This week, Dr. F. LeRon Shults introduced me to a new framework in which to evaluate and pursue spiritual transformation. Following is an attempt to summarize the main body of his teaching. The content is intentionally dense – a summary of three full days of teaching – and, therefore, will not easily lend itself to speed reading. Also, please don’t assume that this accurately represents Shults’ views. I have done my best to faithfully represent his thought, but, obviously, I may have misunderstood some things.
Shults began by speaking of “the delightful terror of theology.” He approaches theology with great fear and earnest desire in order that theology does not descend to mere conceptual constructs. Theology must lead to spirituality. Indeed, true theology is spirituality. Theology that does not lead to this end is simply an exercise in words.
Longing for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
Shults orients his spirituality around the three “transcendentals” – truth, goodness, and beauty. God is the infinite source of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Spiritual transformation takes place in relationship to the God who is the infinite source of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are not just qualities of God. God essence is absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. Our deep desire to experience these “transcendentals” drives our pursuit of spiritual transformation.
Truth is more than the apprehension of propositions. The knowledge of propositions – even profound theological propositions – is not inherently transforming. The reason: we long to know and be known. True knowledge of the other goes much deeper than agreement to theological propositions. In other words, a relationship with a significant other involves much more than knowing truths about a person. We do not simply desire to know about a person; we long to existentially know the other. This existential knowledge penetrates deeper than propositions; it involves entering into their very life.
Goodness is more than an attempt to secure “the good” through rules and regulations. Rules and regulations do not necessarily result in the good life. Indeed, they can detract from experiencing the fullness of life. The reason: we long not just to “be good” but to love and be loved in the good life.
Beauty is more than the experience of something pretty or pleasurable. The experience of beauty or pleasure is not inherently spiritually transformative. The reason: we long not just to find an object of beauty and control it. We long to be drawn into a harmonious pattern in relationship to a broader whole. For example, each note has its place in the whole piece of music; in a painting, each color has its place. We long to enter into the harmony of beauty – to belong to and be longing for harmonious community.
To summarize: We long to know and be known in truth, to love and be loved in the good life, and to belong and be longed for in the harmonious beauty of community. Our deep longings for these things – fully satisfied in God, the infinite source of truth, goodness, and beauty – drives our pursuit of spiritual transformation.
Fear and Desire
Spiritual transformation, therefore, takes place through our longings. Our problem is that fear accompanies our longings. In our desire to love and be loved, we fear that the object of our desire will either crush us by the weight of its being or reject and abandon us. We simultaneously push and pull against the object of our desire. If we draw too close, we may be crushed; if we withdraw too far, we may be abandoned.
Through the eternal Spirit of faith, hope, and love we are drawn into God’s life which is absolute knowing, loving, and being. Spiritual transformation occurs as we enter into Jesus’ way of life in his stance toward the Father directed by the Spirit. Jesus loves and is loved, knows and is known, and belongs and longs for the Father through the Spirit of truth, goodness, and beauty (another word for this is “glory”).
All authentic spiritual transformation occurs in the context of relationships – both divine (within the life of the Trinity) and human (within the web of relationships in which we find ourselves). Spirituality is only transformative when it shakes up the relationships in our life. All spirituality is mediated by concrete relationships – to other people, past and future events, ideas, etc. Throughout our three days together, Shults regularly asked us to consider our web of relationships and how God is mediated through them. This emphasis keeps spiritual transformation concrete, dynamic, and relational. It hinders spiritual transformation from descending into an ego-centered exercise in naval-gazing. Spiritual transformation must be embodied, relational, and communal.
Fear and Love
Even though fear and love are interlinked in both the Old and New Testament, fear is often overlooked or undermined in much contemporary Christian spirituality. Evangelicals assume that fear is the opposite of love. They rarely consider that fear is the complement of love.
Godly fear that complements love is not simply terror or a sense of profound awe. Fear arises from the perceived inability to control an existential object. For example, we fear a lion when no cage exists between the animal and ourselves. Without the bars of a cage, the lion is beyond our control. Another example: a single young man in a group of other young men loses his childishness and becomes quiet when a woman he is interested in enters the room. The knowledge that he cannot control the woman brings a sense of fear of looking stupid in her presence.
