- Paths to Human Maturity: by David Field
- A Radical Modesty: a response by Peter Leithart
- Paths of Maturity: a response by Uri Brito
- Learning Wisdom From the Serpents: a response by Alastair Roberts
- A Crisis, Not a Conversation: a response by Douglas Wilson
- The Conversation Continues: a final word from David Field
Eccentric conservative comedian P.J. O’Rourke once observed: “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.” In his essay, Paths to Human Maturity, Dr. David Field provides a less comedic repudiation of the modern Christian impulse to change the world before changing ourselves. Whether he succeeds is at least a conversation worth having.
When reading through Field’s thesis, one is tempted to reject it out right for fear of syncretism, or perhaps the fear of abandoning traditional ways of thinking about psychology and piety. Yet, it was the great Augustine who noted in On Christian Doctrine that:
“Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…” (II.18).
Just as the early church evangelized metaphysics, we, too, have a responsibility to evangelize our view of the self. One can be certain that Field’s hypothetical pastor, Ira, represents the common pastor of the modern church. He instinctively and habitually represses his anger (and likely his fears, anxieties, disappointments, frustrations), though outwardly he shows himself to be the paradigm of patience. This long-term repression will produce someone who is, in Field’s words, “psychologically immature…and therefore spiritually immature at the deepest level.” As a critic, I want to show skepticism towards David’s broader solutions while affirming the real pastoral problems he raises. Suicide rates among pastors are growing, even in my home country of Brazil. Pastoral burnout cases are too common to even debate. Ira is not merely hypothetical; Ira is spread all over the South where I minister and undoubtedly throughout the country.
That the question is a live and pressing one is evidenced by the modern revival of books on pastoral theology and how to prepare pastors for long-term ministry. The need is obvious. A renewed conversation and tentative explorations are needed more than ever.
Shall We Borrow?
One renowned evangelical pastor appeared on CNN some years ago to argue that yoga was inherently un-Christian. “Why,” he asked, “would a Christian borrow an expression from a false religion?” His question reflects the mentality deeply ingrained in the evangelical ethos. In order to preserve truth, one must not contemplate anything outside the established boundaries of select traditions. But again, we must go “wherever truth may be found.”
I remain skeptical of the propositions concerning Zen Buddhism offered by Dr. Field, and perhaps it would take someone much more skilled to offer a meaningful critique. Some of his assertions are assumed, and I would like to see many of them explained. These qualifications would go a long way to minimize concerns over these proposals. Since my space is limited, I offer only two initial concerns:
a) That parishioners, often untrained in theological/religious discourse, come away from reading such proposals with a green light to explorations into Zen Buddhism without the discernment that is needed.
b) That temptations to find some necessary benefit into such practices actually inhibit the ordinary practices of Christian piety. In other words, we ought to be concerned that such proposals containing all its mysteries would not draw pastors/parishioners away from ordinary Christian piety found in Bible reading and corporate gatherings.
As for psychoanalysis, I have read a significant amount, and find certain insights from Jung—as applied by Jordan Peterson, for example—to be instructive and unmistakably grounded in a Judeo-Christian ethic. But again, I offer two initial concerns here:
a) That parishioners accept psychological categories as a substitute for the clear categories and language of the Bible.
b) That pastors, who are by and large illiterate in the history of psychology, would be tempted to find Freudian solutions more attractive than the hard work of developing robust Biblical psychology.
I have lectured in the past on my concerns with the initial formulations of Nouthetic Counseling in Jay Adams and have been highly encouraged by the second generation of Christian counselors in ABC and CCEF. Yet, I think proposals to explore aid in psychoanalytical practices need to be carefully articulated, and the boundaries need to be clearly revealed.
Finally, I do believe the Church can gain a great deal through the contributions of the Desert Fathers. In grad school, I was exposed to a variety of their sayings and practices taught by a Reformed professor. If the Christian faith already has a story of contemplative visions, as we see in the Desert Fathers, it would be absurd to overlook that history and its practices. The Desert Fathers took seriously the life and disciplines of Jesus, and whether we find them too extreme or exegetically unsustainable, no one can deny that our disciplines need to embody more of that self-renunciation found in their writings and life.
