Defining Spiritual Formation, Ver 3.0

In several courses I facilitate, first efforts see participants tendering initial definitions of key words and concepts — as, for example, “spiritual formation,” “Biblical faith,” “teaching,” “the spiritual disciplines,” etc.  Such work and ensuing conversations are at the core of the learning-teaching process.

Can’t help but recall here the times I’ve discussed the number of words the Greeks had for what we flatly render “life” and “love” and the number of words Eskimos have for what we Texans call “snow.”1  The more you live with a reality, the better you are at understanding and modifying it.  Has me wondering about our culture’s overindulgence in with some words.  Too, it has me wondering about our relative inability to speak to the things that matter most – like spiritual formation.

Over the course of the last few years, I have taken several stabs at defining “spiritual formation.”

  • Early on in my work here with Zoe-Life, I acknowledged the ways that discipleship could and should be synonymous with spiritual formation.  That is, if it were not for the lamentable ways that too many in church circles have reduced discipleship to a set of programs and outcomes which make for better church members but not for fully transformed lives and living.

    All this had me opting for another definition which avoided the “discipleship” word altogether: “spiritual formation is our graceful pilgrimage to wholehearted life and living.” (cf., the August 8, 2018 post, What is “Spiritual Formation”?)
  • In time, I found myself migrating to another definition – more focused on and centered in the dynamic of our “true self” (“our original shimmering selves,” as Buechner has put it).  In our workshops on the Enneagram and Crafting a Rule of Life, we increasingly found ourselves speaking of spiritual formation as a return journey to our “true selves” in Christ (i.e., the original image of God in which we were and are created).  Here, Merton gave (and gives) some sense of support and foundation: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
  • spritual formation defMost recently, though, I have found myself gravitating toward another definition.  In a new course developed for BeADisciple (Exploring Spiritual Formation: Mapping Our Journeys Back Home to God), I have come to see the ways that the ancients of our Faith referred to “Union with God” as the clearly affirmed destination of the spiritual journey in and with Christ.  While “true self” can include and assume and subsume this “Union” with God and neighbor, it can (especially on its own) be dangerous and misleading.  In a world too inclined to narcissism, returning to our “true selves” can sound too narrow, too self-serving.  Here, “Union with God/Christ” speaks more clearly and fully of a destination that is good for all – God, neighbor and self.  “True Self” is still there but now situated among other pillars which give it fuller meaning.

And so, I have come to this definition of spiritual formation, version 3:
“Christian spiritual formation
is the Graceful journey
of our coming back home
to God and God’s Kindom.” 
(yes, without the “g”)2 

1Elsewhere, I have written: “Depending on which study or article you turn to, Eskimos have anywhere from 4 to 7 to 50… even up to 100 words (according to a New York Times editorial of a few years ago) for our one word, ‘snow.’ (Anthropologist Franz Boas, for example, mentions four separate Eskimo words for snow: aput (‘snow on the ground’), gana (‘falling snow’), piqsirpoq (‘drifting snow’), and qimuqsuq (‘snowdrift’). While the number fluctuates and debates rage, there is nonetheless a fundamental premise which is rather clear and obvious: language reflects culture, culture impacts language.  Eskimos lives are ‘snow-driven,’ one might argue: a variety of words to define snow (however many that really is) is relevant and necessary for their life and living.  Could it be that our failure to have more than one word for love or time or life (vis-à-vis the Greeks) reflects our culture’s thoughtlessness on these issues?  And could it be that the multiple words we have in our language to modify music styles or body parts has something to say about who we and what we are (or are not)?”

2I first heard this reference to “Kindom” from Rev. Trent Williams of Friends United Church of Christ in College Station, Texas. I appreciate this variation on the traditional “Kingdom”: 1) for the ways it “dances” or plays with that more traditional word, 2) addresses themes of dominance (perhaps oppression?) and sexism embedded/implied in the older terminology, and 3) accentuates the relational/communal qualities of our destination in God.


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