In any human activity, you need three things to make progress: a vision of where you’re going, an idea of how to get there, and a way to determine whether you are actually making progress towards the final goal. Spiritual formation is no different: you need to have a sense of the marks of spiritual maturity, the means of spiritual maturity, and metrics for spiritual maturity. Much damage has been done by measuring spiritual formation too narrowly – that’s what legalism is: reducing the holistic Biblical vision of holiness to a few key behaviours to adopt or avoid. However, not measuring spiritual formation is no solution. This results in aimless wandering, doing some things and hoping that they will somehow generate spiritual maturity. More often than not, we will stick to the things we are already good at and ignore the areas where we need growth the most. So some kind of measurement, no matter how incomplete, is better than nothing.
In a recent issue of The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, Steven Porter, Steven Sandage, David Wang, and Peter Hill wrote an article titled, “Measuring the Spiritual, Character, and Moral Formation of Seminarians.” In it, they propose a “meta-theory” of spiritual change that might “eventually serve as a theoretical basis for the development of a generalizable and reliable measurement tool.” Here are their recommendations:
There are two kinds of evidence of formation: realized change (e.g., increased humility, increased intimacy with God) and observable processes that indicate change is occurring (e.g., increased self-awareness, increased God-awareness). Using biblical language, we can refer to the anticipated end-results as the “fruit of the Spirit” or “bearing fruit” and the anticipated processes as “walking in the Spirit” or “abiding in the vine.” Not only are both aspects of change (outcomes and processes) part of the Christian picture of formation, but assessing both aspects of change is a preferred approach given that people might show measurable signs of being in the midst of change even if realized change has not yet occurred.
So what exactly are we measuring when we measure spiritual formation? Porter and friends propose five predictors of spiritual maturity:
- Secure God-attachment – Growth in relatedness to God is not only part of goal of Christian growth, but relating with God is itself transformational. Therefore, if it is possible to measure growth in one’s relationship with God and/or measure participation in practices that are thought to bring about growth in one’s relationship with God, then that would provide some basis to predict character and moral formation. Moreover, if there are certain character traits, such as humility and trust, that connect one to God, measuring those traits would lead us to predict further change mediated by relatedness to God.
- Low religious defensiveness – According to Beck (2006), defensive believers tend to adopt a theology that generates peace and comfort and they display “in-group bias” (favoring members of one’s in-group over out-group members). In opposition to this is existential faith, which is willing to sit with or even embrace the confusions, doubts, and anxieties of belief. This openness allows out-group members to be approached with curiosity rather than suspicion.
- High differentiation of self – Differentiation of self involves a suite of personal and relational capacities that includes abilities to: (a) regulate anxiety and other emotions, (b) balance connection and autonomy (or community and solitude), (c) relate effectively across differences, and (d) tolerate suffering that is necessary for growth.
- Presence of safe relationships – Christian formation takes place within community with others. Therefore, the degree to which close interpersonal connections are active in a person’s life is one indication of whether they are in a conducive environment for spiritual change.
- Authentic engagement in spiritual practices – The Christian life is supported by practices, rituals, and experiences meant to facilitate change. While these practices in and of themselves will not produce virtue, such practices are conducive to, perhaps over a lifetime, the love of God, and thereby, the formation of character. Therefore, Christian practices that are rightly motivated are predictors of change.
Spiritual maturation involves various obstacles, including self-deception, as well as increasing self-awareness. Therefore, keep in mind that increases in spiritual maturity are often accompanied by increases in spiritual disorientation. This will show up on most longitudinal measures as a decrease in formation when in actual fact the more accurate self-awareness is movement towards growth.
Measuring Christian Spiritual Formation
There are naturalistic ways to form acquired virtue that run independently of growth in one’s relationship with God. This is especially the case in Christian contexts in which morality is highly valued. Naturalistic processes of change (e.g., Aristotelian virtue formation) are often easier and more familiar than the relational intimacy required for supernatural processes of change. This is not to say that there is anything inferior or theologically problematic about naturalistic processes of change. It is just that on a relational model of spirituality one would like to see a high, positive correlation between a maturing relationship with God and a maturing moral life.
One potential solution to this problem is to measure the formation of virtues that are unique to Christian sanctification. One promising candidate is the Christian practice of enemy love. Love for one’s enemies (those to whom we feel opposition and a lack of positive affect) is counter-intuitive and yet is an attribute of God towards which Christians are meant to be conformed. Since the desire and willingness to sacrifice one’s own good for the good of one’s enemies is not an expected result of naturalistic processes of change, to find evidence of the disposition to love one’s enemies amongst maturing Christians could be a more reliable sign that an explicitly Christian maturation is taking place. Moreover, the measurement of enemy love need not involve actual behavioral manifestations of it, but could involve measuring a person’s attitudes to those who are perceived as a threat to one’s well-being (e.g., refugees, the homeless, criminals, those who oppose one’s political views, and terrorists).