Back in 2006, my friend Len Hjalmarson asked me a few questions, including “How do I understand ‘Spiritual Formation’?” Now, in 2013, I re-read my answer. Did I still hold to what I’d expressed back then? Yes, but even more deeply so. I struck by how much further down the “rabbit hole” my life experiences and questions had taken. For example, I hinted at the importance of “vulnerability”, but that has taken on so much more importance; has become more deeply embodied in my life. Has taken my through experiences, and to places I would never have imagined back in 2006. So, there’s a consistency, but there has been added more depth, depth as a consequence of life experience, and ongoing personal change and growth.
Here was my 2006 response to the question already noted:
“Christian Spiritual formation, in many ways hinges on how we understand the word “spiritual,” i.e. what does it mean for us to be spiritually formed?
Spirituality, it seems to me, has a lot to do with what David Bosch describes as being in tune with what God is doing in the world and participating in God’s work (missio Dei). It also has to do with being in tune with what God is doing inwardly in us – for this too is part of the missio Dei.
At the end of the day, however, Christian spirituality has simply to do with our responding to the increasing vitality and sway of God’s Spirit within and without us. “...Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God’s Spirit is doing...” (The Message, 1 Cor. 2:10-16).
A friend, Mike Riddell talks about a “vibrant spirituality... [One] that needs to be earthed, conversant with human suffering, attainable within the complexities of life, holistic, creative, communal, and contextual.” Christian spirituality nourishes ways of being vulnerably and openly human in the face of such complexities. It’s concerned with the heights and depths of life.
Provocatively perhaps, given that we don’t use the word much nowadays, I have a lot of sympathy for any definition of Christian spirituality and spiritual formation that has at its heart a theology of becoming holy. As Geoffrey Rowell has said well, the quest for holiness is the quest for God, and that quest turns out, we discover, to be God’s search for us. This is pure irony, given that in focusing on our formation and on my spirituality, we often miss the point, that this is about God, its about our responding to God who loves, woos and invites us to become more whole and holy than we currently are.
So, spiritual formation for me is concerned with a life lived into the wind of the Spirit (cf. Rom 8 & Gal 5:13-25), such, that in my orientation toward God and in my living I become increasingly human after the likeness and example of Jesus. Jesus, as the second adam perfectly embodies what it means to “image” God humanly (imago Dei), and in becoming increasingly human I’m learning how, in the midst of all of life, to live more vulnerably, more holily, more wholly, more lovingly alive, more honestly and authentically, and thus more humanly in relation to God, myself, and other human beings within the variety of contexts that I find myself.
St. Irenaeus, a church leader in the second century said that ‘the glory of God is a person fully alive’…”
I remembered this question and my response as I read a recent reflection by Mark Vernon. He, like me above, is responding to a question: “Do we need a different Jesus?” I love the question, and I wouldn’t disagree with his response, although I’d want to hint that Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection is always more than about my individual formation, i.e. it’s about more than just me and my spiritual, psychological, spiritual and relational growth and development.
As I read Mark’s article my mind journeyed back to the 1970’s and 80’s (but often born out of the 60’s) – to books written from “the edge” of mainstream by people like Jacob Needleman and John A. Sanford. Here’s an excerpt from Mark’s reflection:
“…Perhaps there is a Jesus tradition that might speak, and is ready to be revived. It has had an awkward relationship to mainstream western Christianity because early on it got on the wrong side of the gnostic and Chalcedonian controversies. I'm thinking of the Jesus who is variously described as the hidden, wisdom or mystery Jesus. He might speak to a world that seems increasingly conscious of a lost spiritual dimension.
This Jesus invites you on an inner journey in everyday life, thereby becoming more aware of what's going on at depth. Material life is important: denying it was the gnostic mistake. And the historical Jesus was not remembered for being an ascetic: he seems to have feasted and fasted, equally disinterested in both. That was presumably because he knew the humdrum is only part of our story, and not the determining part, a bit like choppy waves on the surface of the sea that lose touch with the slower, steadier pulse that traverses beneath, though contains much more of life's energy.
This Jesus naturally fits the language of psychology, a big plus today. Take his saying, 'First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye'. This can be translated as tackling the way we project what we dislike most about ourselves, and so find intolerable, into others. It's a neat, vivid version of the rule that if someone bugs you, you can be sure they reflect something you hate in yourself.
This tradition is also associated with the great psychotherapists of the early church, the desert fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus. He was the first to describe the deadly sins, though he himself did not deploy them to condemn people. Rather, he provides a guide to the inner life and warns his fellows that if they go on this journey they must be prepared to face their narcissism, gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory and pride. It is not easy to do. Self-justificatory denial is an ever present option…”