The Seminary and the “Evangelical Mind”

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Lauren Winner is Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her lecture on Christian thinking in theological seminaries was one of the highlights of “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference in Indianapolis.

First, Winner observed that evangelical students often arrive at Duke Divinity School (and presumably other seminaries) hostile to the idea that Christians are shaped by “the great tradition” of the church.  She urged seminary professors to show their evangelical students that Christianity is not “extractable” from Christian tradition and history.  Too often evangelicals arrive at seminary ignorant of the fact that the Bible was shaped by, and is the product of, centuries of theological conversation and debate.

Second, Winner argued that evangelical seminaries must combat “instrumentalism,” or the idea that the purpose of reading Biblical passages or practicing spiritual disciplines is to get satisfactory solutions for pressing problems and concerns. For example, the purpose of prayer, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines is not always about “getting something.”

Third, Winner called for an attentiveness to reading.  She quoted a passage from Anselm’s Meditation on Human Redemption: ”

Consider again the strength of your salvation and where it is found.  Meditate upon it, delight in the contemplation of it.  Shake off your lethargy and set your mind to thinking over these things.  Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be on fire with love for your Savior. Chew the honeycomb of his words, suck their flavor which is sweeter than sap, swallow their wholesome sweetness.  Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Be glad to chew, be thankful to suck, rejoice to swallow.

On this point Winner appeared to be echoing her former colleague Paul Griffiths on spiritual reading.  When Christian scholars read they tend to “cannibalize”  the text.  Is it possible for scholarship to be read in a “delightful way?”  Winner also encouraged seminaries to assign fiction and poetry because these genres can tell us things about God and the world that traditional theology is incapable of communicating.

Fourth, Winner argued that seminaries should teach students that “thinking is an action.”  Activism is good, but it is shallow unless supported by serious thought.  For example, Winner wondered why every sermon has to end with a charge to “do something.”  Why can’t a sermon, she asked, challenge hearers to “think differently about something.”  In the end, “thinking differently about something” is a form of action.

Fifth, Winner reminded pastors that they have a responsibility to the life of the mind. They are faced with the task of inviting the members of their congregations to see the world Christianly. Winner, who in addition to her work at Duke serves as an Episcopalian priest in a North Carolina congregation, said that she is less concerned that her parishioners understand the different views of the atonement and more concerned that they can think about “naptime” or “grocery shopping” in a Christian ways.  What would it mean, she asked, “to see the world, the whole world, through a Christian eyeball” in such a way that we “see Jesus” in every aspect of daily life?

In the end, Winner’s words for evangelical seminaries and seminarians apply to anyone trying to live out the claims of Christianity.  But I also wonder if we need to do a better job as Christian scholars to engage in scholarly work and practice informed by the kinds of spiritual practices she discussed in her lecture.  I have been thinking about this for some time now.

3 thoughts on “The Seminary and the “Evangelical Mind”

  1. Lauren Winner’s book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith shows how colonial Virginia Anglicans sought to “view the world Christianly.” I highly recommend it.

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  2. While I agree with the charge that unthinking activism is not helpful, and that every sermon doesn’t need to end with a “do something” (Augustine suggested “delight” might be an appropriate response, at least sometimes) I am somewhat dismayed at my evangelical sisters and brothers at this moment in time. Is it not a moment when “business as usual” doesn’t cut it? With neo-Nazis marching in the streets, my evangelical friends’ hesitation to touch anything controversial is beginning to look like dereliction of duty.

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  3. All of us faith-full academics need to read and re-read Simone Weil’s essay on attentiveness and prayer in WAITING FOR GOD: “The key to Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.” Plus, the Monks of New Skete’s advice in IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS: “The call to unceasing prayer is not an invitation to divided consciousness; it does not imply that we pay any less attention to daily realities or retreat from life’s responsibilities. Rather: It is a call to learn to live always in the presence of God in a manner appropriate to changing circumstances, through these very circumstances, none of which are an end in themselves, but which lead us to God. For this reason we do everything to the best of our ability, with the utmost attention, as each thing deserves. We never make an end out of the means.”

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