Therefore, my question is a simple one: “What if their disciplines—though erroneous at times—actually offer us an opportunity to a “depth of love for God and devotion to the kingdom” we don’t possess in the evangelical treasure box? What if there is a place for “silence and solitude” in a loud and clanging world? What if the Desert Fathers in their mortification of the body and soul gave us precisely what we need in an overly sexualized and selfish culture?
Shall We Trust?
What Dr. Field proposes is not so much that we delve fully into these practices, but to ask the questions we failed to ask for fear of sounding too mystical or, worse, compromising. However, anyone familiar with Field knows his qualifications. He is Reformed. He has drunk deeply from Geneva and Wittenburg. His commitment to the Bible is foremost. His presuppositions are clear and his Van Tilianism unchallenged. So, why would he delve into such strange territories? Perhaps he is a faithful observer and sees the spirits of fellow Christians crushed under the weight of sin and insecurities. He sees pastors suffering in their congregations, both depressed and deprived of spiritual joy. Perhaps Jesus seems far from their daily lives. So, while I view Field’s tentative proposals skeptically, I also believe they will help us raise the right questions of the text and our traditional application of spiritual disciplines. They comprise “a fresh set of questions for us to bring to Scripture and history.”
Shall We Benefit?
There are at least three great benefits to Dr. Field’s project, particularly with a focus on the Desert Fathers:
First, discipleship must be rooted in a life of rituals. One cannot expect information to be the building block of a healthy Christian society. Rather, as Jamie Smith observes in his book, You Are What You Love, habit formation is the liturgical language of the Christian. While Christians engage primarily in a fact-finding mission as the way to approach God, Field’s proposal is more in line with Smith who sees a need to re-ritualize the Christian’s experience. Indeed, the lyrics of the Psalter are replete with bodily language in the worship of Yahweh. Therefore, one may conclude safely that Field’s interest in breathing, silence, meditation, and fasting is, at the very least, connected to the biblical language if not directly rooted in biblical language.
Second, pastoral counseling habits require a re-orientation. We are too quick to offer solutions and Bible verses without listening to our counselees’ concerns and contexts. While there are occasions where direct (nouthetic) confrontation is needed, it ought not to be the paradigm for counseling. As Dr. Field notes, “Some conservative pastors get restless after ten or twenty minutes of listening.”
In some ways, modern pastoral counseling is consumeristic. We want to offer something fast and easily digestible, dolling out the Bible in bits and pieces. The result is often nothing short of disastrous as parishioners leave our offices heavier than when they first arrived. Perhaps our inability to listen to our people stems from our inability to listen to ourselves. We need a true experience of justification by grace, as Field observes, one that understands our acceptance and our union with Christ in the light of a larger story. One can hope that Field’s proposals will offer some corrections and will help to reorient pastors to listen more attentively to the stories of other justified saints.
Finally, there is great hope that such a project will provoke the church to the good work of deep and contemplative prayer. In the exploration of new modes of thinking about piety and maturity, there is also a great need to re-think our prayer habits. In this sense, the quietness and solitude of the Desert Fathers instruct us to think more holistically about the prayers of the Church. In an age of spontaneity in worship, prayer also suffers from the un-thoughtful petitions of pastors and parishioners. Is it possible that the Church can benefit from seeing prayer in the context of self-renunciation? I hope such explorations in the Desert Fathers bears such good fruit.
Perhaps we need to die to our established dogmas before we can be raised to see the path to maturity anew. And perhaps the Triune God in his infinite wisdom is opening new biblical ways of thinking about piety and maturity. I suggest that David Field’s project is at least a project worth discussing.
Uri Brito is the Senior Pastor of Providence Church in Pensacola, FL. He is the editor of The Church-Friendly Family, and author of The Trinitarian Father. Uri is the founder of and contributor to Kuyperian Commentary, and is a board member of Theopolis.