After my recent transition from my role as an academic librarian to an appointment as a theology professor at my institution, I wrote a post about the parallels between the two positions. To briefly summarize, I argued that the Christian librarian models ways of pursuing the deeper, intellectual questions of life and faith. When engaged with a research assistance librarian, students are invited to develop a keener use of critical thinking and a more robust knowledge about God’s world. Moreover, the kinds of skills deeply ingrained in the research process are the same kinds of skills all teachers can aspire to inculcate in the thinking of their students.
In building on this same line of thought, the extent of value that a Christian librarian’s ethos brings to students’ education need not stop at their intellectual development alone. In other words, librarians help students learn more than just how to discover and comprehend God’s truth. After all, higher education, itself, is about more than even that lofty goal because a student’s education carries with it an implied target of personal growth. Personal growth cannot be reduced to a mere increase in knowledge. The season in which one pursues higher education is a time dedicated to intentional maturation. As Lowe and Lowe suggested, multiple interconnected dimensions of a student’s person contribute to his or her maturation within an environment.1 It is with this eye toward a more holistic conception of education that I would like to frame my thinking here.
Specifically, I submit that the librarian’s role within the higher education ecosystem may help us to conceive of ways to impress the cultivation of spiritual formation into our pedagogical practices. By spiritual formation, I mean “the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart.”2 It involves seeing an individual conformed to the image of Christ from the inside out. For the Christian educator, spiritual formation is undoubtedly one of the “higher” aspects of our higher calling. In all things, we are interested in conforming our own lives in this manner and helping our students do likewise. Within our disciplines, we aspire to model conformity to the image of Christ to those learning the Christian “way” from us.
The challenge, of course, is that attempting to cultivate spiritual growth in the classroom is difficult because doing so in conventional ways can create a sense of disconnect between the subject matter and one’s faith integration with the curriculum.3 For example, we can easily find ourselves praying at the beginning of our classes in an effort to instill the use of the spiritual disciplines only then seemingly to compartmentalize the rest of the curriculum as though it is disengaged with our spirituality.
Herein lies the value of the librarian’s focus and emphases, in my opinion. Despite popular stereotypes that conjure up mental images of librarians as stoic, brainy, and antisocial guardians of the library stacks, I have found many of those who choose this profession to be kind-hearted and servant-minded above all else. Admittingly, to be sure, anyone that finds a passionate interest in topics like metadata, cataloging, or information literacy is probably wired somewhat differently than the average person. Still, the amalgamation of these attributes become assets as they help model crucial aspects of spiritual formation. In the remainder of this post, I will propose three areas of emphasis for the Christian research librarian where this combination might be seen.
The Use of Discipline and Habit unto Growth
What must a student accomplish to complete a significant research project? Speaking from experience, the expectations of most first-year students require adjustment. Moreover, what the undergraduate student has to learn from scratch, the graduate student must learn with intensity. That is, the research process is not reducible to a Google-style search in which the answer boomerangs back the second the question is entered. In our culture of immediacy, many students are surprised to learn that the answers to their research question rarely just jump off the page, or screen, in this way. The process requires sleuthing and probing, considering dissenting voices, and ultimately synthesizing a scholarly context into which an answer might be posed. Not even the mighty ChatGPT can escape the need for intense scrutiny because it too is built on fallible informational constructs. For this reason, it takes time and sustained effort to produce a quality research product.
To do this well, students must develop habits of focus and discipline that can be activated as needed during their college careers. As instructors, librarians preach against the vice of procrastination and encourage the virtue of dedicating appropriate time and focus to the work at hand. Research assistance is oriented toward “teaching them to fish,” not “giving them the fish.” In fact, the goal for the librarian is that students become lifelong learners who can engage information with sustained, critical focus.
So, too, must discipline drive a believer’s actions in spiritual growth and formation. Far from being a passive endeavor, spiritual formation is a matter of active training unto godliness (1 Tim. 4:7–8). The spiritual life is one that is formed by placing oneself in submission before the Lord, and this involves forging habitual reliance on him in our thoughts and actions. As Dallas Willard explained, the habit of spiritual formation entails the ongoing disassociation of our sinful tendencies and a constant redirection of our bodies unto righteousness.4 While it is always powered by the Spirit of God, growth nevertheless often occurs as a result of deliberate, focused attention placed on these efforts. In this way, it behooves students to learn that our spiritual growth is often no more immediate than the research process.
The Discipline of Deep Study
An obvious spiritual discipline that is modeled, in principle, through the research process is that of study. Richard Foster suggested that “the mind will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.”5 The discipline of study is an effort to bring the mind in conformity with the revelation God has provided. In researching, the student is concentrating on discovering the objective truth about God’s revelation (often God’s general revelation). Librarians direct students in that concentration, instructing them to reflect on discovered truth in order to draw connections with the initial research inquiry. This same sort of strategy of using concentration unto the discovery of truth (often God’s special revelation) and then reflection on that truth to facilitate growth is present in spiritual formation as well.
The Disciplines of Submission and Service
It is my experience that students often equate the notion of spiritual formation solely with the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, as though these two represent an exhaustive list of disciplines to be pursued. To expand their understanding, I regularly find myself introducing my students to the concepts of submission and service as spiritual disciplines. Being conformed to the image of Christ becomes a matter of habit when Christians consciously submit themselves to the directive of the Lord, often at the expense of personal sacrifice. As Richard Foster expounded, this discipline is not aimed at cultivating a sense of service from a place of self-righteousness. By this, he was referring to service that is focused on external reward, false modesty, ingratiating oneself to others, and impressing others.6 Rather, the habit that needs to be learned is one that is truly oriented toward the benefit of others and the worship of God.
What does submission and service have to do with librarians and research? The librarian recognizes inherently that research is never accomplished in a vacuum. There is always an intent, purpose, or goal that drives the researcher. One tool at the disposal of the librarian is the “research interview,” during which, among other things, the librarian attempts to bring this motivation to the fore. At a Christian institution, this interview creates clear opportunities to integrate faith in a highly contextual way. Namely, research can, and should, be driven by the Christian’s desire to serve both his fellow man and his creator. It should not be motivated by self-glory or self-aggrandizement. This message, spoken by an instructor who is presently serving the student at the direct point of need, can have significant impact. As the research interview and consultation continues, the librarian may present a clear-cut integration of one’s faith in the very motivation of the process, not just in the product.
These three areas represent ways librarians may cultivate spiritual formation in the lives of students, but their approach can be instructive for those of us in the traditional classroom as well. Like librarians, we too have the opportunity to nurture the values of habit and discipline unto righteousness in a myriad of ways, especially in our assignment structures, feedback, and grading efforts. Similarly, we can forge those connection points between our lectures intended to elucidate the truth of God’s revelation and then encourage students to meaningfully reflect on its import for the Christian’s engagement with the subject area. Finally, we may regularly bring the question of motivation before students, helping them associate the why of the topic in conjunction with the what. We need only to make cultivation of spiritual formation an explicit, intentional goal in order to then find other areas of similar integration into our pedagogical approach.
- Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 24–26.
- Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation: What It Is, and How It Is Done,” Dallas Willard Ministries, accessed November 2, 2023, https://dwillard.org/articles/spiritual-formation-what-it-is-and-how-it-is-done.
- For a discussion on the need to avoid fragmenting our academic and spiritual lives in favor of contextualizing our curriculum within the larger Christian story, see Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Education in a Fragmented Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 291–304, Proquest Ebook Central.
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper Publishing, 1988), 116–118.
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper Publishing, 1988), 63.
- Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 128-130.