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Sister Beth Liebert, PhD, Delivers Presentation on Academic Life as Spiritual Practice

Sister Beth Liebert, PhD, a member of the HNU Board of Trustees and a faculty member at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, visited HNU on December 8 to deliver a presentation called “Academic Life and Scholarship: A Spiritual Practice.” Sr. Beth had previously given the talk as part of a special event at the GTU in November, and she kindly agreed to give an encore presentation at HNU.

The focus of Sr. Beth’s talk was on the spiritual aspects of academic work and, as she explained at the start of her talk, her aim was to include everyone in the idea of spirituality, not just those who are religious. At the outset, Sr. Beth acknowledged that the term “spiritual” required definition. “Spiritual is a contested word,” she said. “And you already know that you have to define this word every time you use it, otherwise you can’t keep the confusion down to a dull roar.” Sr. Beth provided the common dictionary definitions of the word spiritual and remarked that those were unhelpful for her purposes, since those led to the term being strictly applied to the immaterial and non-corporeal. “If we stay with these common sense understandings of spiritual, we get caught in that body/spirit dualism. Or material versus immaterial. So I’m going to see if we can avoid that,” she said.

Sr. Beth explained that she was also using the term “practice” in a very specific sense. “I’m going to start with the feminist theologian Rebecca Chopp,” Sr. Beth said. “She notes that, ‘Practice is a socially shared form of behavior, a pattern of meaning and action that is both culturally constructed and individually instantiated.’ So it’s something that I do myself. ‘The notion of practice draws us to inquire into the shared activities of groups of persons that provide meaning and orientation to the world and guide action.’ So that’s a definition of practice; practice is bodily, social, interactive, cooperative, and shares rule-like regularities.” As Sr. Beth pointed out, scholarship fits neatly into Chopp’s definition of practice: there are standards of excellence and rules; scholarship is part of a larger communal discourse; and it constitutes a way of life.

In order to connect spirituality and practice in a way that would be maximally inclusive, Sr. Beth employed definitions of spirituality from contemporary theologians Sandra Schneiders and Walter Principe. “I’m going to offer a definition from Sandra Schneiders,” Sr. Beth said. “I’m picking one where she’s deliberately trying to speak in human terms rather than narrow Christian terms. She says, ‘Spirituality is the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value that one perceives.’ In her definition, she’s being particularly careful to define spirituality in a broad and human-based way so that persons from all or no religious traditions could potentially still identify with the word.

“Theologian Walter Principe says it this way, ‘A person’s chosen ideal and striving to live toward that ideal is spirituality at the existential level.’ But he doesn’t make ‘chosen ideal’ necessarily framed religiously. His language of chosen ideal and Schneiders’ ultimate value would be different language for a similar kind of thing.”

Sr. Beth posited that, in combining these specific definitions of “practice” and “spirituality,” one could arrive at a conception of scholarly pursuits as spiritual pursuits. “So we choose to engage in certain activities, either because of their intrinsic value to us, or because of where these actions lead us,” she said. “Those actions are determined then in the light of their end. And that’s something highly valuable, and indeed it can set the primary orientation and direction of our lives. It pulls us out of our limited horizon, it propels us beyond ourselves to attain this ultimate value. Theistic persons typically understand that ultimate horizon to be God, but it can also be things that are highly valuable, that can stand in that place, such as the full development of the human person—the Holy Names Sisters would recognize that one. Enlightenment, the good of the cosmos, the transcendentals of unity, beauty, truth, goodness, and so on. You see I’m trying to make a platform where we can all stand, whether you’re Christian, something else, or even nothing.

“The ultimate value must function as a horizon leading the person toward growth. True spirituality does not use power to dominate and destroy. It rather enhances individuals and communities, it breaks down power differentials, and it sets individuals and communities free to live deeper lives.”

As an exercise at the close of her talk, Sr. Beth examined the spiritual practice of lectio divina (spiritual reading)—which includes the steps of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating—to demonstrate how it could be expanded from a strictly Christian practice into a model for secular academic life.