Intellectual Formation's Impact on Spiritual Formation

"I have a strong feeling that my intellectual formation is just as much a hindrance as a help to prayer." -- Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

Has it been ten years?

Just yesterday I returned from an academic conference — the typical dog-and-pony show of paper presentations, panel discussions, colleagues greeting old acquaintances, and the obligatory wine and cheese reception at the pool-side veranda of the conference hotel. In the midst of all of this, I met one of my dissertation committee members, whom I had not seen for several years. Through the course of that catching-up conversation, we reminisced and simultaneously asked, “Has it been ten years?” On that same day I read the above quotation from Nouwen. It has taken me ten years to start to understand that “my intellectual formation is just as much a hindrance as a help to prayer,” as Nouwen so aptly stated it.

One cannot help but be strongly influenced by the multi-year experience of earning a terminal degree. The professional and vocational effects of graduate education are substantial as we learn the tools of our trade: developing an informed, nuanced way of understanding our discipline, honing technical skills for parsing data and extracting meaning from numbers or texts, and learning to communicate our findings through journals, books, and lectures. And yet all of the process of getting there, with degree in hand, does have a profound impact on our spiritual formation, the way we practice and experience and understand our lives as spiritual beings. We do not go through graduate school in a vacuum. Who we are becoming professionally has bearing on who we are becoming spiritually. Through marriage, spouses have profound impact on one another; so too one’s vocational selection, training, and practice will have considerable formative effects.

Particular academic disciplines are not inherently better or worse for our spiritual health. In fact all disciplines can and should be redeemed for God’s ultimate glory and for our world’s ultimate well being. But I do think that each academic field has inherent tendencies to foster particular habits of the heart and mind which affect us for better or for worse. How that works itself out will vary according to both the nuances of the academic discipline and the makeup of our own spiritual geography. Our job is to be “sober-minded” (an old King James Version biblical phrase that is pregnant with meaning), keenly aware of what is happening within us.

Finance is my academic field of passion, and it is obviously a very technical, mathematically-oriented subject. As I progressed through the graduate coursework and developed research expertise, the inherent hyper-specialization kicked in. Also, I noticed that the intense, statistically-nuanced, research-oriented way of approaching my discipline was indeed molding my way of seeing not only my discipline, but the whole of life. My left-brained tendencies were being gluttonously fed, while my right-brained dimensions starved.

As in most graduate programs, the role of faith was politely ignored. I don’t think this was intentional or hostile on the part of my professors. It’s just that derivations of the Black-Scholes option pricing model do not easily lend themselves to such discussion, and frankly, even if they did, most of my professors were not people of faith themselves, so they had no interest in going there. As a result, I was very slow in developing a Scripture-informed sense of scholarship for my academic discipline.

And so, I gradually sensed a climate change occurring in my mental and spiritual being throughout graduate school, but I could not neither put my finger on it nor articulate it. With graduate school now in the rear-view mirror, I can more clearly recognize what was happening. In hindsight, I see God faithfully providing underground “springs of living water” to sustain my dry soul. And yet, I would have greatly benefited from someone articulating what to expect during grad school and how best to preserve my heart, soul, and mind. Here are a few suggestions I wish I had known:

Reflect of how you are being changed by the graduate school experience, for better or worse. 

What habits of mind and heart are being formed? How are your passions and priorities being rearranged? Are you growing in humility, wisdom, and love? Are you still a joyful person? Is your growing expertise still rooted in “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness?”

Seek out balancing influences.

Graduate school is a time of intense specialization, so you must be intentional about not losing breadth while you gain depth. At the end of the day you are still a person, created in God’s image, created to love and be loved by God. So prayerfully choose small disciplines or practices that help you maintain the wholeness of your core identity:

  • Take walks at sunset and pray through your day
  • Commit to one outlet of service to others
  • If married, keep dating your spouse, even if it is only 20 minutes together for ice cream
  • Semester breaks read a book completely for fun.

Pray for . . .

soul-nourishing relationships, people with whom you can be transparent and who have your permission to speak truth into your life.

Being in the daily grind of graduate school can lead to numbness and tunnel vision as the demands of coursework overwhelm all else in your life. In such a state you desperately need relational terra firma. Pray for God’s provision of that “daily bread" and be open to how God may provide. Spiritual mentoring and accountability relationships can come in unexpected forms. But be intentional in your asking, seeking, and knocking.

Philip Swicegood earned his MBA from the University of Texas – Austin and his PhD in finance from Florida State. He now teaches at Wofford College in South Carolina and loves every minute of it.


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