Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.
When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.
"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.
"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."
The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.
One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.
Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.
When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."
Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.
Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.
"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."
The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.
This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.
"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."