Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ambrose University College hires Jesuit-educated contemplative spirituality proponent as its new president

Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta is the denominational school for both the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada and Church of the Nazarene Canada. I've been suspicious of Ambrose's direction ever since it adopted its name in 2007.

I previously posted on Ambrose's affinity for contemplative spirituality here and here; the reader may want to consult those posts for background information. For more on contemplative spirituality and spiritual formation, search those terms at Lighthouse Trails Research Project. For more detailed information on lectio divina, go here and here.

Ambrose University College issued the following announcement on May 7, 2012:

The Board of Governors of Ambrose University College announced today that Dr. Gordon T. Smith has been appointed the next President. Dr. Smith’s term will commence August 1st, 2012.

Currently the President and CEO of reSource Leadership International,
Dr. Smith previously served as Academic Vice President/Dean and Associate Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College.

Dr. Smith brings to Ambrose experience from a three-decade career in Christian higher education. A distinguished author and pastor, Dr. Smith earned his Master of Divinity degree at Canadian Theological Seminary and a PhD in Philosophy from Loyola School of Theology, Manila, Philippines.

The Board of Governors was assisted in selecting the next president by the unanimous recommendation of the search committee, as well as by the public input the search committee solicited prior to undertaking the search. Through town hall meetings, and both direct and online submissions, the search committee gathered valuable feedback that supported the search process.

The Ambrose Board of Governors also received ratification of Dr. Smith’s appointment from the founding denominations: the Board of Directors of The Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Board of Governors of Canadian Nazarene College.
It came as no surprise to this blogger that an internet search revealed Ambrose's new president to be a proponent of contemplative spirituality, and alarm bells went off in my mind when I noticed Loyola School of Theology in Dr. Smith's resume. I'd never heard of the school, but I suspected that it was named after Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and my suspicions were were confirmed by their website:

LST: A Jesuit, Filipino, and Asian Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology

For half a century, Loyola School of Theology (LST) has been providing quality theological and pastoral education under the direction of the Society of Jesus.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines Jesuit as:

1: a member of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1534 and devoted to missionary and educational work

2: one given to intrigue or equivocation


The "Spiritual Exercises" of Ignatius of Loyola have long served as a foundation and introduction to contemplative spirituality. I haven't read any of Gordon T. Smith's books, but a quick glance at descriptions of some of his books leaves no doubt that Dr. Smith is a proponent of contemplative spirituality, and in particular, the "spiritual exercises" of Ignatius of Loyola:

Alone with the Lord

A guide to a personal day of prayer

This small booklet is intended to teach Christians how to spend a full day in the presence of Christ. Readers are given the opportunity to practise various spiritual disciplines and then to journal what God is speaking to them.


The Voice Of Jesus
A comprehensive exploration of the place of discernment in the life of the Christian and of the church.

Jesus takes it for granted that you will hear his voice. But how do you hear it? How do you separate it out from the cacophony of other voices you hear everyday, including those of your own desires? Is your experience of Jesus' voice something purely subjective, or is it something you can talk about with others and have them confirm?

Building on the rich spiritual tradition that spans the diversity of history and theology from Ignatius Loyola to John Wesley to Jonathan Edwards, Gordon T. Smith helps open your ears and heart to the depths of the inner witness of the Spirit. By learning to attend to the Spirit, Smith urges, you will learn to hear and heed the voice of Jesus in everyday life.

Written with warmth and wisdom, this book speaks to the mind and heart of every Christian who longs for a closer, more intimate walk with Jesus.
The pro-Jesuit site Evangelicals on the Ignatian Way listed The Voice of Jesus among its recommended books.

Dr. Garry Friesen, a professor at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon, had this to say about another of Dr. Smith's books:

Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God's Will

Author: Gordon T. Smith
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
View: Synthesis of Traditional and Wisdom Views

The Forward is by a Jesuit who lauds the book's insights from John Wesley and Ignatius of Loyola. Smith's doctoral dissertation compared Wesley and Ignatius. The book is about the "art of discerning God's will." The main theme is that God relates to us as a friend and we must learn to listen to God's voice in our innermost being.

Smith positions himself between the traditional view ("Blueprint school", 15) and the Wisdom view (or "school" illustrated by Decision Making and the Will of God, 16). He rightly notes that what I call the traditional view "is recent in historical terms" (102). Smith goes back further in spiritual history to try and correct both views.

