Theology and Spiritual Formation

By Gwenfair Walters Adams, Ph.D.

George Despinis, the director of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, had an instant reaction to the beautiful, seven-foot marble statue of a Greek young man standing in front of him. He immediately knew it was a fake. The heads of the Archaeological Society and the Benaki Museum of Athens had the same response. The Getty Museum, on the other hand, after months of research by scientists and lawyers, had decided that the $10 million statue was an original, 6th century BC sculpture. Who was right? The painstaking research of the Getty Museum turned out to be wrong; the gut reactions of the art experts turned out to be right. How could this be?

Malcolm Gladwell, hearing this story, became intrigued about those first two seconds in the brains of the art curators as they first viewed the statue. What was it that made their immediate responses so accurate? He set out to explore this question in his bestseller, Blink. Gladwell discovered a number of fascinating things which suggest that intuition, when it is most powerful and accurate, is not as intuitive as it appears. And as I read the book, I found myself asking what the implications of his findings might be for theology and spiritual formation. Here are my musings on several of the stories that Gladwell explores.

For purposes of this essay, I’ll be referring to theology as the formal discipline of the study of God and his interaction with his world, as revealed in Scripture. And for spiritual formation, we’ll be focusing on the role of the pastor, spiritual director, discipler, counselor or wise friend in walking with someone in the midst of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of drawing that person into a deeper relationship with the Triune God and conforming that person into the image of Christ.

I want to look particularly at the role of theology in the discernment that is required in spiritual formation. Matters of the spirit can, by definition, be hard to pin down. And discernment requires making judgment calls. Sometimes those have to be made very quickly. So, how can we make the best ones in those fleeting moments? The questions can come fast and furious. Is God angry at me? Will the child that I aborted go to heaven? Have I committed the unpardonable sin? Where was God when I was being abused? Why does God seem so hidden? Is God leading me to marry this particular person? Do I need to follow the Ten Commandments? Are the spiritual disciplines required, suggested, efficacious? Are there means of grace? What are they? What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of my life? How do I get closer to God? Should that be a goal? All of these queries and many others can come up in the process of spiritual formation.

Gladwell describes the abilities of professional taste testers. Their ability to identify ingredients in any mouthful is extraordinary. If chewing on a prepackaged cookie, they can tell not only the exact factory where it was made, but what leftover ingredients from a previous batch have been incorporated into this batch. Is this purely a natural gifting on their part? No, says Gladwell. Rather, they have been trained in a highly technical discipline with a clear and precise set of terms, criteria and scales.

In an analogous way, theology allows one’s biblical taste buds to become highly trained. It takes the principles and truths of the Scriptures and develops them into a disciplined set of vocabulary and a helpful set of grids. Knowing these terms and concepts gives one the categories to look out for when listening to someone’s struggles. And in giving counsel, the vocabulary helps one communicate truths that can overcome deeply embedded falsehoods.

Did you know that if you are either a Coke or a Pepsi lover, if you are asked to do a blind taste test between the two of them, you might have a good chance of identifying which was which? But if you were given three cups, two of which had one of the colas, and the third of which had the other, you would have a very difficult time telling which two were the same brand. Gladwell says that in a test of a thousand people, only a few more than a third were able to pass the test, which is about as good as randomly guessing. It’s because the two colas are quite similar in their flavors, and so only experts can keep track of the first versus the second cup as they move to the third. And that is because the taste-testing professionals are able to analyze with precision the exact ingredients, their relative amounts and the intensity of the flavors, and they have the vocabulary with which to describe what they are perceiving. Hence, they are, in effect, able to code what they are tasting, and this helps them to make objective statements about which cola is which. And this allows them to speak with greater certainty about their judgments. They can defend their choices with clear explanations. And their taste pronouncements can be accepted with greater trust by the companies that hire them for their expertise.

When things get complex, when intellectual problems and ethical conundrums and psychological challenges collide, it can be helpful to have a strong theological grid integrated into the core of one’s thinking. It can help to sort out the intricacies. The more complicated the problems, the more helpful it is if one’s theology is clearly developed. For example, knowing the names and characteristics of the various heresies from the past can help safeguard one from making the same errors today. And knowing what the larger theological picture is and how the parts fit together provides context that can make sense out of intricately knotted questions.

One final Gladwell story piqued my interest. He described John Gottman’s work on marriage. Gottman, a psychologist, set out to discover the factors that lead to divorce. He set up a “love lab” where he and his assistants observed couples over the course of 24 hours, recording their heart rates, perspiration and so on. They videoed the couples’ facial expressions, then they analyzed all the data. They identified, second by second, every expression that flashed across the couple’s faces, analyzing them according to a set of 20 or so emotional categories and measuring their intensity. Their findings have put Gottman in a position where he can now, after watching a 15-minute videotape of a couple, predict with 95 percent accuracy whether they will be divorced within 15 years. He has found that if he has a couple discuss something on which they disagree, he can tell, from the way they are arguing, whether their marriage will survive.

Even if Gottman were to tell you all the criteria he and his assistants used to measure various indices, however, you would not be able to watch the same video and come to the same conclusions as his, for it is impossible to keep track of all the variables for 15 minutes. How, then, is he able to come to such clear conclusions so easily? Well, it turns out that he no longer has to watch for dozens of variables. He’s looking for only four. His comprehensive research has revealed that there are four things that predict divorce: stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and, above all, contempt. So, when he observes a couple, he’s not watching for everything. He’s watching for the signals that matter most. He has boiled the findings of years of research down to their core. And that’s what allows him to hone in on what is crucial.

With Scripture itself as the preeminent and authoritative text for theology, there is, perhaps, a sense in which church history has served as a “lab” for testing many of the theological theories that have emerged over the course of the past 2000 years. The events of church history have taken the human constructs within theology and tested them in real-life settings. Theology takes into account the findings of the hard work done by thousands of biblical scholars and theologians and lived out by the Church in a wide diversity of contexts. All these “lab results” together, boiled down to their essentials, can help inform our understanding of the Scriptures and give us a biblical framework for discernment. (Acquiring and integrating this kind of theological grid is an important part of seminary education, incidentally.)

Theology matters to spiritual formation. For when we are in those spiritual formation contexts where discernment matters, the more deeply integrated and the more accurate our theology is, the wiser our judgments may be during those two-second blinks.

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