There’s an old joke that is passed along in aviation circles about a flight attendant who just about had enough with stupid questions. She goes down the aisle to deliver a round of drinks and one of the passengers starts asking. She runs through the usual gambit when the passenger noticed a very long, straight, dark shadow, running across the ground that had been cast by a contrail overhead. The passenger asked what that dark line was. Without missing a beat, the flight attendant chimes in with, "That’s how they mark the state lines." The passenger responds with "I didn't know that. I'm going to wake up my daughter -- I think she'd really enjoy seeing that too."
Most people expect strong dark lines between fields of study. Obvious lies of demarcation showing where Geometry stops and Algebra begins – the genesis of Chemistry and the revelation of Biology. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is just not that easy. In most fields of study and in life in general, there are large areas of overlap. In fact I operate under the belief, as known and believed by many medieval scientists philosophers like Aquinas, that science and theology completely overlap – they are not mutually exclusive. Both are concerned with the ultimate questions – why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How does this universe of ours work? All endeavors of study – art, math, science, theology – are ultimately connected to questions much like these. I wonder if science and mathematics can inform our theologies and our theologies can inform our science and math.
I jokingly call my children Chaos and Entropy. Chaos can be defined as condition of great disorder or confusion. Specifically physicists define chaos as the disordered state of unformed matter and infinite space as supposed in some cosmogonic views to have existed before the ordered universe. Older forms of the word imply an abyss or a chasm. Entropy is defined as a measure of disorder or randomness in a system and the tendency for all matter and energy to evolve toward a state of inert chaotic uniformity if not acted upon by an outside source. Chaos and Entropy – physics vocabulary that somehow in a very interesting way describe the effects of children on the household. In fact, many of the great theorems of science and mathematics can uniquely describe states of life.
The Bible uses the concept of Chaos to describe “the waters of the deep.” The word in Genesis translates usually “the deep” or “the abyss” but might be better translated chaos or extreme disquiet. We hear echoes of this complete disquiet from the Psalmist when he cries out “Out of the depths I have cried unto Thee.” For a person of faith, God makes order from chaos. God spells the end to Entropy. God is the ultimate outside force.
I began to contemplate spiritual transformation a few years ago. A lot of people talk about spiritual formation and transformation – without a clear definition of what is meant by such terms. In fact, if I were to ask a person what spiritual transformation is I get a bunch of blank stares, a lot of “don’t YOU know?” statements and a few warm and fuzzy platitudes. What is spiritual transformation?
As usual, I start with what I am most familiar – Math. In Mathematics, transformations are a very specific phenomenon – a geometric concept. Geometric figures can be transformed in different ways. First is a simple Glide transformation. You pick the figure up and just move it to a different spot. You can rotate or flip it, but the figure remains essentially the same. Another transformation is a dilation transformation -- you make the figure larger or smaller. Non-isometric transformations are more interesting. They are equations that change the essential shape of a geometric figure, warping and bending and shaping it into something wholly different. This is interesting place to start, but transformation is more.
We could start with the basic words – a spiritual forming, conforming, transforming. A shaping of the spirit of a person – that which is God breathed out of chaos, dealing with the bit of a person that deals with the sacred. Shaping this sacred bit, forming it, shaping it into a form similar to or identical to the shape of God, the shape of Christ; to be obedient and compliant to that shape. A changing of the shape of a person until the very nature of the person is transmuted in to a higher and different condition.
We can take our cues from scripture itself:
And so YHWH ‘elohyim formed the human from the humus; and breathed the breath of life, YHWH’s own breath into the human’s nostrils, and the human became a living soul.
--Genesis 2:7 (Coleman Translation)
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' 1Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
--Romans 9:20-21 (NIV)
Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
--Galatians 4:17-20 (NIV)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
--Romans 8:28-30 (NIV)
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
--Romans 12:1-3 (NIV)
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
--2 Corinthians 3:16-18 (NIV)
In these passages, what should we notice? First, humans are formed by God, brought to life by God and en-spirited by God. We are made in the image of God. In God are the essential roots of our being. This is the doctrine of Imago Dei. Second, we are shaped as God wishes to shape us; God is the potter, we are the clay. Who is the vessel to question it’s own shape? Some are made for noble purposes, some for common, however we all have a purpose. Third, we are made to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. We are made to not shape ourselves after this world, but to renew our minds and strive to know the Will of God. This is a more that a just moving our position; more than just making ourselves smaller or larger. This is an essential change – a change in the essence of a person. Or better stated a re-forming of a person back to the original Imago Dei – the condition of the human race before our alienation from God some call original sin. And this alienation is at odds at that deeply rooted Imago Dei that resides within each and every one of us – causing a deep hunger for order, for reconciliation, for a restoration of that Image in each of us.
This is at the heart of Christian spiritual formation and transformation. Much of this is implicitly understood in Christian circles. Yet in certain venues, it is never explicitly stated. Nor are Christians universal in what exactly this Christ-like shape would be. Depending on Christologies and Soteriologies, the practice of this might look very different among wildly divergent Christian denominations.