Smith rejects the traditional view which undercuts "the presence and voice of God in the times of choice" (16)." But his descriptions of the voice of God sound exactly like the traditional view: "prompting", "impressions", "still small voice", "inner witness", "subjective" speaking, "hearing God's voice", "peace of God".

His mystical orientation is clear. "God does not have a mouth; he does not speak audibly. Rather, God 'speaks' to us through our feelings, impressions left on our minds" (52). This description is much different than the biblical examples which he gives to show that God speaks to us (17-18). His examples don't argue for impressions: Abraham Gen. 12; Samuel 1 Sam. 3:10; Balaam Num 22:21-23; Philip led by an angel Acts 8; by a prophet Acts 13:2. Smith has substituted impressions for the biblical examples of direct revelation by prophet and even audible voice...

...Smith also differs from the traditional view concerning the certainty which you can have of God's guidance. The traditional view says that you can be certain, but Smith says, "In this life we will not have absolute, unambiguous peace and rational certainty that we have divine guidance" (65). If we are not sure, then we must "trust God and make our choices despite the lack of absolute certainty. We cannot wait until every questions is resolved before we act" (67).

Smith is realistic about how subjective his method is. Discussing the peace of God, he says, "But consolation may be from God, or it may reflect the deceitfulness of the Evil One, masquerading as good. Or it could reflect our own confused desires and misguided motives. It may even reflect nothing more than what we had for breakfast" (57).

Smith strongly urges the reader to "Test everything" (57). This helps transform his mysticism into something more like "discerning". He encourages the believer to test every feeling, impression or sense of peace. The believer's mind must be washed with Scripture, and motives must get a "ruthless" examination to be sure God's glory is the goal (64). Reason must evaluate the impressions. "Reason .. guides us--but reason comes to terms with the feelings and impressions that are left on our inner person." Our impressions should be judged by the church and he recommends a "clearness committee" (82).

His conclusion to the method of discernment is "(1) rational consideration of the options and obstacles, (2) extended time in prayer and reflection, and (3) accountability and discussion with others" (85). This is a careful process, and it is hard to imagine a sinful or foolish impression making it through the tests. The process seems to narrow you down to impressions that are wise and godly. And who is against that? I do not call such impressions the pure voice of God (nor give them authority), but anything that is wise and godly can be followed with confidence...

...His mysticism has so much muscle that it is almost palatable.

On July 20, 2011, Dr. Smith posted a paper titled Theological Education as Formation in Wisdom, which includes the following:

And the genius of a spiritual practice is the realization that transformation is incremental. Practices foster a knowledge of God, of self, of the and other and of the created order. They are a means by which we know the grace of God by which we are transformed and made new. These “patterned activities”, to use the language of Dykstra and Bass gradually and incrementally lead to transformation. And critical to this discussion is that these are not merely activities of an individual, but of a community. But the fruit of these practices is known over time, as slowly but surely the truth, wisdom, is formed within us.

But this is not a new conversation or new insight for the church. This contemporary discussion of the “practice” of theology is but a newer version of an ancient conversation, one that is eloquently captured by the brilliant study of the quest for learning and wisdom within the monastic tradition: John Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. This study of monastic culture may well be more relevant than ever, partly because the monastic movement is rightly providing a counter balance to the pragmatism of western (and Evangelical) approaches to theological formation and, further, because in a post-Christian secular society, the monastic cultivated practices that may well have remarkable relevance for the church and for theological education today. Leclercq reminds us that the genius of the monastic movement was the unqualified affirmation that the purpose of study and learning and indeed of all spiritual practice is union with God in Christ...

...Second, the monastic movement made engagement with the Scriptures foundational to all learning. And yet, it is not biblicism, for their study of the Scripture was complemented by their engagement with the theology and wisdom of the church fathers – one might say that what anchored their learning was the primacy of the Scriptures, yes, but a study that was guided by the theological heritage and tradition of the church.

It is important to affirm, though, that their study of Scripture was never as an end in itself; one came to Scripture from prayer and the Scriptures in turn informed their practice of prayer. And thus the whole contemporary practice of ‘lectio divina’ is really an ancient practice, fostered by the monastic movement and an essential spiritual practice for the church today and for every student in a theological school: the capacity to read the Scriptures in prayer, with attention to grammar and exegesis, but with ultimate attention to the one who is revealed through the ancient text.

