- Respecting the Boundaries of Knowledge:Teaching Christian Discernment with Humility and Dignity, a Response to Paul O. Ingram
Natural Science and Buddhist Philosophy and Practice as Resources for Christian Spiritual Discernment
Boundary Questions Arise When Teaching Spiritual Discernment in Western Contexts
My response to Paul Ingram's chapter titled "Constrained by Boundaries" in The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science1 will examine ways the Buddhist-Christian-natural science "trilogue" he advocates might address some recurring problems encountered when teaching spiritual discernment in Western Christian contexts. These problems are examples of what Ingram calls boundary questions. He describes boundary questions as issues raised within a tradition of learning (such as an academic discipline or a religious community) that cannot be completely resolved within this tradition because of the culturally constructed "constraints" of the scope of its investigations and the assumptions and methods with which it makes its investigations. Ingram argues that boundary questions push hard against the cultural constraints that define a tradition. He gives examples of ways these questions can engender renewal within a tradition of learning if they are addressed honestly in conversation with another tradition (or traditions) of learning. This requires humility, but such conversation can help a tradition distinguish between the cultural constraints that still sharpen its core discovery processes and those that impede its quest in its current context.
I will argue that dichotomous habits of thought endemic in modern Western cultures have constructed unnecessary boundary constraints within Western Christian theological anthropology and practical theology. I have watched Western Christians who are trying to discover God's guidance through spiritual discernment slam up against these constraints, and I have listened to the recurring boundary questions they [End Page 175] pose at these borders. Dichotomous assumptions and methods of investigation often weaken Western Christian spiritual discernment processes.
I will suggest that particular Buddhist and natural science theories and practices of discovering knowledge—and some of the knowledge these practices have discovered—can be useful in teaching Christians spiritual discernment. This is because they can widen the scope of what human beings notice. This scope includes what people notice in their mental imagery, in the practices of their culture, and in creation around them. Spiritual discernment, as I describe it, involves the interplay of human imagination and discovery with God's guidance of all of creation, including human imagination and discovery. The human side of this interplay is made possible by the human spirit that (following practical theologian James E. Loder [1931-2001]) I describe as those unique human capacities that (1) allow us to reflect on our thinking and thus make partially free unselfish choices, and (2) draw us toward loving harmony with our creator and fellow creatures.2
I am writing as a practical theologian specializing in Christian education who has studied cognitive neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy and practice. My job is to prepare those who lead Christian churches and schools to teach Christians how to continue Jesus's mission to rescue this world. I believe the most effective way I can help Christian organizations engage in positive, long-term social transformation is to teach their leaders how to teach their members time-tested spiritual discernment practices framed within the context of Christian faith.
Spiritual Discernment and Christian Spiritual Discernment
I assume that all cultures and communities that have sustained a healthy life together have done so in part because at least some of their members have practiced at least some form of spiritual discernment. Therefore I assume all healthy Christian and non-Christian religious communities have developed practices of spiritual discernment. I do distinguish, however, between spiritual discernment in general and specifically Christian spiritual discernment. Drawing on Christian, Buddhist, and neuroscience perspectives on decision making, creative problem solving, and behavioral change, I describe spiritual discernment in general as a transformative "process of divine-human cooperative imagination, focused upon reconfiguring the relationships among the actors and the other factors in a specific situation. This reconfiguration often begins in the imaginative rearrangement of mental images of these relationships, and continues in concrete social actions which eventually result in the actual rearrangement of social structures."3
I thus describe spiritual discernment as...