Latest projects: systematic spirituality survey

Back when I was doing my audio sermon project (which is technically still open, though I haven’t worked on it in months), my friend Rob asked me if it had worked, if I felt more spiritually vital. I told him not extremely, and that was that; but it got me thinking. I didn’t expect the sermon project to fix my spiritual life, but it was useful to ask what I still needed that these audio sermons weren’t giving me.

The first thing I needed was a way to internalize what I was hearing. I have that now with my morning devotions.

The other thing I needed was a system, a set of interrelated concepts that I could drop each sermon into. Without a system to give context and balance to the pieces, I feel lost. I tend to get tunnel vision when I try to take any particular spiritual principle seriously. I either forget about anything else (less often now than in the past) or I ward off doing that by wondering what principles I’m forgetting or how this principle relates to others I do remember. It hinders my willingness to act on those principles or to be confident in explaining them to others.

So I intend my next major project to be a systematic New Testament spirituality survey. I want to assemble a fairly detailed framework of Christian spirituality made of the NT’s comments on the subject. I won’t attempt to go very far below the surface; I just want to get a good idea of the raw material we’re working with when we discuss Christian spirituality. I have actually had this project in mind for a number of years. Now just seemed to be the right time to do it.

When I mention this project to people, they sometimes ask what I mean by spirituality. I mean anything that has to do with humans’ relationship to God. In Christianity that covers a whole lot. So studying the spirituality of the NT is more like looking at the whole NT from a spiritual angle than looking at a specific, limited topic like baptism, which would involve examining only a few passages. Looking at the whole NT from one vantage point like this will mean studying every passage to some degree and will mainly affect what details I select to concentrate on in each case and the kinds of connections I make between concepts.

With a framework, when I think about, for example, John 6:37, I’m hoping my mind will easily move to somewhere like Matthew 7:21, and I will be more able to discuss how they fit together and how a person would land themselves in the John 6 crowd and avoid being in the one from Matthew 7, especially given a scary verse like 7:13.

I will also be able to hear a verse like Mark 12:30 and have my mind move more easily down to the specifics and out to the motivations for obeying these commands.

And I will be more easily able to pinpoint the passages that are the most appropriate for my own spiritual needs or for other people I’m talking to.

So primarily I want to have a rough mental map of the Christian spiritual life for the good of my own. One other reason I want to do this project is to have a starting place for my broader historical study of Christian spirituality. I want to be able to connect the teachings of Christian spiritual writers with the Bible’s framework of spirituality so I can know the biblical context of those teachings and thus understand them better. Knowing their connections with Scripture will also help me evaluate them.

I’ve nailed down the first half of my procedure. In order to get a clear idea of all the pieces of the text and how they relate, I’m going to do a quick and dirty discourse analysis of the whole NT in English. I’ll use the WEB for my translation because it’s in the public domain, and I’ll use CmapTools to create the discourse analysis diagrams because it’s free and has a handy XML format. I have already done a few chapters.

As that’s moving along, I’ll be working on the other step in the process, which is actually assembling the system. This will be either a normal prose description or something more formal and programmable like a concept map. I’ll decide that as the project progresses. It took me several months to settle on using discourse analysis.

I plan to post the results on the site, probably as I go along. I have no idea how long this project will take.

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