Theory and Practice in the Spiritual Life
I’m a student. I have been for… let’s see… 2/3 of my life. I am officially horrified to see that fraction.
I like to think that I’m an unusual student in some ways, or at least that I have been for the past decade or so because certain aspects of academia have really come to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, I’m coming to conclude that just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they don’t affect me.
When I was doing my engineering degree, I found one lesson hit home harder than any other. What happens in the classroom and what happens in the lab are monumentally different. I could solve all the equations and explain all the details of the diagrams, but when I stepped into the lab, most of that didn’t help anymore. I once watched as a fellow student’s circuit board worked flawlessly … so long as his left thumb was pressed down on a particular corner. No one could figure out why. Meanwhile, my circuit matched my diagram, but I couldn’t get the thing to produce the output all my equations said should happen, baffling even the lab assistant who gave me full credit anyway because he didn’t have any idea why it did something completely different from what we calculated it should do.
I just read that Al Roth, an economist at Harvard, once commented, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is a great deal of difference.” I love this quote. It’s hardly true only in economics or engineering. It’s true of life as well.
So here I am in academia, with its penchant for producing ivory-tower scholars who are so caught up in their heads that they produce glorious theories that have zero practical applications or little connection to reality. (I’m lookin’ at you, philosophers.) I hate that. But it doesn’t stop me from sliding into that way of thinking and living while I’m not looking.
I sort of tend to fool myself into thinking that if I know the right things, then I’m okay. And I think it’s not just academia that pushes us this direction; I think a good chunk of Christianity leans this way, too. There is this thrust to have the right theology or even to know the right ethics or spirituality or whatnot. We know what we’re supposed to do. And yet, living it out doesn’t always follow. There are still petty theologians, unloving teachers, caustic pastors.
My wife and I, along with other folks at the Evangelical Center for Spiritual Wisdom, have watched and led people through Life With God, a series of podcasts, exercises, and community experiences designed to foster our relationship with God, and we’ve noticed that there are those who fully immerse themselves with everything, and there are those who listen to the teachings and maybe the scripture and don’t really put too much effort into the other aspects. Many of those that immerse themselves find something transformative. Most of those that limit themselves to just getting the right information don’t. They have the theory; they don’t spend much time on the practice.
And often neither do I. I have scholarly books to read. Or Flash games to play because I can’t bear to read another scholarly page. I don’t always engage in the practice. I don’t always spend the time wrestling with God like Jacob or hashing things through with Jesus like the woman at the well. And that’s to my detriment.
I know quite a lot. But that doesn’t often matter if I don’t engage in something. Christianity isn’t just known; it has to be lived and practiced.
But you already knew that.