In other words, academic study, if it is good academic study, is formational–spiritually formational

In other words, academic study, if it is good academic study, is formational–spiritually formational

It is not, however, simply as a possible source of guidance for a renewed spiritual reading that this University memory is of importance for the Church

It plays a part in the process by which we are properly disillusioned, in which our self-understanding and understanding of the world are brought up against that which is beyond them and broken open for the sake of new, truer growth. Beyond the specific subject matter to which the University might alert the Church–the awkwardness of the Scriptures, the richness of the tradition–a partnership with the University might assist in the renewal of the contemplative stance that those realities require of the Church.

Yet I cannot finish on this note without noting a gift that might be offered in return. The Church is not wholly instrumentalized; it has not wholly forgotten contemplation and has certainly not forgotten the need for, and challenges of, spiritual formation. And although I am adamant that good academic work is and must be spiritually formational, that does not mean that Universities are institutions which have much practice in understanding the context of care needed to foster such formation, or in facing the personal and communal challenges which it brings in its wake. Faced with their own temptations to instrumentalization, the Universities–if they in turn are to be the help to the Church which I have suggested they might be–need all the help they can get if they are to foster the kinds of spiritual formation of students and staff that good academic work requires. In other words, just as much as the Church needs the University in order to be itself, the Universities desperately need the wisdom of the Church, and of the religions more widely, if they are to be themselves.

1. The Church of England, Mission-shaped church: church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004)

3. Rowan Williams, ‘The discipline of Scripture’ in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp.44-59: 47, earlier printed as ‘The literal sense of Scripture’, Modern Theology 7 (January 1991), pp. 121-134.

5. The completely re-written study of Frei was eventually published as Christ, providence and history: Hans W. Frei’s public theology (London: T T Clark, 2004).

In what follows, I’m going to concentrate (largely but not exclusively) on the arguments which might be offered to those who regard the Church as the home of their learning, and who initially feel that they have strayed behind enemy lines when walking through the doors of my University class room. I argue:

Have I made my case so far only by sleight of hand, though? I said earlier that ‘if [education for ministry] is to be truly theological, if it is to have anything to do with God, it must always also involve “contemplative” learning’–but you might quite understandably feel that there is a gap between the rather general sense of ‘contemplation’ which I went on to describe and a properly theological contemplation facing towards God. In another context, I would want to argue that the gap is not as large as all that–that there is a strong sense in which all contemplation, to the extent to which it assists in the breaking apart of illusions about God’s world and feeds truthfulness, is connected to contemplation of God. In this paper, however, I will try to make the point more directly, by looking very briefly at ways in which the University context can shape training in the use of the Bible, and training in attention to the Church–and help the student see that the Bible and the Church are not simply grist for her mill, but strangers which call the student to account, and which call forth her contemplation.

And so it is a process in which the learner is–or can be–trained precisely in contemplation: in patient, risky, transformative exposure to an as-yet-ungrasped truth which can only be encountered with a humility that is willing to lay down preconceptions and fixed ideas

The University has become, often to a greater extent than the Church itself, a repository of the Church’s memory. It is often more in the University than the Church that the works and ways of earlier generations of the Church are attended to–including the works and ways of earlier generations of the Church with the Bible.

By aligning ‘academic’ with ‘contemplative’ in these ways, I’m also gesturing towards something else. Good academic study is a form of spiritual formation–in the sense that (at its best) it is a process in which one is stripped of illusions of control and mastery, and overwhelmed by a subject matter that does not fit neatly into one’s life. It is a process in which one both repeatedly has to risk interpretations, but in which one is also repeatedly opened up to judgment.

Now, this experience of ‘un-selfing’, of disillusionment was a thoroughly academic experience. The exposure to judgment that lay at its heart was made possible by a detailed extension and refinement of my ways of thinking. The stance of openness to judgment which this work forced on me, slow though I was to realise it, was not at all something that stood in opposition to the detail and rigour which good academic work calls for. Rigour and openness go together. (6) After all, if I am woolly enough, if I wave my hands enough, if I cut corners enough in this article, I might be able to render it all but invulnerable to critique. I may be able to make what I say spongy and elastic enough that I can simply ride any punch that my readers want to throw at me, spongy and elastic enough to bounce over any obstacle without noticing it. On the other hand, I will only say something worth listening to if the proposals I make have enough content to them, and enough structure to them, to allow them to be criticized, to allow me to be called to account by having counter-examples, or gaps in my argument, or alternative ways of seeing things, or disastrous consequences of what I have said, brought to my attention. To develop and extend our ways of thinking and acting, therefore, can be a way of stiffening the flabby and woolly ways in which we engage with the world, and so of allowing new and deeper ways of opening ourselves up to questioning and testing, new and deeper ways of opening ourselves to the possibility that we’re heading in a mistaken direction.

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