M. Robert Mulholland Jr. has been on the faculty (New Testament) at Asbury Theological Seminary since 1979. He holds an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, a M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary, and a Th.D. from the Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of several books on Scripture and spiritual formation. He is currently a consulting editor for The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care.
Summary of Contents
Mulholland developed this book from a retreat he gave to ordained and diaconal Methodist ministers. In Part I, Mulholland’s basic theme of “spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (12) is introduced with subsequent chapters devoted to a fuller development of each clause. The author proposes that his definition of spiritual formation will help the reader move successfully “against the grain” of cultural dynamics, which he believes “works against holistic spirituality” (13). Part II is a treatment of the interplay of modern temperament theory (Myers-Briggs) and spiritual formation. Mulholland shows that spirituality is not a “one size fits all” proposition and because “we are unique persons, and our relationship with God always manifests that individuality, our process of spiritual formation toward wholeness may be very different from others” (13). Part III addresses a number of well known spiritual “disciplines,” which the author develops in follow on chapters as either “classic disciplines” or “personal disciplines” and how these interact to move one along the journey. Mulholland concludes the work with a section on corporate and social spirituality, which he contends is “an aspect that is frequently missed in the faddishness of spiritual formation these days” (14).
Mulholland addresses two major issues facing the modern, western church in regard to spirituality. He believes that many in the church expect spiritual growth and maturity to be accomplished with ease and speed. Based on their observation of the shallow and mercurial spirituality of their own congregations, many parish clergy will readily agree with him. Mulholland’s definition of spiritual formation as “a process of being conformed” provides a helpful corrective to this idea. He employs the analogy of how humans mature physically to growth and development in the spiritual realm. “Spiritual growth is, in large measure, patterned on the nature of physical growth. We do not expect to put an infant into its crib at night and in the morning find a child, an adolescent or yet an adult. We expect that infant to grow into maturity according to the process that God has ordained for physical growth to wholeness. The same thing is true of our spiritual life” (21).
Mulholland argues that spiritual formation is more like “crock pot” slow cooking than microwave oven speed “nuking.” When one puts on the crock pot in the morning and leaves for work, it doesn’t look like much is happening. But, slowly, throughout the day, a wonderful transformation is happening. The author points out that much spiritual growth occurs during periods when it seems like nothing is happening “the time of dryness—what the mothers and fathers of the church speak of as the desert experience—is filled with nurturing down below the surface that we never see” (21). Mulholland uses the metaphor of a vending machine to cement his point: “There simply is no instantaneous event of putting your quarter in the slot and seeing spiritual formation drop down where you can reach it, whole and complete” (22).
The second issue Mulholland tackles is that of personal application. Is intentional and continual spiritual formation stuff a necessity for everyone who claims to follow Christ or is it an optional extra for someone who wants to stand out as “a dedicated disciple, a pursuit for the particularly pious” (23)? The author argues that everyone is, at all times and in all places, undergoing spiritual formation—consciously or unconsciously—and through this formation will come either something wonderful or something destructive. “We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image—destructive not only to ourselves but also to others. . .the direction of our spiritual growth infuses all we do with intimations of either Life or Death” (23).
In Part II, Mulholland introduces Jungian psychology, with a special emphasis on the application of the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) to the process of spiritual formation. The MBTI provides insight into an individual’s “preference” in four areas—a preference for Extraversion or Introversion (E/I), how one receives and processes data, either through Sensation or Intuition (S/N), making decision through either Thinking or Feeling (T/F), and how the data is integrated (Perceiving or Judging). This is the most controversial section of the text. Some Christians will have difficulty with this section because of other aspects of Carl Jung’s work. Others will have difficulty reconciling the diversity of spiritual preferences predicted by the MBTI with the “uniform” view of Christian spirituality based on the “one God, one faith, one church, one-size-fits-all” approach to prayer and spiritual formation. Mulholland appeals to St. Paul’s understanding of diversity in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-14) and convincingly argues this diversity is necessary to bring the entire body into wholeness.
Mulholland believes that “left to ourselves in the development of our spiritual practices, we will generally gravitate to those spiritual activities that nurture our preferred pattern of being and doing. The shadow side of our preferences pattern will languish unattended and unnurtured” (57). The problem is that “in order for our spiritual pilgrimage to be a balanced growth toward wholeness in the image of Christ for others, we need to have dynamics of spiritual life that will nurture both sides of our preference pattern” (68). Mulholland points out that “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place primarily at the points of our unlikeness to Christ’s image,” (37) which can often be discovered in the “shadow areas” (the secondary, tertiary, and inferior MBTI preferences) of the personality. While Mulholland references the work of Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey in his notes (170), mentioning the connection those researchers made between temperament and four “traditional” spiritual formation paths (Ignatian-SJ; Augustianian-NF; Franciscan-SJ; Thomistic-NT) may have been helpful in assuring nervous readers that personality theory and spiritual formation can work together in an orthodox way.
