My Approach to the Vocation of the Theologian in the Field of Adult Spiritual Formation

by Steve Thomason

A Term Paper Presented to Professor Alan Padgett

Luther Seminary

As a Requirement in Course GR8620 The Vocation of the Theologian | St. Paul, Minnesota | 2012

How does one function as a scholar in the academy while maintaining, and more importantly, integrating a deep Christian conviction into that scholarly work? That is the question to which I will respond in this paper.  I will focus my response to the specific task of being a scholar within the field of Adult Spiritual Formation within the emerging missional church. This work will bring me into conversation with the broader academic fields of sociology, psychology, and andragogy. It is a difficult task to speak of spiritual formation in an academic arena that has a natural prejudice against it. Sociologists, psychologists, and andragogists tend to approach human development from an empirical, naturalistic perspective. Spirituality is most often viewed as simply a human construct at best. In this paper I will speak to this difficulty and outline my philosophy of how I can maintain my deep Christian convictions while also maintaining high academic standards within this scholarly pursuit.

I will present my argument in three parts. Part one will discuss the general tensions facing the theologian in the academy. I will draw upon George Marsden’s book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship to outline these tensions.[1] Part two will examine an example of a Christian scholar that I think has successfully engaged the academy in the field of spiritual formation and maintained a deep Christian conviction. This scholar is Thomas Groome. In part three I will propose my own framework for how I would like to approach the task of being a scholar in the field of adult spiritual formation. This framework is built around the idea that the theologian must always keep three audiences in mind when approaching any scholarly work.

Part One: The Struggle of Being A Christian Scholar

It is difficult to speak of spiritual formation in the academy. Marsden says, “many contemporary academics affirm as dogma that the only respectable place for religion in the academy is as an object of study.”[2] This is especially true of the academic fields with which adult spiritual formation must engage–sociology, psychology, and andragogy. Sociology, especially, is one of the most secular fields in the academy.[3]

Why is this true? Marsden argues that the current aversion to religion, and Christianity specifically, has its historical roots in a general reaction by the academy to the long dominance of the church over the academy throughout European history. The age of Enlightenment offered a non-sectarian alternative to the violence and bloodshed demonstrated by the church during the decades following the Protestant Reformation. “The authority of naturalistic science, social science, and history validated the disparagement of traditional Protestantism and endorsed the superiority of nonsectarian liberal Protestant views.”[4] The evolution of the academy from the 1950s to the 1980s brought about an increased desire and sensitivity to a multicultural and pluralistic environment. This sensitivity, combined with the academy’s propensity to maintain an homogenous institution, led to a deeper prejudice against any religious perspective. Religion can be nothing more than an object of study, but never a perspective from which to engage in academic study. The Christian ethos of the 19th century, in which a belief in a creator was taken for granted, was replaced in the 20th century by a purely secular ethos.[5]

Lesslie Newbigin further articulates this tension between the theologian and the academy. He claims that there is a schism between the public life and the private life in our modern western culture. All values and religious convictions have been relegated to the private realm and hence silenced from the public conversation. The only criteria for truth that can be submitted to the public conversation is that which has been construed through the process of empirical investigation and marked as fact. The purveyors of fact are the scholars of the academy. They hold the authoritative voice in the public arena because the culture holds the universal assumption that a scholar can maintain an objective perspective and deal only in fact. The culture believes that the scholar is not clouded by value judgments and archaic religious traditions.[6]

