Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #6 (The Cognitive and Contemplative Pathway)

Late in my training for the MDIV degree (Master of Divinity), I was asked to speak to a group of incoming students at my seminary. They looked excited and bright-eyed – just as I had been several years before. The truth is, I am still excited and bright-eyed as things wrap up for me. I have loved my seminary experience. That night, the chair of the department had challenged me and other senior students to say a few things that might help orient the new students to the educational path ahead. I knew immediately what I wanted to talk about: traveling on the cognitive and contemplative pathways.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

The seminary experience is powerful because it intends to develop you (ideally) on two broad fronts – the intellectual (cognitive) pathway and the spiritual (contemplative) pathway. What I’m suggesting is that you might think of your seminary life as being composed of a spiritual-contemplative component and an intellectual-cognitive component.

The spiritual contemplative component seeks to help us better participate in loving allegiance with Christ’s works of love as the Holy Spirit seeks to transform our hearts and produce in us the fruits of the Spirit. The farther we are along this path the more spiritually mature we are as believer. As you might imagine, this process takes time – a lifetime in fact! Ideally, the seminary should cooperate in this process and work of the Spirit by fostering spiritual growth.

The intellectual cognitive component is the educational process by which, during the time you are in seminary, you will grow in knowledge. You will grow intellectually in a variety of ways. You will grow in your ability to engage the bible more knowledgably, to understand the Christian Tradition in a more informed way, etc. In my opinion, the seminary is particularly effective for developing the intellectual-cognitive component. With all those lectures, books, and papers you’ll engage, you will grow in knowledge in the pursuit of your degree. And that’s a good thing.

But there’s a problem. Notice I said the seminary would ideally develop you on both these broad fronts – the cognitive and the contemplative. But the reality is, the way seminary is structured, there is a risk that seminary will be much more effective at developing you cognitively that contemplatively. Meaning that, it’s likely that your intellectual growth will outpace your spiritual growth. Or to say it another way, your academic development (the cognitive pathway) will potentially (and very likely will) outpace your spiritual development.

The reasons? 1) Time and 2) Seminary is not the Church. 

Reason #1 (Time) might seem counterintuitive given that you will spend as much if not more time with your seminary cadre (professors, students, etc.) than you will with your church family. For that reason, you might be excused for feeling like when you attend seminary you are attending church. But the way you spend your time in seminary – devoting yourself to the academic study of the scriptures and the Christian faith – is not sacramental in the way that you will be spending your time with your church family in worship, service, and fellowship.

Hence, it’s not the amount of time that you spend in seminary that shapes how you will develop, but the way that you spend your time. You will spend most of your time being developed academically in the seminary classroom. For that reason, not surprisingly, you will develop more ‘cognitively’ than ‘contemplatively’ while in school.

Reason #2 then becomes obvious from the previous point I just made: seminary is not Church. What I mean by that is this: you are not gathering in seminary with your academic cadre in order to be the worshiping community of God. At least, that’s not your primary reason for attending. Your primary reason for attending school is the academic study of the scriptures and the Christian faith. Of course, this then begs the question: What is the Church? And why isn’t seminary the Church? Those are good questions and you will tease them apart in seminary (and hopefully “in” Church too). For now, just realize that seminary is not the Church. If you want to get a jump start on this topic, do a word study on the Greek term ekklesia

So, “Time” and “Seminary is not Church.” These things need to be taken into account as you begin your journey in seminary because it can lead to problems.

What kind of problems? Good question.

Problem #1 – PRIDE

One of the first problems it can lead to is pride. Simply put, folks who have a lot of knowledge and yet are still spiritually immature tend to have problems with what to do with their knowledge. They have pride issues. Because knowledge is power in many ways, immature people might be tempted to wield their power (knowledge) in ways that are not edifying for other people but are instead mostly just edifying and glorifying for themselves. These folks also have a tendency to allow their knowledge to become a source of inherent value in and of itself. Meaning, they say “I’m proud of my knowledge and it is a very important part of my inherent value” rather than admitting that our value is rooted in the fact that we bear the imago dei – the image of God by virtue of God’s creative power.

