THOUGHTS ON CHRISTIAN FORMATION: BECOMING WHOLE AND HOLY
I had the privilege of writing a book with two friends and colleagues — Jeannine Brown is a biblical scholar, Carla Dahl is a social scientist, and I am a Christian social ethicist — that sought to explore and model an interdisciplinary conversation about Christian formation. The title of our book is Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2011). Although holiness is a recognizable and highly valued concept for me as a Wesleyan, I was less familiar with wholeness, save for basic ideas such as integrity and character. One of the central purposes of our work was to expand our understandings from our various disciplines of how we become the humans God desires us to be, and to make stronger connections between wholeness and holiness as aims of Christian formation.
These basic questions guided our work: What is wholeness? What is holiness? How do we become more whole and holy? What insights are offered from the social sciences (Carla), Scripture (Jeannine), and theology and ethics (me) on the processes and ends of becoming more whole and holy? How do we offer, receive, and integrate our respective findings in order to move toward a “thicker” understanding of Christian formation? Based on the experience of writing a three-authored book with an interdisciplinary method, I offer the following discoveries about an integrative process and goal of Christian formation and how this integration might happen in our churches.
Christian formation requires a relational context. It occurs in relationship with the Trinitarian God and in relationship with others. Carla refers frequently to the “crucible” of formation, the places “we encounter anxiety, anger, sadness, questions, risk, shame, regret, chaos, and truth,” where we might “encounter ourselves and God and become aware of the impact — both for good and for harm — that others have on us and we on them” (19). Given the flux, indeterminacy, and unpredictability of some human relationships, Christian formation requires a stable grounding in a relationship with God. God is relational, a divine community of three persons who invites us into this relationship as participants (2 Pet 1:3-11). God is the Whole and Holy One who is trustworthy, good, righteous, merciful, hospitable, loving, and just. God invites us into the process of formation and makes possible our whole and holy formation into a Christ-like image through the work of the Holy Spirit. God cares about who we are and who we are becoming and makes our wholeness and holiness possible through God’s live-giving, gracious, and nourishing love. Our relationships with God provide this open, relational invitation to becoming more whole and holy.
It is not, however, in relationship with God alone that we are assisted in becoming more whole and holy. The nature of our relationships with others in our various communities is crucial to our formation. Most of us know firsthand the ways in which relationships have shaped us for good or for ill. Our lives begin through relationships since, “we come into existence through” them and we are sustained in them (118). We can also be damaged and even destroyed in our relationships. Although many of us may already affirm the relational dimensions of Christian formation, it is important to pay attention to the quality of these relationships that form us. Just as individuals can be ill-formed, so too can communities, and these communities can in turn contribute to the malformation of their members.
Our faith communities, therefore, more than ever, ought to pay close attention to the ways in which its members can become better “crucibles” of formation. We do this by attending to how we structure our lives, respecting human beings as created in God’s image, paying attention to the values around which we explicitly and implicitly order our common life, receiving questions, honoring differences, practicing hospitality and generosity, and working for justice in these relationships as we do in the world. It is important to remember how “the Trinity does not just provide us a model for human relationality. It also gives us a way to make moral assessments about the quality of these relationships by contributing to our understanding of justice, righteousness, protection of being and fostering of becoming, and the renewal and re-creation of God’s intended purposes” (123).
While Christian formation is deeply relational, it also has vital content that provides the second thread running through our work. While the Trinity provides the relational context for Christian formation, along with our relationships with others, the biblical story grounds and guides our formation in a variety of ways. We are created in the image of God to be the human beings God desires us to be. Jeannine writes that “built into human being is human becoming.... [T]his incompleteness, rooted in finitude, sets humanity on a trajectory of growth and formation and invites human participation in the work of God through imaging God” (67). God creates us as finite, limited, and dependent creatures.
Although we may have problems coming to grips with our creaturely existence, it is in our humanness, our embodiment that we become more whole and holy, not in some surreal, incorporeal, ethereal existence. Human sin impedes formation by denying what is fundamental about our existence: we are made to be dependent on God and interdependent with God’s creation. This denial of our created dependence on God leads to idolatry, pride, a will to power over others, a denial of others’ dignity and humanity due to our failure to recognize our connections with others as human beings created in God’s image. This not only perverts our formation, but it has deleterious effects on the ways in which others are prevented from living the whole and holy lives that God intends.
Thankfully, this is not the conclusion to the biblical story nor is it the last word about what it means to be human. We have been offered the hope and possibility of the restoration of our humanity and our reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. “In Christ” our humanity is restored, and our relationships with God and others are reconciled. Jeannine writes that, “Participation in Jesus the Messiah forms the believing community into his image, fulfilling humanity’s vocation to image God” (75).
Christian formation has a distinctive “cruciformity,” since “Messiah Jesus imaged and images God through his perfectly faithful and loving life and death. Christians are to take the shape of this Jesus as they participate in and benefit from his faithfulness and love” (75). While a high view of Jesus’ divinity is essential for understanding the significance his life, death, and resurrection, Christian formation must be grounded in and guided by the actual life of Jesus as we know it in the Gospels. Jesus was a human, like us in many ways, but so unlike us in the kind of whole and holy life he lived in fulfillment of God’s mission to love and reconcile the world. Christian formation is “Christian” in that it is patterned after Jesus. To become more whole and holy is to become like Jesus in our particular humanity through participation in God’s good work in the world.
