Formation vs transformation – how do you see God’s work?

Formation – an act of giving form or shape to something or of taking form.

Transformation – a complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.

I grew up with an obsession about transformation. As a Christian, this word maybe best described  what I felt was the point of the biblical story in general and the gospel in particular. I deeply resonated with stories such a Paul’s (then Saul) transformational experience on the road to Damascus where his life was instantly and drastically changed. This is what I longed for, hoped for, and even spent many hours praying for.

In fact, there was several years of my life where I spent hours every week praying for revival, which is best described as an instantaneous transformation of a large group of people who have somehow had an encounter with God. Stories of past revivals captivated me. What has been called the Great Awakenings in America are perfect examples of this. Reading about people like George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney and Jonathon Edwards captivated my imagination. My heart longed to see a great movement like this!

I was deeply shaped by people and groups that shared this perspective. In fact I was a leader in a local youth conference we put on called “Transform”.

It has been years since I have gone to a conference like this and my focus has changed.

Why?

I began to become more aware of God’s work in my life and the world around me in a different way.

I see God’s work more as a slow process than as an instantaneous  transformation. This can be seen all the way from nature, to the growth of an individual human, to the growth of the human species, to the growth of the universe. It seems to me that God is not in a hurry.

Take creation for example. Scientists believe that the universe has existed for approximately 13.8 billion years. Try to imagine waiting that long for creation to evolve!

Humans are amazing, but when we begin our life we spend about 10 months in the uterus of our mother as we are formed. Then, when we finally take our first breath, we are still fully dependent upon others to take care of us. This continues for many years as our minds, emotions, and physical bodies mature.

The individual formation of a human also reflects the overall formation of humanity. I have mentioned before that spiral dynamics has been a helpful tool to me. According to spiral dynamics humans first entered the beige stage about 100,000 years ago. This was the basic survival stage. What we believe are the two most recent stages (Orange and Green) has only come about in the last 150-300 years. Right now, we have more stages represented than at any other time in history (and we wonder why we struggle to get along).   The development and evolution of humanity has been a slow process.

water-flowing-over-rocks

This is also reflected in my own experience. As I grow, I see God’s work in my life like water flowing over a rock. It takes years for the water to smooth the rough edges. Likewise, God’s work takes time. In my experience, God is gentle and persuasive, not harsh, forceful or coercive.

Unfortunately, what many understand and believe to be Christianity is the interpretation of a harsh and coercive God who gets angry every time you mess up. It is very easy to be a Christian, read Scripture, and believe this is who God is. For many, the choice is either to accept a wrathful, coercive, tyrannical god or reject Christianity.

Also, many are quick to make clear judgements and to give an enormous amount of detail about life after death. In reality, if we are honest, we have no idea what happens when you die.

What we do have, as NT Wright has pointed out, are signposts that can help give us a rough direction. Part of this, I believe, is gaining from our own experiences. My experience, and the Reality I see around me, points to a God is has an enormous amount of patience. My experience is that God has patience for each of us as we develop and mature – both as individuals and as a species.

Lastly, I personally experience God’s love and patience in my own life. I do not think God asks or expects instant transformation, but true to the way the universe seems to be hard wired, I experience God to be most patient with me. While I do hold open the times where I believe people do encounter a real Damascus experience, I also believe these are rare times and God’s most common way of working in the world is gentle and gradual.

If one seeks solely after a transformational experience it often leads them to believe in a coercive and domineering God who controls everything. This will also be reflected in our own lives and will affect the way we treat others. We will tend to be less patient, a little more harsh, will see things as black and white and will push others to see things they same way,  and will often pressure people toward a transformational or conversion experience.

If we understand and experience God’s slow, formational work in the world and in our own lives, this will be reflected in the way we treat others. We will tend to have more patience, more love, and will be less domineering because this is how we understand God’s work in the world. Rather than pushing for a conversion experience, we can be aware that God is always working, everywhere, through a slow, gentle process.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it may take a very long time. 

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 

Construction – Deconstruction – Reconstruction

Construction –  the act or process of building something

Deconstruct – to take apart or examine in order to reveal the basis or composition of often with the intention of exposing biases, flaws, or inconsistencies

Reconstruct –  to construct again:  to establish or assemble again

This is almost like a part three of an unintentional series. If you are reading this, you probably have recognized the fluidity of the last three posts (part 1 here, part 2 here) and have also recognized that much of it is me thinking out load and wrestling through some thoughts.

I realize that by doing this it can seem disjointed, but I really started this blog to reflect upon some things I am learning, growing in, and wrestling with.

Construction

This is a phase of life where the individual builds or puts together a world view, belief system, or way of seeing the world. Everyone begins with construction as we each need a way to see and engage the world around us.

