Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Does 'Spiritual' Always Have To Be 'Formation'?

I've been hung up on this term, "spiritual formation." It's an old concept. I can't even tell you how far back it goes. A sense of "formation" or "growth" has been associated with spiritual practices and habits since long before anyone said "spiritual formation." But now that's the term that gets thrown around as though everyone knows what it means and, more importantly, as though its desirability is a forgone conclusion. But I'm afraid I don't know exactly what people mean when they say it. And I am not convinced that it's necessarily something to be desired.

What's my hangup? Well, when I really stop and think about the "spiritual" and the so-called "spiritual practices" in which I have engaged with various levels of commitment throughout my life, I'm not totally convinced that "formation" is all that spiritual. The spiritual practices are ways in which we turn our attention to the grace of God and to the justification we have received in Jesus Christ. In so doing, we are turned away from our compulsions toward status and our obsessions with accomplishment and acquisition. By, for example, turning toward silence, we find that in Christ we are enough without words. By turning toward solitude, we discover that we are enough without the approval of others. By turning to God in prayer, we discover that we are enough without having to take the credit for achievements and without having to accomplish anything on our own. "The spiritual" as it appears to be implied in such spiritual practices, is precisely the space in which formation--moving from point A to point B, or acquiring some status with God that we had not possessed prior to the practice--becomes unnecessary, for we discover in the Spirit that we are enough (justified) without it. If the "spiritual" is co-opted and instrumentalized for the purpose of formation, then I fear that instead of freeing us from the compulsions of life, they actually just shift the audience. Instead of being obsessed with our place among people, we just become obsessed with our place with God... which, after all, misses the point of grace.

I'm pretty sure this is the great lesson of the classic film, Cool Runnings. There's a culminating scene in which Derice Bannock, the team captain of the Jamaican bobsled team, on the eve of their final olympic race, builds the courage to ask his coach Irv Blitzer (played by John Candy) why he cheated years before. The coach answers, "...that's a fair question. It's quite simple, really. I had to win..." Irv goes on to say, "Derice, a gold medal is wonderful thing. But if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Spiritual practices are ways in which we discover that we are "enough without it." If that's what people mean when they say, spiritual formation, then I'm ok with it. But if we "need" formation, progress, or status with God, then we haven't truly understood the grace which God has given us. Growth, formation, and being a better Christian might be wonderful things, but until we discover that we are enough without them, then we'll never be enough with them. To put this in more theological language, if our sanctification is not a category of our justification, then it's just legalism. The fact is, this encouragement from Irv doesn't deter Derice from running the race at all. He does run it the next day, and he runs it hard. But he runs it for the joy of running it, not for the need to win. As Moltmann put it, "whoever lays hold of the joy which embraces the creator and his own existence also gets rid of the dreadful question of existence: For what?" (Moltmann, Theology of Play, 19). Of course we should engage in spiritual practices! But we should do so out of joy which needs no goal of formation. Spirituality (which has many sorts) is the natural impulse of having been justified by God. But we do not need to be improved by them. We do not need growth or progress; and if that's what we mean by "formation," then we don't need that either. We are enough, in Christ, whenever we meet with God in prayer, solitude, fellowship, silence, lectio divina, "reverent studying" (which is a spiritual practice I've been trying out), or any other spiritual practice. We are enough even without the spiritual practices. We are enough. And however that truth may shape us or form us as we enter into it, it is a wonderful thing.

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