Shults personalized this by telling us of how he continues to fear his wife. The existential relevance of his wife to his life causes terror. He cannot ultimately control his wife. If he could control her, she would merely be an object – even more, she would possess no existential relevance to him. The loss of the fear of the other in a marriage relationship ultimately results in taking a spouse for granted. When fear fades, so does love. But with the awareness that one cannot control his or her spouse, a healthy fear remains – and love stays alive.
We must maintain and nurture a “delightful terror” and “trembling fascination” toward God. God is the ultimate existentially relevant object over which we have no control. God is absolute in this regard; there is no other reality more existentially relevant to our lives – no reality over which we have less control. For this reason, we must fear God in order to truly love God. We cannot control God, therefore we must fear God.
Spiritual transformation involves controlling our fears. We must embrace our fear of God, for we cannot control God. The fact that we cannot control God makes God the object of absolute desire. Only as we are purged of our fears of other things and nurture fear of God alone will we be spiritual transformed.
The Threefold Path
Shults incorporates the ancient threefold path of purgation, illumination, and union as a general model of spiritual development. Purgation is the painful part of spiritual transformation. The exposure, removal, or restructuring of past habits, attitudes, or thoughts is incredibly difficult to endure. The reason many people make little spiritual progress is because they are unwilling to endure the pain of purgation. We like to live comfortably. We would rather deny, than tend to, the pain in our lives. Yet it is the crucible that purifies us. Therefore, staying in the crucible is necessary to spiritual growth. The crucification of self leads to a new way of seeing the world, that is, it leads to illumination or enlightenment. This new perspective leads to a deeper experience of union with God.
This pattern of purgation, illumination, and union is not inflexibly linear (although this tends to be the normal process of spiritual growth) nor is it a one-time affair (people cycle through this process again and again). Indeed, since God is the absolute infinite we will forever grow to greater depths of intimacy and union, and thus we will forever cycle through these stages (which gives a whole new spin on the suffering that accompanies purgation – maybe all suffering is not bad, after all).
The beauty of this perspective is absolutely compelling: God will everlastingly draw me into ever-deeper desires for him and more intimate union with him. In a marriage, what we really want is to fall ever more deeply in love with another. We do not enter into union as an end, but as the beginning to deeper dimensions of intimacy.
In order to articulate the threefold path in a contemporary way, Shults recommends using the terms intensity (for purgation), intentionality (for illumination), and intimacy (for union). In intensity we pay attention to the tensions in our lives. In intentionality, we understand the divine intention and are tended to by others. In intimacy, we are not fused with or subsumed by God, but rather, enter into a deeper relational union with God.
One important insight from the threefold path is the necessity of suffering in spiritual growth. True progress cannot occur without purgation. God uses the tensions and trials of life as a means of spiritual transformation. In pastoral care of others, we must not immediately seek to alleviate people of their pain. Sometimes, we need to invite people to embrace their pain as a means through which growth occurs. Indeed, we halt the possibility of transformation by denying or anesthetizing it. We cannot be crucified with Christ and simultaneously forget that this includes the bearing of a cross!
This has particular significance in regard to the experience of doubt. Doubt is scary. When others doubt, our common reaction is to call them to stop doubting. But when we do, we halt their spiritual transformation. There is another alternative. Instead of calling people to refrain from doubt, we should invite them to dwell in their doubts. In this way, doubt becomes part of the purgative process – attending to the pain of doubt leads to spiritual transformation.
The depth of a person’s transformation is equivalent to the depth of their experience of purgation. The job of a spiritual friend is to become a non-anxious presence for others. We need not fear doubt – people may be doubting structures/categories that actually hinder their spiritual growth! As we spiritually grow, doubt is no longer a crushing or threatening experience, but a natural part of faith’s formation.
Christianity is not a commodity that makes life easy or comfortable. It is a call to spiritual growth through the intense pain of purgation, the intentionality of illumination, and the intimacy of ever deeper experiences of union with the Divine. In order to experience this, we must lose our self-defenses and learn to trust. This is difficult – all of life is an attempt to defend ourselves against others. Instead, we must open ourselves to God and others, finding our identity and fullness in God alone. Along the way, our personal weaknesses will be exposed, but we must face rather than deny them. When we do, we find that we know more of the power of God in and through our weaknesses – especially when we don’t need our strengths to secure our identity.
