Tending Soul, Mind, and Body: The Art and Science of Spiritual Formation, edited by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (IVP Academic, 2019), $25.
I first encountered the spiritual formation movement in the early 1990s. I became convinced that the spiritual disciplines are an essential part of being a follower of Christ, and that conviction has only deepened in the ensuing decades. Contemporary writers like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Jan Johnson, and Ruth Barton helped me not only with their own writings, but also by opening up the Scriptures and two thousand years of Christian thought and practice on this aspect of the Christian life.
In Tending Soul, Mind, and Body, Hiestand and Wilson offer a collection of essays on “the art and science” of spiritual formation, drawn from a 2018 conference held by the Center for Pastor Theologians. As someone who has edited volumes for both a scholarly and popular audience, I can attest to the truth of the claim that such books are often uneven. In one sense this is true of this volume as well. Some of the chapters are good, some are very good, and some are excellent. Thankfully, all are worthy of inclusion in the book.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one consists of biblical, theological, and historical reflections on spiritual formation. It includes discussions of the structure of 1 Corinthians, the vision of the imago dei, the connections between the Holy Spirit and positive psychology, the nature of spiritual formation itself, and chapters focused on Jonathan Edwards, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the African American tradition as they relate to formation. Part two is intended to be more practical, with chapters on the integrated pastor, practicing resurrection, friendship, helping survivors of sexual abuse, questions related to psychoactive drugs and spirituality, and the role of wisdom. In what follows, I will focus on a select few chapters in a bit of detail, rather than going through all thirteen of them in brief.
In Marc Cortez’s chapter, “Beyond Imitation: The Image of God as a Vision for Spiritual Formation,” the argument is that, since the imago dei is central to the Bible’s vision of humanity, it should be central to both the end and the means of spiritual formation. Cortez employs a capacity view of the imago dei, not to argue for it but rather to show how one view of it can be helpful as we explore the topic of spiritual formation. In this case, the focus is on rationality as the key capacity. Some worry about a spiritual formation that is overly or primarily cognitive, though Cortez wonders (rightly, in my view), if we’ve become overly concerned about that. It is true that our emotions, relationships, and experiences in everyday life are also important aspects of our growth, and that we ought to account for this as we conceive of and practice spiritual formation. Yet we remain cognitive beings, too, and if we fail to properly account for this “we run the risk of downplaying the clear biblical emphasis on the knowledge of God in his self-revelation” (26). Moreover, he points out that the Scriptures move quickly and easily from an emphasis on knowledge, action, and emotion. This might mean that the best way forward is to take a broader view of the capacities that constitute the imago dei, in an effort at avoiding reductionism. A good and right implication of doing this is that we might then stop the marginalization of those who have intellectual disabilities in the Church. We might also avoid downplaying the mind, emotions, or the body.
The chapter that most deeply challenged me was “Drawing from the Well: Learning from African American Christian Formation,” by Vincent Bacote. While there is much variety in this neglected tradition, Bacote focuses on some particular resources that can be drawn from it. One difference between white Christians and black Christians, according to survey data, is that the former focus on accomplishing spiritual goals (e.g. seeking to obey Jesus) while the latter focus more on the process of transformation into Christlikeness (i.e. the development of Christian character). White Christians are more likely to see their spiritual growth in individualistic terms, whereas black Christians in America have a more communal mindset. Black Christians also show more devotion to the Bible, insofar as they study it more, memorize it more, and value the impact of studying it more. African-American churches also do a better job at seeing and incorporating the connections between individual spiritual life and the common good, between a deep personal transformation in Christ and working toward a societal transformation in service to Christ. These differences can be explained in part by the centuries of trauma and injustice, which also led to a focus on hope in Christ in the midst of a society where white Christians were often hostile to the flourishing of their black siblings in Christ.
Drawing from this well can help us learn and practice a spiritual formation that fosters resilience in the midst of suffering and the courage to love our neighbors in new ways. For the white church, it provides an opportunity to study and apply the insights of African-American writers and leaders in a spirit of “ecclesiastical humility and curiosity” rather than a continued “refusal to learn from the black church [that] can only be termed ecclesiastical arrogance” (102). As someone who is passionate about cultivating Christian character and contributing to the common good in the name of Christ, I am personally excited to explore the African American well of wisdom and its teachings about a more holistic and biblical conception of spiritual formation.
The third chapter I’ll discuss is Pamela Baker Powell’s “Friendship: The Lost Spiritual Discipline.” We live in a culture of lonely people, something that has been exacerbated in the past two years by a worldwide pandemic. Yet it does not need to be this way. In more normal times, as well as during a pandemic, we can practice the lost discipline of Christian friendship. One of the most important things in my own life is the biweekly Zoom meeting I have with three friends from graduate school. We started this practice at the beginning of the pandemic. It is not always convenient, but it is always good. This is because, as Baker Powell points out, in “friendship, especially Christian friendship, the human soul finds the most formative crucible for growing into a mature human being who is conformed to Christ” (135). Sadly, people in the West have fewer close friends than twenty years ago. In an average congregation or neighborhood, it is safe to assume that nearly 50 percent of the people are lonely. In our culture, it takes time, intentionality, and discipline to cultivate and maintain deep friendships. But we must do so, whether we are a pastor, lay leader, or layperson, because it is essential for becoming like Christ. We need each other to grow as followers of the Way. And, thankfully, “Christian friendship begins here on earth but exists eternally in heaven” (144).
Every chapter in this book will be useful for those who are interested in the theory and practice of spiritual formation, especially in the context of the local church. This book deserves a wide reading.
Michael W. Austin is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. His latest book is God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020). You can find out more about his work here.