Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 5

Learning from a Sunflower

Being Formed in the World

Mariah Velásquez

01.  Introduction

“How do you get good people?”This phrase is taken from Dallas Willard, “Chapel Message,” Westmont College, 12 Sept, 2011: https://

This kind of question falls between the registers in our contemporary society. It neither fits neatly into the public sphere (the space of politics and movement building), nor does it sit easily in the private (where individuals can decide to use their leisure time however they wish).

The question, however, has a strange power to it. It summons up categories that are rarely used like virtue and character. It hints that there might be purpose to life that transcends the public / private distinction. It suggests that living well is something one can actually learn. Precisely because it does not fit neatly within our familiar categories, it is able to cut across them, diffusing polarizing debates. And it is a question of critical importance for a flourishing society, perhaps particularly in a time of turbulence. With this in mind, the project was started to look at the spiritual formation paradigm and accompanying resources in order to gain a sense of the insights it might offer. What follows are reflections based on that report.

02.  The Roadmap Report

“The Spiritual Formation Roadmap,” commissioned by the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture and co-sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, examined the state of the Christian spiritual formation paradigm seeking:

  1. To gain a sense of its basic principles and the reasons for its power over the past four decades in American Christianity.
  2. To assess the health of the paradigm in the current context, examining both tensions in the model and latent resources that seem ready to address broader cultural crises related to isolation, fragmentation and purposelessness.

In addition to drawing heavily on the history of the spiritual formation tradition and its impressive record of publication, 28 significant voices were interviewed, including Richard Foster, one of the founders. Then three roundtable discussions were conducted on isolation, meaning and upheaval.

Significant findings:

  • For many of our interviewees, the allure of the paradigm sat in its ability to communicate not only a vision of reality but also a set of practices for tangible spiritual growth—the concrete development of virtue.
  • In younger generations, there was a significant desire for correcting misunderstandings of the paradigm that have attempted to privatize its ideas and instead to communicate its true strength as a communal vision that is able to rise to the political questions of the day.
  • There was agreement that formation ought to be involved in society but some lack of confidence about what that might mean. Interestingly, the few international interviewees offered more robust and creative theoretical bases for overcoming the personal / public tension.

The interviews emphasized the uniqueness of the paradigm in two respects in particular. First, there was striking confidence that both human life, and reality more generally, hold together and second, encounters with the challenges of the contemporary world seem to happen less on the level of theory or argument and more in the capacity simply to cultivate direct, sustained practices of virtue.