And third, what impresses us from Leclercq’s study of monasticism is that for all his celebration of the monastic approach to learning, he does not pit monasticism against scholasticism. To the contrary, he affirms that scholasticism is almost a necessary counterpart to monastic culture, with the scholastic diligent focus on the grammar of Scripture, and the recognition of the need to draw on non-Christian sources for our learning, including philosophy. Bernard of Clairveaux insisted that we are not wise until we live in the fear of God and are drawn up into the love of God. And thus monastic theology is the essential
completion of scholastic theology.15 And yet Leclercq also noted that monastic theology needed
scholastic theology in order to engage the times, the culture, and social and intellectual context in which theology is to be lived and expressed. And Leclercg has an oh-so-brief a appendix in which the theological work of St. Anselm is celebrated and celebrated precisely because his genius was that he was both a scholastic – a first class scholar on the public stage – but also deeply monastic, a lover of God and a man of prayer.

And then, fourthly, we must beware of succumbing to the common stereo-type that monasticism was
about disengagement and not about the call of the Gospel and of the church to mission and specifically to mission to the city and to the urban poor. In a sense it was about disengagement; one stepped aside from the demands of the world for study, prayer, contemplation and the focused practices of a disciplined Christian community. While what I have just described might be an accurate description of the Benedictine tradition – though even there, one must be cautious, in that this particular monastic tradition did have an extraordinary commitment to hospitality – this observation is simply not accurate for later monasticism. I think of the Friars, who left the cloister, whose houses of life and worship were located in
the very heart of the cities, and whose lives – think of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, for example – were marked by profound commitment to the urban poor, in word and deed.

And then we have the Society of Jesus, the first apostolic order, that left the monastary, yet sustained the commitment to prayer, study but always with the resolve to be, as they put it, “contemplatives in action.” It would not be an overstatement to describe this order as the greatest missionary order in the history of the church.
Sacred Listening: Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola
By James L. Wakefield
was published in 2006. This book has a front cover endorsement by Eugene Peterson, endorsements by Open Theology heretic Greg Boyd and Jesuit Armand Nigro, and this by Gordon T. Smith:

James Wakefield has provided us with a remarkably helpful introduction to praying with the Spiritual Exercises, readable and eminently helpful, insightful and practical. Also notable: he builds on the best scholarship on the Exercises and makes it accessible to Christians of all traditions.

Gary Gilley has provided a review of this book from a solidly biblical point of view.

Among recent lectures delivered by Dr. Smith were one on March 9-10, 2012 to the contemplative Urban Sanctuary in Edmonton, and this:

February 22: Beirut, Near East School of Theology: “What Can Evangelicals and Protestants Learn from Ignatian Spirituality?”

Thomas H. Green, S.J., a professor of philosophy and theology at Loyola School of Theology, is the only speaker listed at Open Hearts, Open Minds. He and Dr. Smith conducted this joint seminar (joint seminar, that is, not debate):

DISCERNMENT, VOCATION AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTION

A joint seminar by Fr. Thomas H. Green S.J. and Rev. Dr. Gordon T. Smith
May 12, 2007 at the Bayview Glen Alliance Church

One of the great insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, was in the area of discovering God’s will for our lives. His rules for discernment, incorporated into his famous work, “Spiritual Exercises,” continue to be studied, discussed and practiced today, some 500 years after they were first written. In the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in retreats following the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and in the whole area of spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our whole-day seminar this year brings together two of the leading experts on these topics and promises to be not just informative and challenging but perhaps even life changing. Join us for a day of learning, reflection and fellowship with others on the spiritual journey.


In addition to promoting contemplative spirituality, the new president of Ambrose University College promotes sacramentalism and the social gospel. In the paper Theological Education as Formation in Wisdom, which I cited earlier, Dr. Smith goes so far as to praise liberation theology, which is just Marxism in Christian (especially Roman Catholic) dress:

When we speak of mission, we speak, at the very least, of the following:

That the mission of God is the restoration of the beauty and glory of the created order, and, even more, of the fulfilment of creation. Thus those who identify with the mission of God will speak of the concern of the church for the environment.

