recall a conversation some years ago with Donald Coggan, formerly archbishop of Canterbury. We were discussing some of the challenges to theological education, and had ended by sharing our concerns over folk who left theological education knowing more about God, but seemingly caring less for God. Coggan turned to me, sadly, and remarked: ‘The journey from head to heart is one of the longest and most difficult that we know.’ I have often reflected on that comment, which I suspect reflects his lifelong interest in theological education and the considerable frustrations it generated—not to mention his experiences of burnt-out clergy, who seemed to have exhausted their often slender resources of spiritual energy, and ended up becoming a burden instead of a gift to the people of God.
I have no hesitation in affirming that theology is of central importance to Christian life and thought. I have little time for the various efforts to dumb down the preaching and teaching of our churches, or simply to focus on the development of new and better techniques for the care of souls and the growth of the churches. But I am an honest person, and I want to admit from the outset that focusing simply on doctrinal affirmations is seriously deficient. Theological correctness alone is no balm for the wounds of our frail and sinful humanity. We cannot nourish the mind while neglecting the heart. Like its political counterpart, an obsession with theological correctness can simply engender the kind of harsh judgmental personality which is eager to seek out and expose alleged doctrinal errors, and cares little for the fostering of Christimaging relationships.
In my first period as a Christian, I found my attention focusing on understanding my faith. I continue to regard this as being of the utmost importance. There is a marvelous coherence to Christian doctrine, and wrestling with the great truths of our faith provided me with both spiritual encouragement and intellectual challenge. Yet it seemed to me that my “knowledge” of the Christian faith was rather dry and cerebral.
Part of the difficulty was that I was, like most people of my generation, deeply influenced by the Enlightenment. Christianity was all about ideas—and it was important to get those ideas right. As a result, theological correctness had become something of an obsession with me. I had failed to realize that the gospel affects every level of our existence—not just the way we think, but the way in which we feel and live. The Enlightenment had championed the role of reason, and vetoed any engagement with emotions or imagination. Yet I knew that writers such as Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis had stressed the importance of precisely these aspects of our lives. I gradually came to the realization that my faith was far too academic.1
My realization of the importance of spirituality began about 1989, but really blossomed from about 1992. I was invited to lead a regular summer school course in Oxford on “medieval and Reformation spirituality.” This allowed me to engage with some of the great texts of Christian spirituality, including many from the period of the Reformation. As my students and I wrestled with these texts, we found ourselves challenged to deepen the quality of our Christian faith through being more open to God. I found that the quality of my Christian life deepened considerably as a result.
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