How, then, can the Christian scholar proceed? If, by default, I as Christian theologian am trivialized and marginalized into the private sector, how can I speak to the academy, or to the broader culture, about spiritual formation?[7] Marsden claims that there is a way forward. The academy’s aforementioned new openness to pluralism and multicultural diversity bodes well for the Christian scholar. A truly pragmatic pluralism allows all perspectives to come to the conversation. Marsden does not, however, promote a deconstructionist postmodernism. Rather he claims that the Christian scholar should learn to play by the academic rules. He is “not challenging pragmatic liberalism as the modus operandi for the contemporary academy. Rather [he is] affirming it for that limited role, but arguing that there is no adequate pragmatic basis for marginalizing all supernaturalist religious viewpoints a priori.”[8] In other words, if a Christian scholar can speak the academic language and demonstrate fluency in the broad research and accepted knowledge pool of the given field, then the Christian scholar should be allowed to speak from a specifically Christian perspective. It is important to note that “discourse on religious topics in the pluralistic academy must be conducted with willingness to listen as well as to speak.”[9] This dialogue offers the Christian scholar an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the humility and love for the other that is inherent in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part Two: An Excellent Example of A Christian Scholar in the Field of Spiritual Formation — Thomas Groome

Thomas Groome is an excellent example of the type of scholarship I have identified in part one, and of the scholarship I hope to achieve in my own work. Groome is chair of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry and Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College. His primary areas of interest and research are the history, theory and practice of religious education, pastoral ministry, and practical theology.[10] He has done a great job of addressing the academy on the academy’s terms while maintaining and propelling a new paradigm of catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. I will extract some helpful principles for interacting with the academy by looking specifically at two of Groome’s works. First, I will draw from Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education & Pastoral Ministry in which he further develops the concept he calls Shared Praxis.[11] Second, I will discuss the defense of his academic standards from an article titled “Truth Betrayed” found on his website.[12]

Three basic principles for the emerging scholar can be derived from examining Groome’s work. First, we must state our own perspective. Second, we must be open to the perspective of others. Third, we must be willing to modify and broaden our own perspective based upon the dialogue with the other.

State Your Perspective

First, Groome starts in the right place. Marsden proposes that “there be room for explicit Christian points of view (just as there are explicit Marxist or feminist views) for those who will play by the other rules proper to the diverse academy.”[13] Groome demonstrates his ability to do this. He states, “I am a Christian religious educator whose ecclesial context is the Catholic tradition and community of the Christian church.”[14] Without this mooring in his faith he would not be able to proceed with his academic work.

The Christian scholar must not be afraid to claim a Christian starting point in which scripture and Christian tradition hold a privileged position. A truly pluralistic academic setting must be tolerant of this as a valid perspective from which to start.

Be Open to Others

Secondly, Groome demonstrates an openness to other perspectives. This is another of Marsden’s principles. Marsden seeks to circumvent the tendentiousness often present in certain types of Christian–or any sectarian–scholarship. This can only be done when the scholar is openly self-critical and open to dialogue partners from various perspectives.[15] Groome states that he hopes his work can be valuable to those outside of his tradition and can be “honored in education that is not overtly religious.”[16]

One need only to scan the table of contents of Sharing Faith to realize that Groome is drawing upon a broad base of academic knowledge in order to build his argument. He is constructing the concept of conation throughout Shared Faith. He begins with the field of epistemology. He traces the history of epistemology beginning with Plato, moves to Aristotle, then to Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and ends with the contemporary epistemologies of Marxism, Phenomenology, Heideggerian Existentialism, and Pragmatism. He then engages in the fields of ontology, development psychology, and educational philosophy, attempting to encompass a wide base of knowledge from these disciplines.

Broaden Your Perspective

Third, Groome is an example of how the scholar needs to be willing to broaden her perspective based upon the encounter with the other. The purpose of engaging the other in academic pursuit is twofold. First, it is to allow oneself to be open to the critique and adjustment that comes through critical engagement with differing perspectives. It is the willingness to abandon or modify any components of one’s own thesis in light of new insights acquired from the other. Second, it is to take that which has been learned from the other and add it to one’s own in order to improve one’s own thesis. Groome demonstrates this again and again throughout his work as he generously engages Marxist, feminist, and various pedagogical and sociological perspectives.

The three principles mentioned above are further evidenced in a short essay that Groome wrote in response to a harsh critique that he received. His critic–Eamonn Keane–accused Groome of being a dissenter from the Catholic faith.[17] When we look at Groome’s responses to Keane’s critique we will see the shape of a truly Christian scholar emerge.

