Formation, formation… is transformation. There are a lot of things that “form” us from the very beginning. The most pronounced aspect of our formation is our national culture (“national” being of the people, not of the “State,” although the State certainly contributes to the process of enculturation). We are enculturated; we cannot get away from it. We are formed by our culture and the culture within which we grow up shades our entire perception of the world and ourselves and how we understand our place.
Enculturation carries with it both the negative and the positive. Our current cultural construct is in flux and is moving ever more quickly from a form of Christendom to Post-Christendom. What this means for those who decide to follow the Way of Christ (assuming that Calvin and his followers were at least misguided), well, there must be (must! be) a recognition of those aspects of the current culture that work contrary to the good will of God. There must be the sober recognition and then the determination not to remain under their bondage. The question of “How?” always is present and problematic.
Worldly Systems of our own creating (all systems from Democracy and Capitalism to Communism and Socialism) are not the Way of Christ, even though there may be reflections of the reality of God’s Way within them all. Our profound mistake is to believe so much in our own Systems that we equate the Gospel with them. Our mistake is our pride and arrogance, our vainglory. Our current mistake is to assume that we are so smart, now, today, this decade, this century, that we know enough to make eternal declarative statements – in either the realm of science or metaphysics.
So many of the battles we fight these days, for example between Creationism vs. Evolution or whether gay people are intrinsically disordered sinners or a result of God’s natural order (and the examples go on and on) are nothing more than debilitating distractions to the grand vision of God presented to us through the Scriptures, the Tradition, and our own god-enabled Reason. We have always been distracted so, because people think their own or group’s limited, finite vision is equated with God’s limitless vision for the well being of humanity and the Creation.
We are enculturated in these days. “Christian Formation” is inviting the individual to see beyond our myopic and limited present-culture (no matter how enlightened we think we are). The invitation is to recognize the shortcomings of the Worldly Systems, to realize that the manner in which we see ourselves and those around us is deformed when compared to God’s call to us – to recognize that every person who accepts the call of Christ needs to be re-formed. For the Christian to be as God intends, we must give ourselves to be re-formed.
Radical invitation is opened to all people without exception! However, to be welcomed into the fold (the process of re-formation) means that we must give up our lives completely, all pretense of correctness, all thoughts of superiority, all notions of rightness. Few are willing to do such a thing. To gain life, we must lose it.
This is the failure of current notions of “Radical Welcome,” I think, because we cheapen the self-sacrifice made by Jesus and give to the newly welcomed a warped understanding of what it means to enter into the process of re-formation. We tell people that they can remain fully in their own understanding (remain within the Systems of this World) and be of God’s world at the same time. We cannot be of both at the same time – be in the world, but not of it (also a Sufi saying). We cannot love God and “mammon” at the same time. They work against each other, and if we attempt to meld the two (or three or four), then the end result is a deficient experience of the Christian faith.
A problem we witness in hindsight, of course, is that Christians fall into the trap of enculturation all the time (from both the greater culture and the specific sub-culture). We begin demanding, whether consciously or unconsciously, that our own created “Christian System” is of God. Oh, we know so much these days! With the best of our gloriously self-righteous hypocrisy (no less glorious that the best the World has to offer), we place ourselves in God’s stead. Will we ever learn? Will we ever truly enter into Formation? Age old problem. Persistent problem. Nothing new under the sun. Yet, all are not equal. How do we discern the best from the inferior? Such decisions must be made, properly.
What is the solution? What is love? 1 Corinthians 13:3-10, is what love is. What is required of us? Micah 6:8. We don’t want this – it seems too wimpy and ineffectual. It demands way too much of us. See how we have succumbed to the prevailing culture? See how we avoid the difficult decision, the very call of God? You want a “masculine” Christianity? Love your enemy! Profoundly difficult, embarrassing, and effacing. We may actually lose everything! Don’t want to be a part of that! Gimme that old-time religion.
The call is to be re-formed out of our understandable and normal enculturation and into a new way of knowing, experiencing, encountering, expecting, loving, and a new way of recognizing our own self… learning how to love ourselves so that we can honestly love our neighbor – and loving our neighbor is the priority, not loving ourselves.
Certain groups of people believe that if we separate and live a “pure” form of the “faith once delivered” then we will have it down pat! Oh glorious existence. Oh, how wonderful we are. Other groups believe if we simply allow everyone to fully be whatever they want to be, if we simply impose our own new-order, if we enable others to feel good about themselves, then all will be well – utopia found. How enlightened and sophisticated we are, how incredibly clever we are! There have been none like us. Fallacy… willful deception… vainglory. We are warned not to place ourselves in the place of God – to judge when God has reserved that right for Himself. Romans 2.
Enter into re-formation, which is nothing more than ancient Catechesis. The Tradition leads us, Scripture informs us, and the Holy Spirit woos and enables us.
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind! Romans 12:2. This is a life-long process. There are plenty of disruptions, missteps, and pitfalls along the way – the reason why we can be nothing less than humble concerning our own understanding, perception, and knowledge at any point along the way. Judge not, yet we are to maintain Truth. We can only maintain such a thing by giving up ourselves, our lives. We gain life.
These verses often seem clichÃ©, but do we heed their lessons?
1 Corinthians 13:3-10 (NIV)
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)
With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Romans 12:1-2 (TNIV)
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to Godâ€”this is true worship. Do not conform 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 isâ€”his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 2:1-3 (ESV)
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O manâ€”you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourselfâ€”that you will escape the judgment of God?