Another pastoral insight follows: If spiritual transformation is a journey rather than a destination, we should become familiar with its stages and learn to facilitate growth at each point. As transforming agents of God’s Spirit, we must wisely learn when to “bear with” those who are suffering and when to be a prophetic voice through the insights of our own experience. Those who are suffering deeply usually do not need an illuminative lesson; they simply need us to “bear with” them. In such situations we manifest God’s goodness through our presence in bearing pain with them.
The categories often used to speak of spirituality need to be reformed. Spiritual discussion needs to be liberated from the baggage of modernity and its categories – categories that prohibit us from rightly reading the biblical text and truly experiencing spiritual transformation. Three modern assumptions – the duality of Neo-Platonism, Enlightenment individualism, and Newtonian mechanics – need to excised from our thinking.
The radical duality between the material and immaterial posited by Neo-Platonism impacts much contemporary discussion and experience of spirituality. When matter is defined over against the immaterial, the two are set at odds with one another so that is it very difficult – if not impossible – to reconcile them. The old way of speaking about the importance of the “soul” in contrast to the “body” is rooted in this dichotomy. This is particularly problematic in relationship to our understanding of God. If God is an immaterial substance set over against the material world, how can an immaterial substance relate to the material world? There is no conceptual way to make sense of God or God’s Spirit. Ultimately, this leads to materialism. The deconstruction of neo-platonic dualism allows for the material and immaterial – whether in our concepts of God or humanity – to wholly and truly be united to one another. It is not just the “soul” as some separate essence that is liberated in spirituality, but the whole person.
Enlightenment thinking gave priority to the rational, autonomous individual. The individual was defined completely apart from relationships or community. This made it difficult to explain the need for and importance of community. With the priority of the individual, the social was optional. Under the influence of Enlightenment individualism, salvation became individual, personal liberation from sin. But spirituality is not just about personal liberation; it is about the reconciliation of our relationship to others, liberation from oppressive social structures, and the creation of just social structures. Spirituality is not just “about me” and “my personal relationship with Jesus” but about us and our relationships to one another and to the world. Enlightenment individualism also distorts our understanding of God. If God is viewed as a single subject, then the Trinity vanishes. We are left with a “really big guy” who as an all-powerful will. Ultimately, this leads to Unitarianism. The deconstruction of Enlightenment individualism allows for the full recovery of Trinitarianism and the knowledge of ourselves as rooted in the weave of relationships rather than as isolated, autonomous entities.
The mechanics of Newtonian science radically affected how people viewed the world and God’s relationship to it. In Newtonian mechanics, something is changed or moved in the world by past, sufficient causes. All transformation occurs by one body bumping into another body, determining it in an individual way. Since all events are caused by a previous cause, God was relegated to the “first cause” at the origin in history who set off the first move in a predetermined outcome of events. God’s call and destiny for the world was not viewed with any sense of futurity but completely from the sense of an eternal past. Once the plan was set in motion, the outcome was inevitable – as was every step along the way. This mechanistic view of the world also impacted the Christian doctrine of salvation. Salvation was viewed as a logical, linear progression through a consistent and sequential stage – the “order of salvation” in old textbooks. This is particularly problematic in relationship to our understanding of God. As the first cause, the Spirit can only move from the absolute beginning of all things as the first cause that bumps things into motion. Ultimately, this leads to deism.
Again and again, “substance” language is exposed as the problem that creates misguided categories. We need to move to relational language. This demands that we reform – deconstruct and reconstruct – the categories we use to speak about spirituality. We need a more dynamic, communal, and future-oriented perspective of spirituality.
Our understanding of matter has to be rethought. We are not little bodies atomistically separate from other bodies. Matter is energy in motion. To be real is not be matter over other disparate pieces of reality. To be real is to be connected in a spatio-temporal universe. Most contemporary models of personhood are relational (e.g. systems theory). Persons are defined in relationship. Likewise, God is defined as the eternal communion of persons in loving relationship. The Triune God is the absolute infinite relation.