First, Keane accuses Groome of dissension because he uses the term “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Groome responds,

He never refers to the context in which I use it. Sharing Faith was an academic work that drew upon and engaged the scholarship of its time. Within the scholarly conversation on hermeneutics, led by such great thinkers as Hans Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and David Tracy, “hermeneutics of suspicion” was a common phrase that all its authors understood as a positive exercise; it had no implication of dissent or denial of the truths of faith.[18]

Second, Keane accuses Groome of being a Marxist because he draws upon the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire. Groome responds,

Freire is recognized as one of the greatest educators of the 20th century, and yes, he was one of my primary mentors. Mr. Keane misrepresents him, however, by portraying him as a “Marxist”–and by implication myself–knowing well the negative connotations this has for his audience. As for all competent scholars of the 20th century, Freire had studied Marx and like many of his colleagues in Latin American liberation theology, he appreciated Marx’s critique of unbridled capitalism (as did Pope John Paul II). Having known him very well personally, I can aver that throughout his life Freire remained a faithful and devout Catholic.[19]

These two citations are merely samples of the type of accusation and defense that Groome deals with throughout the essay. I found this essay to be both an affirmation and a warning as I embark on a journey of scholarship in the academy. It is an affirmation that I must always be attentive to the broader academic field in which I am studying. I must not be afraid to listen to a Marxist, or a feminist, or a Roman Catholic like Groome. Every scholar who is doing truly scholarly work has something to contribute to the conversation and I must be conversant and engaged in the full conversation if I hope to have anything of substance to contribute.

It is also a warning. No matter what I say or write, there will always be a critic. I will be accused from the academy of being too narrow or skewed by my religious convictions. I will also be accused by the church, as was Dr. Groome, of being in bed with the devil by having academic conversations. This is, indeed, part of the vocation of the theologian.

Part Three: My Approach to Sapiential Theology — Keep Three Audiences in Mind

In this final part of my essay I will make a constructive turn and attempt to craft a framework from which I hope to approach my vocation as a professional theologian. Part of this framework is inspired by the concept of sapiential theology put forth by Ellen Charry.

Sapience includes correct information about God but emphasizes attachment to that knowledge. Sapience is engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known….Sapiential theology waned with modernity. Theology came to be thought of as the intellectual justification of the faith, apart from the practice of the Christian life. The wisdom of God has ceased to function in the church as the foundation of the good life. Theology is no longer expected to be a practical discipline, burdened as it is in the modern period with the awkwardness of speaking of God at all. Theology became preoccupied with considerations of the conditions of knowledge. And even this enterprise is now questioned by postmodern descendants of Nietzsche, who dispute the notion of knowledge altogether, asserting that knowledge is simply a front for power. In order to reclaim the sapiential function of theology it will first be necessary to suggest how theological claims may be understood to refer to God. Once it is clear that we may speak about knowing God, it will be necessary to ask how we come to love God. [20]

Charry suggests that “the first step in such a renewal would require theologians to reconnect truth and goodness.”[21] I will attempt to bridge this gap and engage in sapiential theology by keeping three audiences in mind every time I approach the work of a scholar.[22] I must first acknowledge God as my audience. Second, I must address the academy. Third, I must address the church.

God is My Audience: Scholarship as a Spiritual, Sapiential Discipline

It is my contention that, first and foremost, God is real. There is a transcendent creator that can be known, if only in part. God is triune, three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–in one divine essence. God has revealed Godself through direct revelation and the election of Abraham and his descendants. God’s ultimate revelation was through the incarnate Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He was crucified, buried, and bodily rose from the dead. All of these revelations and historic interactions between God and the nation of Israel have been inscripturated in the canon of the Hebrew Tanakh and the Christian Testament, that, together Christians call the Bible. The church lives in the eschatological hope of the proleptic Reign, or Kingdom, of God on earth and seeks to bring forth and live out God’s reign in all nations.