Deconstruction

Some move past the first phase and begin to take apart their world view or belief system to examine it. In my experience, this often happens because of a crisis or tragedy of some sort, but can also happen when someone enters into a critical thinking process and begins to raise many tough questions. Often people find the answers they were given to be lacking. This is a healthy phase of life as one takes apart the “system” to analyze it and find areas that just don’t work anymore.

Reconstruction

This is a phase that one enters after they have deconstructed their world view of belief system. In many ways this is putting back together a system using the remaining fragments or pieces that are left over. This is not a neat or easy phase and it can feel awkward, almost like a young teenager whose body has grown so fast that they are still trying to learn how to walk and run without tripping.

dandr_0

  • Here’s how this looks in my own life

Construction – I was given a great religious foundation from a loving and caring family. I am very grateful for my conservative upbringing. The problem with remaining in the phase of construction is that it can become merely a belief affirmation system. In other words, we simply welcome and learn from those who think like us and if someone thinks differently they are quickly rejected or worse called a heretic and thrown out.

One can see this played out in the conservative/liberal divide within Christianity. Conservatives are great constructors, but are very cautious of entering into the deconstructive phase – usually because of fear. Fear that one will “loose their faith”, become liberal, be deceived by “the devil”. All of this fear is based upon their belief in hell and that if one doesn’t believe the right things then they will spend eternity here.

Deconstruction – believe it or not, I entered this phase while completing my bachelors degree in Biblical Studies at a conservative evangelical college. While my program was primarily focused on the construction phase (belief affirmation), I found that the answers didn’t make sense. What was actually meant to enhance the construction phase, propelled me into the deconstruction phase. So, while those around me were bolstering their belief system, I was finding it just didn’t work for me anymore.

For me, it wasn’t a crisis or tragedy, but an intellectual curiosity – the world was this great big place and if God did exist than I have nothing to fear!

Here’s a summary of some questions I was deconstructing:

What about the obvious errors in the Bible? What about the human aspect of the Bible’s authors that was becoming so clear to me as I studied Scripture in more detail? What about the influence of other religious traditions and cultures on people who wrote the Bible? What about the fact that the Bible doesn’t always agree and it’s authors say different, sometimes conflicting things? What about the violence (esp in the Hebrew Scriptures) and how does that align with Jesus in the Christian Bible? Do people really go to hell who haven’t heard about Jesus? Are gay people condemned? Why does science point to evolution and it seem like we have to throw it out to believe the Bible? What about the good people I have come to know of different religions? How could we (Christians) be completely right and they (other religions) be completely wrong? Why do so many people who hold this view seem judgmental? Why do I seem so judgmental? Doesn’t it seem that Jesus loved, embraced, and included people while I am doing the opposite?

As you can see, I was given a black and white world view but the world was quickly becoming multicolored. This was frightening. Most of the people I knew at the time looked at me with concern – again they feared for my eternal security. I was walking down the slippery slope to relativism. Despite this, I saw something new, and I could not stay in the phase of construction any longer – I was quickly thrown into the deconstruction phase and found that so many answers and ways of seeing the world no longer worked for me.

Reconstruction – I think I entered this phase in my first year of seminary, but to be honest I probably bounce back and forth from deconstruction to reconstruction on a fairly regular basis – at least in the last two years.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor do I claim to be far along in the reconstruction phase. If anything I am in between. Sometimes I dip my feet in this phase only to leave it because I have again found something that doesn’t work and I need to deconstruct it.

That being said, here is my hope and intention as I reflect upon this.

The construction phase is helpful and necessary, but someone living in this phase lives in fear and feels threatened by anything different or unknown – I was just to curious to stay here and constantly being “against” everything else was exhausting. Often conservatives never enter the deconstruction phase and instead insulate themselves and reinforce their beliefs, values, and world view. On the flip side, progressives can get hung up on the deconstructive phase and never move beyond. My hope is to move beyond. I have spend the last two years in a deeply formative deconstructive state and have read from many great thinkers, but I have also found that many of them lack something. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what exactly they lack. I would say depth, though not intellectual depth – something beyond this.

I think this is why I have been drawn to contemplative spirituality, but I don’t mean to suggest that this is the reconstructive phase. In part, I think the reconstructive phase is more open than closed, is ok with tension and paradox, moves toward a more non dual understanding, embraces differences and different faiths, and while engages the intellect understands that one cannot know or explain everything. In this regard, they are open to mystery and are people of wonder and awe. They find the sacred in ordinary life and seem to see all of life on a deeper level.

In a way, I have a growing sense that at least part of my calling is to help people through the deconstruction and reconstruction phases of life. As someone who is a pastor and in seminary, I am faced with the reality that culture, society, and religion is shifting. We seem to be moving through a major transition that none of us can fully comprehend.

People will need new ways to think about God. People will need new ways to understand what it means to be a Christian. We can’t remain in the deconstructive phase forever. Something is pulling us forward. My desire is to be a part of this process of rebuilding and reconstructing.