Mulholland follows up in Part III by introducing the reader to the ancient Christian understanding of spiritual formation in terms of the awakening, purgative, illuminative, and unitive way. Mulholland views these as “stages that move us from our separation and alienation from God, our unlikeness to the image of Christ, to transforming relationship with God and wholeness in Christ” (77). Mulholland’s description of the stages (80-100) provides a clear picture of the process, as well as the destination. While most Christians will easily accept Mulholland’s treatment of the purgative and illuminative stages, those from outside the Roman Catholic tradition may have trouble with the unitive way, which Mulholland describes are the “experience of complete oneness with God” (97). Contemplative prayer, the “dark night of the senses”, the “ecstatic union”, are just a few of the unfamiliar ideas which populate this stage of the journey. Some Protestant readers will feel more comfortable with re-ordering the stages, by beginning with the unitive, out of which flows are greater illumination, leading to a desire for purgation and holiness. In other words, for some people, the whole process as described by Mulholland is essentially backwards of what their theological grid allows. On the other hand, Christians from outside the Holiness tradition may have trouble with Mulholland’s discussion of “entire sanctification” in Chapter 10.
Chapters 9 & 11 provide the author’s discussion of the various “spiritual disciplines” such as prayer (105 & 140), lectio divina (112), liturgy (115), fasting (118), study (118), retreat (119), silence (136), and solitude (138). Mulholland makes a distinction between the “classical disciplines” which provides a type of outer “scaffolding” or “support structure” that provides correction and balance to the pursuit of the specific and tailored “personal” disciplines one might pursue. This is a helpful schema.
Mulholland devotes Part IV of the text to an extended meditation on“. . .for the sake of others” (13). He distinguishes “corporate spirituality”—“a name for our spiritual pilgrimage together in the church, the body of Christ” (143) from “social spirituality” –“our spiritual pilgrimage within and for the culture we live in” (159). The former counterbalances the tendency of modern, western Christianity toward an “encultured individualized, privatized understanding of spirituality” (146) while the latter serves as a corrective, reminding the reader that “there is no social holiness without personal holiness” (159). Corporate spirituality moves one away from comfortableness and control and into areas of mystery and ambiguity. "If there is no mystery, there is no room for God, because God is the ultimate mystery" (148). Social spirituality reminds the reader that when one leaves the safety of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, “. . .the worship of God is incompatible with social, economic or political injustice” (160). Mulholland calls the church to be “. . .obedient and faithful to God’s presence and purposes in the culture. The result will be confrontive, but that should not be the purpose. . .the confrontation comes not because we seek it, but because falsehood cannot stand in the presence of truth” (166). The goal is to have a “transforming impact on the world around” (167).
This reviewer first read the text in September, 1999. It is interesting to note which things which were marked “important” or “highlighted” at that time and how he sees the text ten years later. While his initial insights were not insignificant, they focused on the mechanics of “how”—the specific details of fasting or prayer or service that comprise Mulholland’s process. On this trip through the text, however, the reviewer found his deepest connection in the “for the sake of others” clause of Mulholland’s formula. The process of being conformed to the image of Christ, while always being something he had understood and taught others, was seen more in terms of personal sanctification for its own sake, than in respect to benefitting the entire body of Christ. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of the reviewer’s theological tradition (Lutheran) which has historically been weak on social justice issues. As a result of this present reading of the text, the reviewer may bring a renewed sense of “corporate” and “social” spirituality to his preaching, teaching, and congregational life.
Also gleaned from the text was a new appreciation of the role of personality theory in spiritual formation. This reviewer’s theological tradition tends toward a “one size fits all” approach through standardized liturgical rites, catechetical texts, hymn books, etc. However, Mulholland’s discussion of personality theory, which was not readily available to the spiritual fathers of the Reformation, clearly shows a deficiency of this model. The implication for ongoing work of this reviewer is to discover methods of integrating materials and approaches into the weekly liturgy that resonate with each of the four temperaments.
This reviewer recommends this book, as well as Mulholland’s book Shaped by the Word, as foundational works for anyone interested in a thorough grounding and introduction to modern, evangelical thinking on the process of spiritual formation.