Setting the Stage: The Logic of Spiritual Formation

Returning to a topic introduced in an earlier post, I offer for your consideration some thoughts on the practical elements of spiritual formation in groups. Given the recent discussion in the comments section on the psychological and spiritual health, this topic is especially important. Let me explain.

Psychological testing for candidates for ordination (at least for priests and deacons) is important. There are a number of tests that are useful in identifying those candidates who have mental health concerns that might make them unfit for ministry. But no test is any better than the one who administers it. And, no matter how well the test in administered, it is of no value if we fail to act on the results. As I see it the irony in testing is this: The best science in the world is useless, and even harmful, in the hands of those who the intellectual and moral abilities to apply it to appropriately to the needs of the candidate. Psychological testing, at its best, helps us exclude those men for whom holy orders and ministry would be an unbearable burden because of their own psychological makeup. Testing can tell us who not to ordain; it cannot tell is who to ordain.

Empirical sciences (and this includes psychology and psychological testing) function inductively. This is to say that science makes general statements that are probably true, based on individual instances. For example, if you answer X to question Y then you are probably depressed. The Pew Charitable Trust Survey of the US Religious Landscape is an example of inductive reasoning. A large number of people are interviewed and the researchers draw general conclusions (expressed statistically) about religious life in the United States. While there has been over the years criticism of inductive reasoning, I think that if we bear in mind its limitations it is a valuable tool for ministry.

Most clergy are not trained in science, that is there are not (as part of their own education as clergy) expected to be experts in inductive reasoning. This I think is one of the reasons that frequently bishops and the lower clergy have difficulty in understanding, much less using appropriately, the findings of the social and human sciences. If scientists are trained in inductive reason, by virtue of their theological education clergy are more inclined to proceed along different lines in their understanding of the world of persons, events, and things. At least vocationally, clergy are theologians and theology, unlike empirical science (including psychology) typically uses deductive and not inductive reasoning.

Unlike inductive reasoning that moves from the particular to the general, deductive reasoning moves from the general (or universal) to the particular. For example, let’s say you hold to the premise that all human beings have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” You know that I am human and while you know nothing about me except that I am human, you concluded that I am a sinner. This doesn’t tell me how you I sin, but it does give you some insight into my life. Unlike inductive reasoning that offers us states of probability (or assertoric knowledge or information that is likely true) deductive reasoning offers (or claims to offer) certain knowledge (or apodictic knowledge or information that is necessarily or absolutely true).

Especially as an applied discipline, spiritual formation, to get finally to our topic here, uses a third, and often overlooked, form of logical reasoning: abductive. Unlike inductive and deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning is concerned with trying to reason, often by trail and error, to the best explanation. Abductive reasoning is by its very nature heuristic that is it is a way of focusing, and often refocusing, our attention in the search for a solution to a concrete problem.

Abductive reasoning is the mode of reasoning that we encounter in a story. Narratives are abductive in character; they are not necessarily true in an empirical or ontological sense. But a good story, even if it is fails to be truthful in an empirical or ontological sense, is still true. G.K. Chesterton puts it this way: “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

So what am I saying in asserting that as an applied discipline spiritual direction is a mode of abductive reasoning, a story, if you will?

Simply this, the goal of spiritual direction is to help people see how the little story of their lives fits within the larger story of the Gospel and the salvation of the human race. It is essential that people see where their lives fits in that overarching story.

But not only this.

It is important that they see where the large, cosmic and heavenly story of salvation is written out in the smaller, but no less valuable, story of their own lives. This is why while both inductive and deductive forms of reasoning have their value, in the final analysis they both fail us, or rather we fail ourselves, if we try and use them to explain the spiritual life. This is why, if I may offer an opinion, why so much Orthodox preaching is bad; priests offer lectures and not stories–they offer history classes, but fail to show how the larger and smaller stories of salvation history presuppose each other. A good storyteller always suggests that he’s leaving things out, that their are things he’s left unsaid maybe to be said on another day, but then again maybe not. A storyteller and the story he tells has its own logic, but that logic is neither deductive nor inductive, but the logic of narrative, of the myth or the fairy tale or poetry, but never the lecture hall or the seminar room.

In spiritual direction, in the work of spiritual formation, we are primarily tellers of tales, of the true story of God, of the creation, the human community, and this community, or that person. How do we do this? That is for a later post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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