The promise of change and transformation is captivating to the human spirit. For followers of Jesus, transformation is supposed to occur as a result of Christian faith and living. Revelation 21:5 echoes the declaration in Isaiah, “Behold, I make all things new …. The formers things will not come to mind” (Isa 65:17). In Romans, Paul’s message pivots from how things have been to advocate for what a life in Christ is meant to be when he urges his readers “not [to] conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” in order to know God’s perfect will (Rom 12:2). Being freed from past wrongs and injuries to live in new and life-giving ways is an expected part of the Christian life. As such, transformation – or at least the idea of it – can become so revered and desired that it attains the lofty status of an undeniable, sought-after good.
The potential for possibility as a result of transformation is imbued with such power that it isn’t the exclusive domain of Christian faith. Advertisers understand this universal, almost innate, appeal for life-changing potential and market their products accordingly. Whether it be smart stovetop cookware hawked on a twenty-four-hour shopping channel (yes, “pantelligence” is a real thing) or a faux leather journal propped artfully in a gift story display with the single word “TRANSFORMED” embossed on its cover, nearly every product and even possible experience imagined (think “life-changing mission trip”) is branded as such. Unfortunately, in its over-usage, transformation can end up meaning very little.
For the Christian disciple seeking to live a life of authentic discipleship, transformation can become something of a quagmire. How do Christians live into a concept that is as compelling as it is ubiquitous? The question itself is fraught with others regarding the nature, object, and agency of transformation.
Here I begin a series of posts that will address questions like these.
Transformation, by virtue of the word, is different from, but related to the formation that happens as a result of participating in life. Formation is what occurs as a result of encountering the world and the process of being shaped by its messages and meanings, making sense of the world in order to navigate it. Most often, especially early in life, relationships with family and those our family interact with are responsible for our formation. As we grow and develop, engaging the wider world and culture at large our formative influences and experiences expand as well. The books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to and the activities or sports we participate in all make impressions on us, forming us in various ways. Christian formation, specifically, refers to the particular ways in which the gospel shapes us and helps us process the world in response to God’s goodness. Horace Bushnell, nineteenth century theologian and author of Christian Nurture, summarizes the essence of Christian formation when he advocated that children should grow up Christian and never know their selves to be anything else.
Formation happens to each of us, both in the implicit ways we receive nurture and encouragement and the explicit ways when those invested in our learning and development provide appropriate challenge and critique. We might participate in our own formation as we assimilate or even expand our understanding of the world as we encounter new experiences and knowledge, but the ways in which we are formed does not necessarily constitute transformation.
In contrast to formation, transformation is a process that deliberately goes against the ways in which we have been formed, quite literally changing them. Transformational learning theorists assert that acquiring new knowledge in order to see further by expanding our horizons does not constitute transformation. However, when new knowledge causes us to dismantle our prior perceptions (a result of our formation) so that we re-scaffold the totality of our knowledge in such a way that we see the world differently, transformation occurs. Transformation, therefore, is a process in which we actively participate as opposed to formation, which happens to us.
The Christian faith, which understands that God’s ways are not human ways, is transformative of the ways in which the world typically works. Discernment, knowing how the various experiences and practices comport with a life of faithful discipleship or compete against it is key. Within our own Methodist tradition, Wesley’s General Rules – do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God – are, practically speaking, a tried-and-true rubric designed to facilitate Christian transformation. When lived out in community, persons seeking to live in faithful Christian discipleship can undergo transformation as they leave the former things behind and live a new life in Christ.