While Christian formation is relational, Christocentric, and ongoing, it is guided by a vision of God’s purposes for the creation God loves. Carla explores the process of formation as growth in love for God and for others as we learn to be and become more loving and hospitable. It is important to remember “how much we are loved by God” in order for God’s love to give shape and direction to being formed into a kind of person who loves openly and hospitably as God does (36). Becoming more loving is not just a goal of Christian formation, but also part of the process as we are loved by God, as we love others, and as we receive love from others. Jeannine proposes that Christian formation has an eschatological vision in that the day will come when “fullness of life and wholeness will mark God’s people and all creation” (76). This image of reconciliation across all the barriers that divide us, such as race, class, and gender, impinges on our lives now as we work with the vision of complete wholeness and holiness in view.
As a Christian ethicist, I suggest the ends of Christian formation have deep moral implications. Since God is the ultimate source of goodness, our participation in Christ and the inculcation of the virtuous fruit of the Holy Spirit are means by which we take part now in God’s own moral goodness as we are guided by the “orienting vision of shalom as a gift of grace, out of God’s own desire for justice and right relations between everything God created” (132). An integrating Christian formation incorporates this vision of God’s intentions for the creation God loves with the means of learning and embodying this vision in our practices. Practices are crucial means for forming us into more whole and holy persons. Practices are important avenues for sanctification, in that they form, train, and dispose us to live in more Christian ways and to embody God’s moral vision in the things we actually do. The purposes of God are incarnated in our practices, helping us to pattern our lives after God’s whole and holy love, while we extend this love to others in justice, hospitality, and generosity.
A final thread running through our book is the integrated relationship between wholeness and holiness in Christian formation. We are always in the process of becoming who God desires us to be in a trusting and loving relationship with God and others. We describe holiness as “living rightly in relation to God and in our contextual and relational networks, ever aware of the dialectic between distinctiveness and connection” (153). Holiness is just as much about who we are as with how we live in grateful obedience. Many of us may have imbibed ideas of holiness along the lines of “do not do this” or “do not do that.” Holiness may have for others a very negative connotation of denial or withdrawal from the “big bad world.” Some may see holiness as an elusive standard of behavior reserved for the particularly pious. Yet we are to “be holy” as God is holy (Lev 20:7; 1 Pet 1:13-16). This kind of holiness modeled on God’s own holiness is communal, covenantal, and missional. We are “set apart” to become the persons God created us to be in partnership with God as ambassadors of reconciliation.
An integrative understanding of wholeness “involves communal well-being and equity (shalom) as well as personal completeness and integration — an undivided self that exhibits full consonance between who one is and what one does” (153). How are wholeness and holiness related? As we accept the relational invitation to be and become the persons God created us to be, we grasp more completely how holiness becomes a means for living in the world in wholesome ways for the benefit of all God’s creation. As we become more loving, more just, more compassionate, more merciful, and more generous, we are also becoming more integrated into the life of God made possible by the sanctifying work of the Spirit. As we become more whole and holy, we become more like Christ.
In practices of ministry, it is important to affirm that Christian formation is a process, one that cannot be forced into a one-size-fits-all-pattern, nor scripted for the sake of convenience and control. We are always in the process of formation as we open our lives before God and others for the purpose of being in these relationships and becoming more loving, just, whole, and holy as the goal of Christian formation. Yes, Christian formation is a journey but it is a journey with a vision for what it means to be and become more whole and holy as God intends. Grasping this vision and holding it forth for others is important. This journey toward wholeness and holiness does not meander aimlessly. It requires a steady path, one that is deliberate and intentional.
Although we are created to be and become the image of God, becoming whole and holy is not guaranteed or automatic. It takes time, attention, and intentionality. We can aid in this process by creating contexts more amenable to Christian formation — contexts that invite questions, hold in tension our doubts, trust in the Spirit’s work in the life of God’s people, provide experiences that challenge and shape, and listening to how God is already at work in our lives. The resources and practices of Christian faith are crucial for an integrative process of formation. Reading Scripture together, serving together, prayer, worship, meditation, and self-reflection are just a few practices from our traditions that are given to our communities as gifts of God for our formation and faithful living.
Although pastors and leaders cannot force people to be formed, we have a significant role to play in creating environments where formation is valued and desired, and perhaps might be more likely than not. It is important, therefore, to pay attention to our own whole and holy formation. This requires time, intentionality, and a commitment to community on our part by “being” in the places and relationships where we might “become” more attuned to God’s whole and holy ways. Given the power and place that most pastors have in churches, we have important opportunities to influence others in sermons, worship experiences, educational programs, mission commitments, and community involvement, and to take part in forming the people of God. As God invites us into the process of becoming more whole and holy, we, too, can more explicitly invite congregants into the places and experiences of whole and holy formation. In doing so, perhaps we will be and become the persons God needs for the whole and holy renewal of the creation God loves and still works to redeem.
By Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Ph.D., professor of ethics and theology, Ashland Theology Seminary, and author of Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Brazos,2008).