I have rehearsed this terse statement of faith because I believe that Marsden is correct. The first step of a Christian scholar is to explicitly state one’s own vantage point. One thing that we have learned on this side of the post-modern turn[23] and Gadamer’s hermeneutics is that it is impossible to not have a perspective and a prejudice.[24] We must hold this perspective loosely, always open to expansion and critique, of course, but nevertheless we must not be ashamed to hold this perspective in a place of privilege.

The goal of theology, or any academic discipline, then, is to gain knowledge of God and learn more about the universe God created. All truth is God’s truth and the pursuit of deeper insight is an act of worship. Charry surveyed 600 years of pre-modern theology and concluded that “they never forgot that God was seeking to draw people to himself for their own good.”[25]

There is an inner dimension and an outer dimension to the idea that God is our first audience. The inner dimension is practical and devotional. God has wired me to be a learner. It is a truly spiritual experience to be engrossed in study, with all the books open around me, and to have that epiphany, the aha moment when a new concept bursts out in my mind. This is an act of spiritual worship for me as a scholar because I am using the gifts that God has given me in the pursuit of God.

The outer dimension has to do with attitude. When I remember that God is my audience I am reminded that it is not about me. The natural temptation for the scholar is to become puffed up. The apostle Paul said it bluntly, “knowledge puffs up.”[26] The scholar–who tends to be trapped inside his own thoughts already–can find it easy to elevate himself above others by spouting big words and quoting obscure authors. When God is our audience we are tempered. We are reminded that our gift of intellect and acumen is simply a gift from God for others, and not a tool for self-aggrandizement.

The Academy is My Audience: Speaking and Listening to the Other

The scholar is held accountable by the peer group of the academy. Again, there is an internal and and external benefit to acknowledging this audience. Internally, the academy provides checks and balances to help prevent two things. First, it helps prevent hubris. The truth is that there will always be someone out there who has thought of it and said it better than you. No matter what you say, someone will have a valid, and probably more compelling, counterpoint. Knowing that this brilliant audience will read your words and critique them with a fine-toothed comb creates a healthy humility and diligence in the pursuit of academic integrity. Second, it will provide a ballast to the tendentious tendency inherent within religious conviction. It is good to remember that there are academic peers from all religious and non-religious perspectives reviewing everything you write or say. Christian scholars must always remain open to the other, realizing that God’s truth lies within any and all research. The Christian scholar must always maintain a humble openness to listen and share with the entire academy and feel the freedom to give and take openly.

There is an external dimension to this awareness as well. Simply put, the academy is watching. Not only are they listening to our words, but they are watching our attitudes. Marsden pointed out that much of the modern academic aversion to religion is because religion has behaved badly toward the other throughout history.[27] Any scholar who claims a traditional perspective, as I have stated above, will be automatically put under a tighter scrutiny and quickly labeled as a hypocrite at the first opportunity. While this may be an unfair pressure on the the Christian scholar, it is a stark reality. This climate affords the Christian scholar a unique opportunity to demonstrate the kingdom of God and the heart of the gospel to the academy in a way that few other could have.

The Church is My Audience: The Theologian as the Pastor/Teacher

Finally, there is a third audience that I must always keep in mind when I engage in scholarly work. I must remember the church. The Christian scholar does not learn for learning’s sake, or for self-gratification. The vocation of the theologian is to be a doctor–a teacher–of the church. Charry’s survey of the pre-modern theologians demonstrated “in every case that each theologian sought to unfold the mystery of God in order to bring people to know and love him and to live accordingly (italics mine).”[28]

The letter to the Ephesians identifies five types of leaders–apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. The scholar is a teacher, and I would contend a pastor as well, of the church. The purpose of these leadership roles is

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.[29]