Also, to speak of the mission of God is to reference the one to whom all authority has been given: Jesus the Christ, who now reigns above and is inaugurating a kingdom of justice and peace.

Then also to speak of the mission of God is to speak of the church as an instrument of God to witness to and embody this kingdom. This, of course, suggests that the church is not an end, but a means to an end; and though an necessary end, it suggests that “church growth” or “denominational extension” are not at the heart of the mission of the church.

When this missional vision has been picked up by theologians and educators in theological schools in the global south what has emerged is a common theme around what is often spoke of as “transformational” leadership and ministry. And what in particular has been highlighted is that we cannot speak of mission without a commitment to justice, compassion and social responsiblity: that we witness to the reign of Christ through word and deed.

Probably no voice has emphasize the relationship between wisdom and social responsibility as profoundly as that of the liberation theologians of Latin America. Jon Sobrino, for example, speaks of “political holiness”. Our vision of life and work and wisdom must be through the lens of the in-breaking of the reign of Christ, Sobrino insists; and if we are discerning we will see that the God of all mercy, embodied in the radical mercy of Jesus, has what Sobrino and his liberationist colleagues speak of as a “preferential option for the poor”, and that indeed the poor are the locus of God’s presence in the world. Voices like that of Rene Padilla have rightly observed that when the vision of liberation theologians is one-sided and only speaks of economic justice, that it is essentially a half truth. But if the alternative is to only speak of“personal salvation” all we have is another half truth. A Padilla puts it: God loves justice, and nobody that has been born from God can remain indifferent to exploitation and injustice, poverty and huger that afflict his neighbour.” To Padilla’s credit, he was sounding this prophetic word as a lonely voice in 1974 at Laussane I, the first of three major conferences on evangelical global mission, and he was still insisting on this perspective at Laussane III, in South Africa in 2010.

I was struck recently work of the Virgina Fabella (Filipina, Maryknoll sister). In conversation with other Asian women theologians, including Chung Hyun Kyung of Korea, she speaks of doing theology in recognition of the salvific value of women’s active suffering as she cogently describes the poor women of Asia who are doubly oppressed – because of class and gender. But what her wisdom calls for is an active solidarity with these women wherein a passive identification with Christ’s sufferings leads to a struggle, in the name of Christ, on behalf of the suffering poor.

In May of 2011 I participated in a conference sponsored by the Asia Theological Association that brought together theologians and educators from Asia, Latin America and North America. And one could not miss that those from Asia and Latin America pressed the point: theological education with integrity needs to take account of the deep suffering that is found in the cities of Asia and Latin America. Urban theological education in the city has to respond to the cry of the city. And it needs to equip pastoral leaders to be agents of spiritual and social transformation in the city. And these were Evangelical theologians and church leaders insisting on this – voices that in the past might have emphasized, as Padilla put it, “personal salvation” and evangelism and church growth. Now we are seeing an insistence on the essential counterpoint between word and deed. As Leslie Newbigen has stated somewhere, when you only have half the truth you really have no truth at all and that thus we cannot pit social responsibility
against each other.

And so this leads me to ask how our approaches to theological education, in both the West and the global south will bring together partnerships with compassion ministries and active approaches to social justice. Wisdom is not ultimately wisdom until it is practiced; it is not a matter of mere knowledge, but of knowledge lived, in truth and in justice. And contemporary approaches to theological education in the global south and, increasingly in the rest of the world, are recognizing that this needs to be integral to a theological curriculum.
See my post Ambrose University College and "Transformation," and search the term at Lighthouse Trails Research Project.

Ambrose University College continues to offer courses in contemplative spirituality.

The following are listed in Ambrose's 2012-13 calendar. The number in parentheses indicates the number of hours of instruction per week, while the letter denotes how often the course is offered: A=annually; B=biennially; O=occasionally.

REL 360 Spaces of the Heart (3) A
An advanced study dealing with selected disciplines and rhythms of the spiritual life. The content of the course includes the discussion of the nature of spirituality and the practice of various contemplative spiritual disciplines and rhythms such as meditation, fasting, solitude, silence, journal keeping, autobiographical writing, discernment, waiting and suffering.

