Why is the Avila Institute not an accredited institution?Accreditation is a status attained by an educational institution involved in a process of review by peer organizations with which it has entered into association. Membership in such organizations normally requires a period of years sufficient for an institution to provide evidence that it has begun its own internal discussion about the standards of the accrediting body and is ready to join in a broader conversation with peer institutions. Only after qualifying for and attaining this membership may an institution apply for full accreditation, a separate process that also normally involves years of self-study and development. As a new institution, qualifying for membership in any organization of peer institutions is an effort still several years away. Yet, this very practical reason for not yet being accredited is only part of an important story.
As a pioneer in graduate level studies in spiritual theology, the Avila Institute is engaging a theological conversation that has not yet received due attention in the American Catholic educational community. At present, many education leaders are grappling with a “results” orientation to education, an orientation that can often unwittingly extract the essential purpose of religious education and reduce it to the advantage it provides on a resume. In the place of an emphasis on the pursuit and love of Truth, this orientation is often distracted by the pursuit of demonstrable benchmark proficiencies against which student learning and quality of instruction might be measured. Although we wish those engaged in such discussions every success in their efforts, it is our strong opinion that education in spiritual theology has very little to contribute to this particular conversation.
For those who are discerning what the Avila Institute is offering with respect to the quality of education they are hoping to find, they should be aware that the study of spiritual theology is not primarily concerned with providing career skills. As such the Avila Institute is not engaged in career-centric discussions of measurable benchmark proficiencies that students of any related field might require. The most important proficiencies to be acquired in spiritual theology cannot be demonstrated or measured via this method. They do not fit into a sterile taxonomy. The nexus of mystical wisdom and theological research is too deep for such analysis. In light of these limitations, accreditation of a program of spiritual theology with an eye to the integrity of the theological task involves initiating a whole new conversation about the scholarly research of sacred doctrine and contemplation of the truth, mystical wisdom and theological wisdom, theological education and personal holiness.
The prejudice in the academy against initiating this conversation is at least partially justifiable. Indeed, many conversations about prayer and spirituality tend to be undisciplined, anti-dogmatic and bogged down in subjectivism. Rather than grounded in sacred doctrine, discussions on contemplation and mysticism often root themselves in psychological and social theory. In this context, dubious assertions are sometimes made that appeal more to the imagination in stead of being verified in clinical practice or real life. It is right to be suspicious of such pseudo-science. Such reckless discussions risk a “magical” understanding of God and the individual, an understanding that puts human dignity at risk and diminishes reasoned discourse about the living presence of God in the world.
In the face of these trends, the suspicions of many scholars and leaders in theological education about the nature of spiritual theology and its contribution to the theological enterprise is understandable. Nonetheless, this particular prejudice also impedes serious conversations between the Avila Institute and other peer institutions concerning accreditation for the time being. We at the Avila Institute believe that the only way to confront these concerns is to initiate our own conversation about spiritual theology and theological education which is more firmly rooted in sacred scripture and tradition while engaging other thinkers and scholars in the essential questions that emerge. As pioneers, we are aware that our contribution to this task is a modest one, but one that is vital for our time. We are confident that as the right questions are raised about the place of spiritual theology in the academy, a more fruitful conversation with theologians and peer institutions can begin. We have every hope that this conversation, if given a chance, will prepare for a new springtime of theological education in America.