Helmut Thielicke’s book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (which should be required reading for all seminary students) speaks of the theological student who returns to their home congregation after a semester away at seminary. The student, full of facts and data from their new learning, horrifies his brothers and sisters with “questionable by-products of his scientific study…” His pride runs other people down. He has not yet developed the requisite spiritual maturity to make his knowledge humble and edifying for others. Thielicke, in fantastic imagery, likens him to a teenager who cannot yet fit into his father’s pants, and yet tries them on anyways. Yikes!

Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that gal. If your intellectual development rapidly outpaces your spiritual development in such a way that your spiritual development cannot keep a check on your intellectual pitfalls (e.g. pride) then you have a problem. Be aware of this risk and counter it with knowledge of your potential spiritual immaturity.


The second problem when your intellectual growth outpaces your spiritual growth is that you will not realize how dependent you are upon God’s revelation and his redemption so that we can say anything about God at all. The imbalance of our cognitive and the contemplative components risk producing in us a tendency to speak without humility.

We risk speaking without empathy.

We risk speaking without wisdom.

We risk speaking as if we are people who haven’t been first spoken to by God.

We risk much when there is an imbalance between the cognitive and contemplative.

So, what do we do about these risks and the imbalance which seminary can unwittingly create? Well, good news: there is something you can do about it. In fact, the solution is strikingly simple. So simple I’m embarrassed to not have something more complicated to offer.

Are you ready for it? OK, here we go…

Go to seminary AND be a participating member of the body of Christ. In other words: Get thee to Church as well as seminary!

You might be tempted to not be a part of a faith community, a local church, while in seminary. It does happen, perhaps more commonly than most of us know.

I am familiar with the story of one student in seminary who was working on their Master of Divinity. The degree takes about four years to complete, and the entire time this student was in seminary, they never participated as a member of a local church community. When nearing the end of their degree, the student started seeking internship opportunities at a local church so they could get some ministry experience to bolster their later intention to serve as a minister. When the churches the person interviewed for internships with found out they had not attended or participated in a church for four years, none were interested in the student serving as an intern. I often wonder whether the student was able to join a church and fulfill their intention of being a minister once they left the school. I hope they renewed their commitment to the local church, and if God is willing, that person is now being used powerfully in ministry

How is the phenomenon of being in seminary without belonging to a local church possible? I think it is possible because when you are in seminary, either part-time or full-time, it feels like you are doing “churchy” stuff lots of the time and you can fool yourself into thinking that “you’re good” – that you’re participating in a community of faith.

But you’re not good. You need to be a part of a church community. A regular part of that community. Kapeesh?

Yes, it is true that seminary can feed you spiritually and you will grow spiritually. You might even attend chapel when you are on campus and participate in the worshiping community of the seminary. But it cannot replace the Church, and I want to emphasize the importance of belonging to a local church. The Church is that body to which you have been called to in the “new birth” of Jesus Christ. It is in the local church that you will gather and be upbuilt by the Holy Spirit so you can be sent into the world as witnesses of Jesus Christ. The local church is the place where you will receive communion (Eucharist, Lord’s Supper), where baptism occurs, and God’s word is preached. The local church is the place where our spiritual gifts can be exercised to build up others in the body of Christ. The local church is the place we will be disciple and disciplined as needed.

It is the place where we learn patience with others, how to control our tongues, to be tender-hearted and kind, and to live at peace with others. We practice these things (and the Spirit forms them in us) in the “sandbox” of the local church. We practice them there so we can be sent out into the world and practice them faithfully in the world, too. This, and much, much more will take place in the local church.

So, if you take seriously the development of both the contemplative AND cognitive pathways in your life, and you should, then you will participate both in seminary and a local church. The combination of the two will increase the chance that you will graduate from seminary as a balanced person, ready to enter the world of ministry in a healthy way, in a way that has developed you both intellectually and spiritually.