution. For this post, I don't care much what you think about the Creation vs. Evolution debate. I want to, rather, draw attention to the issue of spiritual formation. Let's say I grant a homeschooling cohort a win on teaching Creation science, that they are 100% effective in instilling in their children the belief that Charles Darwin was wrong, and have equipped their children to win arguments with proponents of evolution when they head off to college. Let's say this pursuit is 100% successful. Here, then, is my question: How does having a literal reading of Genesis make you any more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled?

The answer is pretty clear: a literal reading of Scripture doesn't reliably produce Christian character. Being able to prove Charles Darwin wrong doesn't make you a loving human being. And yet, consider how much effort is put into that very sort of effort! A deeply confused vision of spiritual formation reigns among many Christians and churches.

Here's a different way to approach the same problem. I'll ask my class, "Can you be a psychopath and get an A in your required Bible classes?" And answer is, of course you can. The point of the question is to highlight that Christian discipleship isn't an intellectual problem. A psychopath can have a very high IQ and get all A's in their Bible classes. What's wrong with a psychopath isn't cognitive but affective, a lack of empathy for others. The example of the psychopath is provocative, but it makes the point very clear: You can know all the answers for your Bible test and still have some serious heart problems.

Here's yet another way I make the point to my class. "How many of you," I ask, "have heard of the Parable of the Good Samaritan?" You can ask the question of your own church. Everyone in my class raises their hand. As, I expect, everyone would as well in your church. I push further, "Does anyone need a refresher?" No one needs a refresher. The story is famous. "Does anyone need to be reminded about the point of the story?" No one needs reminding, we know the point of the story, that we need to be good neighbors and not "pass by" people in need. "And yet," I conclude, "how many of us still struggle to be good neighbors to the people we encounter in life?" General acknowledgement that we could be better neighbors. 

I bring home the point: "Our struggle in following the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not an educational problem. Assuming so has been our mistake. You already know the answers. Everyone here can get an A on the Good Samaritan test. And if that's true, we have to face the music: we can't teach our way out of this problem."

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