Talk about the self is implicitly relational. I know who I am by means of my relationship with others. Indeed, I even have a relationship with myself – when I talk about my self, who is talking? In the contemporary understanding of the self, the self emerges from within interpersonal space. A child is known by, named by, and confronted by others. The child’s ego structures emerge as his or her self is affirmed by others. Thus, self emerges in relationships mediated by others. The “I” emerges from our relational field with others. We possess life “in,” “through,” and “with” others. All our knowledge is mediated by others (including our “superego” – “What would my mother think?”).
Our understanding of cause and effect must also be reshaped. Instead of the determinism of Newtonian mechanics, we must embrace emergent complexity. Movement is not simply a matter of mechanistic forces bumping in the past toward a predetermined future. New forms emerge that cannot be predicted from the past. Spirit is not defined over against matter, but as a personal force that pervades all matter. Spiritual transformation begins with living Jesus’ way of relating to the Father in absolute dependence on the Spirit. The emphasis is not on predetermination in the past, but on an eternal future opening up for us in the resurrected Christ and by the Spirit.
When we start with substance rather than relational language, Enlightenment individualism over personal relationality, and Newtonian mechanics over divine futurity, we create our own problems in understanding God, others, and ourselves. Perhaps one of the reasons that the Trinity seems so mysterious is because we begin with modern categories. This is the reason that we must restructure our categories.
Longing for the Absolute Infinite
People experience the true, the good, and the beautiful in different ways and to different degrees. For some (theologians, teachers, etc.) the true will hold the greatest place. For some (activists, ethicists, etc.) the good will be most valued. For others (musicians, artists, etc.) the beautiful will be most alluring. We should not expect all people to express their longings in the same way, toward the same end, or to the same degree. Some will enter into spiritual transformation through the true, others through the good, and others through the beautiful.
Truth, goodness, and beauty are mediated in and through others. We cannot find truth, goodness, and beauty except in relationship to “the other.” Our problem is simple: we fear the other. We desperately want to know and be known, but we are also terrified by it. We fear drawing too close or withdrawing too far from others. We fear because a finite other has the capacity to crush or abandon us. In finding our identity through a finite other, we are constantly threatened by the loss or abandonment of the other.
Only absolute, infinite truth, goodness, and beauty can fully satisfy our longings. However, we must not descend into dualistic categories in regard to the Infinite. A “false infinite” occurs when the infinite is defined over against the finite. When this is done, the infinite is limited by its not being finite. The infinite is not truly infinite, but finite insofar that it does not embrace the finite. Therefore, the infinite is not truly infinite, but bounded by the finite. Ultimately, a false infinite keeps the infinite and finite apart – there is no way for the infinite and finite to mutually relate, since each one is defined over against the other. This has destructive effects on spirituality.
The Infinite is not defined over against the finite (a false infinite). Instead, infinity is intensive infinite. It is distinct from the finite, but overcomes the difference between the finite. It is distinct in that it holds my finitude in tension. Only a true infinite can remain distinct from and yet absolutely pervade the finite.
God’s absolute infinity decreases our fear. A finite person – bound in time, space, and matter – may consume or abandon me. But the absolute infinite cannot consume or abandon me. I cannot be crushed by this absolute infinite because God gives me my very being. I have no being apart from God. In God, I live and move and have my being. All things are from, through, and to God. Furthermore, God cannot and will not abandon me. God satisfies by foundational desire to know and be known in such a way that constitutes my identity by reaching out to ever deeper dimensions of knowing and being known. We experience this by entering into the way of Jesus through the infinite Spirit of God. One constant question we must entertain for spiritual transformation is: Am I being controlled by my fears and desires or by the Spirit?
God calls me to find my identity in God. My life is hid with Christ in God. My identity is not ultimately found in how others react to me. Others may crush/crucify or abandon me. But God will never crush or abandon me. We desperately attempt to secure the true, good, and beautiful in finite relationships and by our own control. A spirituality that does not live in fear of being crushed or abandoned by a finite other because it is rooted in the absolute infinite life of the God will not only transform us, but will be transforming to others. In this way, transforming spirituality is not only about personal transformation, but the transformed person as an agent of transformation in his or her environment.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2006