Christian spiritual formation is about the re-formation of our whole lives around the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a work of identity-formation made complete in the Holy Spirit. But it requires – at some level – our participation, for we are fickle and divided beings.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all disciples of someone or something. The practice of our daily life, with its rituals, personal interactions, acquired knowledge, and embodied expertise coheres according to a particular narrative framework with its own horizon (or hope). This narrative framework is the means by which we receive and construct our identity or our fundamental sense of self and place. That is, we make sense of ourselves and our lives in relationship to a story that both gives meaning to our daily existence and contextualizes it within a horizon or an orientation. The narrative shape of our lives is what helps us to feel like our days in this present time and place are going somewhere. We might call this narrative an “authorizing narrative” in that it is the thread that weaves together the disparate parts of our lives.
The narrative which orients out lives is “authorizing” in that its horizon – its hope or orientation – shapes what we consider good or bad, important or unimportant, constructive or not. If we have integrated this story into our daily lives, then the practice of our life – or rather the practices which make up our life – are shaped by an exemplary character in our story. Our daily life only makes sense if it is a kind of discipleship to this character or ideal.
The unavoidable nature of discipleship is part of being human. Without a narrative-shaped identity, we cannot orient ourselves in social or moral space, nor can we integrate the parts of our lives. Without an authorizing story and a sense of identity, we are dis-oriented and lost. As Charles Taylor says: “to know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (Sources of the Self, 27).
However, for many of us, our work life, church life, and family/neighborhood life participates in fundamentally different narratives and are oriented toward different horizons. As a consumer, I am oriented by the horizon of self-interested rationality or perhaps conspicuous consumption – where my identity is fixed within the horizon and goods of the transaction. Or, as a software engineer for a multinational corporation, my identity is formed within the goods and goals of product excellence or shareholder concerns or corporate goals. These two narratives do not need to cancel each other out. In fact, we often make one authoritative in order to reconcile the competing tensions: we ‘become’ through consumption or through climbing the corporate ladder. But most of us remain divided between competing narratives. In fact, this is one of the singular features of our pluralist, post-modern society: the loss of the meta-narrative. Each community and each person must construct meaning and identity as he or she sees fit.
And so the problem is not only that we are all disciples of someone or something, but we are often poor disciples of that thing because we are divided, confused, and fickle followers. We either have a shallow identity or are in the throes of an identity crisis. Seinfeld is the show about nothing; this is perhaps a metaphor for our modern formation. Our lives are a story about nothing.
What do we make of this? In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a man who spends his whole life in airplanes. He is a consultant for downsizing companies, and so he spends his days traveling all across the United States to help firms lay workers off. Clooney is largely happy with the artificiality of his life. It is a life free from attachments, emotion, and community. His work addresses real people in their real vulnerability, but it does not affect him because he lives largely detached from the concerns of family, community, or even career. After he drops in to deliver devastating news, he quickly disappears back into to recycled air and the perpetual motion of a life in flight. His life is not without orientation, however. He dreams of earning 10 million frequent flyer miles with American Airlines. This life suits Clooney just fine until he is forced to travel with a young manager in the company. With a traveling companion, he must deal with the emotion and inconvenience that comes with relationship and attachment. The artificiality of his life is punctured by the interruption of human contact and – ever-so-slightly – human solidarity. As the story develops, place and relational bonds signify “reality” but also suffering and inconvenience. The audience roots for Clooney to choose a human life; but in the end the suffering of ‘reality’ proves to be too much. He ends up “in the air” as the credits roll.
If Seinfeld gives us a metaphor for our fragmentary formation, Up in the Air demonstrates the root condition: a frenetic, commuter lifestyle where we can largely choose which relational bonds and communities that we will join. Like Clooney, we live our lives “up in the air,” and on the freeways and between various ‘real’ communities, neighborhoods, church groups, and work places. No single relationship or community claims or defines us. Thus, our ‘real’ life is found in the artificiality ‘up in the air.’ And so we seek to be the authors of our own narrative, the spiritual master organizing our own formation, our own horizon within which we try to understand ourselves. We are disciples to so many masters that we become disciples to our desires.
But this is irredeemably shallow. It is no way to live. And it is a path that avoids genuine spiritual formation. For if we are to be formed in and by the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must find our place in an authorizing narrative not our own, and bring the practice of our everyday life within its horizon or orientation. As such, genuine spiritual formation works directly against the dissolution of relationship and the avoidance of place while it works to bring coherence to the multi-faceted practices and commitments of modern life. It is, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the practice of willing “one thing.” Christian spiritual re-formation addresses our condition by giving us the authorizing story of the gospel and particular embodied practices of formation – worship/liturgy, prayer/solitude, sabbath, hospitality – shared with an actual local community.
Several initial questions emerge from this account: (1) What is the horizon opened up by the gospel story? And how does this horizon include and shape the practice of our everyday life? Dallas Willard calls this the vision necessary for any journey of formation. (2) What is the process by which we are formed? Willard calls this the question of means: what practices do we have to help re-form our mind, heart, body, and community within the story of the gospel?
The first set of questions invite us into a missiological engagement with the biblical texts. What resources, visions, and pictures of spiritual formation are given in the Scriptures? And how do these resources challenge, shape, and/or deepen the ordinary commitments of our modern life? The second set of questions invite us to consider everything from theological anthropology to pedagogy in relationship to the rich heritage of spiritual practices within the Christian tradition. If we are to participate in the re-formation of our identity around the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must attend carefully to both by the grace of God in the Holy Spirit.