Reflections and Musings

Barth and Transformation

A post in an occasional series reading through Barth’s early Sermons:9780664233679

Transformation is a buzz word in the church today, particularly in the spiritual formation sector and a number of the blogs I read (I work for a spiritual formation institute, after all). Transformation and spiritual formation in general have been the center of a growing area of questions, the main question being: what’s the point? (Or more charitably: is there a point?). Questions about the impact of spiritual formation in the church are important to ask, as spiritual formation is often co-opted into a kind of “we have the answers or know the path, we’ve got it figured out” situation. But, I wonder if we can be too quick to put off the transforming nature of formation.

I was pleasantly surprised to find transformation is central to Barth’s reflection on Romans 12:1-2. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

This call from Paul forces our hand, makes us face a question: are we willing to risk following Paul’s command? For Barth (at least in 1918) there is a reasonable, and therefore unreasonable, worship of God. [I’ll leave the conversation about whether this is indicative of Barth’s theology, especially his later works, for the Barth scholars.]

Barth drives home the radical and personal nature of Paul’s call. We’re left with no room for excuse: “When the Bible speaks of transformation, it always means the whole, transformed and made new from the ground up” (48.3). This transformation is meant for the readers of Paul’s letter: you and me.

Barth has no time for Sunday morning holiness or some feel good piety, this hard work of transformation takes all week every week:

In the word ‘living’ it is said that our worship of God, in church and at home, on Sunday and during the workweek, must searching, working, struggling, a growing and wanting to grow in insightful knowledge and love, just as a living being is supposed to grow. If we want to be like dead stones, with our minds and hearts fully complete and finished, then we will not be able to understand sermons in church, much less the Bible and life itself. Such dead persons, who do not want to search earnestly and sincerely, understand nothing and necessarily pass God by. For God is a living God.(50.2)

I think part of the skepticism about and hesitance to accept spiritual formation is rooted in the tendency to think once we’ve got formation (never), we’ve got all the answers. The journey ceases to be a journey and we’re sitting at the destination, with no illusions, no questions, no uncertainty.

But, God is a living God, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways not our ways (Isa. 55:8; p. 50). To embrace this place of unease we are forced to sacrifice. Sacrifice our answers, programs, notions that we’ve already arrived. But so often we’d rather avoid this position of sacrifice. For Paul (and Barth) we must present our bodies, the whole of our selves as a sacrifice to God; transformation simply won’t happen with anything less.

I’m hopeful that the field of spiritual formation (discipleship/call it what you will) can live into this idea of search and struggle, a willingness to sacrifice. Otherwise, the church will be left with a dead god, who has nothing to say to us or this world, rather than the living God whose Word confronts and encounters, but also graces and transforms.

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