REL 361 Streams of Christian Spirituality (3) O
A survey of the various paradigms in which the spiritual life has been understood and experienced in the Christian church from apostolic times to the present. Special emphasis is given to certain movements within Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism that have focused on the nurture of the spiritual life.

REL 364 Prayer Paths to God: The History and Practice of Christian Prayer (3) B
An advanced course which studies the historical theology and practice of Christian prayer as it pertains to understanding the role of prayer within the spiritual life. The course is taught from an ecumenical perspective and includes a prayer practicum in the lectio divina (praying with scripture).

REL 365 Into the Wasteland: Exploring the “Desert/Wilderness” Experience in Christian Spirituality (3) B
An examination of the “desert/wilderness” experience in various traditions of Christian spirituality. An integrated biblical/historical/theological/formational approach to the subject is used to assist the student in understanding the nature and purpose of the “desert/wilderness” experience in the spiritual life of the church and the individual. A special feature of the course is a one-day guided silent retreat. Note: Class Limit of 20 students

REL 366 Spiritual Companions (3) B
An advanced course that gives consideration to the practice of spiritual direction in various Christian traditions from ancient to modern times and the influence of outstanding spiritual mentors of the twentieth century. Attention is also given to the nature, objectives and dynamics of spiritual direction as experienced in a practical context.

REL 368 Exploring the ‘Dream Experience’ in Christian Spirituality (3) B
This course will survey the significance and understanding of the “dream experience” in both eastern and western Christian traditions. Special emphasis is placed on the role of the dream in the spiritual journeys of prominent Christians, the dream and death experience as well as developing a Christian approach to dream interpretation integrated with an understanding of one’s own spiritual journey.
Note: Class Limit of 20 students.

REL 371 The Church and Contemporary Spiritualities (3) B
This is a course designed to acquaint the learner with a number of influential alternative spiritualities within Western culture and to challenge the student to consider carefully the role of the Church, particularly in the light of these approaches to spirituality. Beginning with a brief history of Christian spirituality, the course then will consider some major features of contemporary spirituality outside the institutional Church, with special attention being given to the nature and function of ritual, myth/narrative (sacred texts), symbolism and sacred space. Finally, the course will move the student towards an understanding of some of the ways in which the Church can or needs to respond to the spiritual quests within contemporary society.
Charles Nienkirchen teaches REL 365; here's an example of what Dr. Nienkerchen emphasizes:

Bridging Church and Academy: Cross-Pollinating at the Midwest CMA Prayer Retreat

March 10, 2012 - At the Elkhorn Resort and Conference Centre in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, Dr. Charles Nienkirchen shared insights on renewal and spiritual vitality at the annual Canadian Midwest District Prayer Retreat. 158 pastors, spouses and district staff from Christian and Missionary Alliance churches in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba engaged with Dr. Nienkirchen in public conversations, private half-hour spiritual direction sessions, and two keynote presentations. The cornerstone talks were entitled The Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Call to Transformed Living…Nothing Less and Living Heartfully: The Key to Spiritual Living with Vitality and Longevity.

Despite his full teaching schedule, Dr. Nienkirchen relishes opportunities to connect with the church outside the classroom: in fact, he views the integration as part of his overall vocation. “Doing church retreats keeps me in touch with the pulse of those who are actually walking the sidewalk of church ministry in a variety of societal contexts where they have to respond to the many faces of human need. It also allows for these church workers to hear an ‘outside voice’ and receive some fresh stimulation and possibly new perspectives through an experience of continuing education.”

With an ecumenical retreat ministry that spans more than 25 years, Nienkirchen has personally invested in exploring Christian spirituality. Sabbaticals in Oxford, England; the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem; Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in South India; and attending a School for Spiritual Directors at a New Mexico Benedictine Abbey have taken him to spiritual and physical deserts to learn more about prayer and spiritual renewal.
It's obvious that Gordon T. Smith is a perfect fit for Ambrose University College; the college will undoubtedly continue in its leftward and Romeward direction under Dr. Smith's leadership.

1 comment:

  1. As a 4th year Ambrose student it's been disappointing. We now have banners that resemble the Ambrose icon upon walking into the school. We had a week dedicated to catholics And evangelicals on mission together. We now have a commission committed to empowering homosexuals for leadership. I cannot recognize my school anymore , this is not the school I signed up to go to. pray for Amvrose.

    ReplyDelete