Stanley Grenz identified five types of theologians–folk, lay, ministerial, professional, and academic. He contends that the extreme forms of theologian–folk and academic–are equally dangerous. The folk theologian functions on hearsay and superstition and is almost always sectarian and tendentious. The academic theologian has been fully engulfed in the modern academy and has lost sight of the sapiential nature of theology that Charry calls for. In between these two extremes lie the sapiential theologians.[30] They lay on a continuum and work in cooperation for the benefit of the church. The lay theologian is the average member of the church who has a vocation in the world that would not be considered academic or classically theological, but is interested in an authentic pursuit of God. The ministerial theologian is the pastor who works in the gap between practical matters of church administration, planning, weddings, funerals, preaching, etc. on the one side, and the realm of classical theological pursuits on the other.  Finally, there is the professional theologian. This is the person who has been given the gift of schola–extended time. The scholar has time to devote to extended research, reading, writing, and teaching. Grenz claims that everyone is a theologian because everyone thinks about God. He asks, “Who needs theology?” The answer: everyone. The church needs professional theologians–scholars, members of the academy–so that the church stays on the cutting edge of what God is doing in the world.[31]


I stand here in the middle of the first year of my doctoral studies. Three and a half years from now, if all goes well, the academy will recognize me as “doctor.” What does that mean? What is the true calling–the vocation–of the theologian? Specifically, how can I talk about adult spiritual formation in the academy as anything other than a humanly constructed developmental model in the evolution of the homo sapien? It is a difficult calling to be a professing follower of a crucified and risen rabbi in an academic world that trivializes and marginalizes any truth claims that exceed the bounds of empirical scientia.

I believe it can be done. I must hold my convictions faithfully and loosely. I must be open to listen to all the voices in the academy and be willing to learn and modify my own beliefs when confronted with truth. Conversely, I must not be afraid or ashamed to assert my convictions into the conversation in loving humility.

I can help in bridging the gap of truth and goodness by keeping three audiences always in my mind. Every book I read, paper I write, conversation I have, and lecture I give, I must always remember that three groups of people are listening. God, the trinity, listens and smiles. The academy listens and critiques. The church listens and learns. My prayer is that I will be up to the vocation and used as a humble servant to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Praise be to God!



Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn Critical Perspectives. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Carter, Stephen L. The Culture of Disbelief : How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1993.

Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds : The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975.

Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology? : An Invitation to the Study of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Groome, Thomas H. Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986.

Tracy, David. Blessed Rage for Order, the New Pluralism in Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.


[1] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] Ibid.,  13.

[3] This is a statement made by Dr. Alan Padgett during the course The Vocation of the Theologian at Luther Seminary, January 2012.

[4] Ibid.,  15.

[5] Ibid.,  22-23.

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), 1-41.

[7] Marsden quotes Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief : How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1993). Carter says that religion has been trivialized by the modern western society. Marsden, 20.

[8] Ibid.,  46.

[9] Ibid.,  53.

[10] From his bio page at Boston College (accessed February 2, 2012).

[11] Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

[12] This is an essay the Groome has posted on his Boston College website. It is in response to a vicious attack he received from a conservative Roman Catholic. Groome was criticized for his academic approach and his willingness to listen to the voice of other scholars who did not necessarily uphold Catholic values. (accessed February 2, 2010)

[13] Marsden, 52.

[14] Groome, 2.

[15] Marsden, 54.

[16] Groome, 3.

[17] The critique is found in Eamonn Keane’s book A Generation Betrayed (Heatherleigh Press: NY, 2002)

[18] Truth Betrayed, 5.

[19] Ibid., 8.

[20] Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds : The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4-5.

[21] Ibid.,  238.

[22] The idea of acknowledging different audiences in the task of theology was presented by David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, the New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).

[23] I am borrowing the phrase “post-modern turn” from Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Critical Perspectives (New York: Guilford Press, 1997).

[24] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975).

[25] Charry, 233.

[26] 1 Corinthians 8:1

[27] Marsden, 14.

[28] Charry, 233.

[29] Ephesians 4:12-13

[30] This is not Grenz’s term. I am borrowing it from Charry.

[31] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? : An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

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