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Reframing Spiritual Formation and Transformation

Dr Alex Tang


What makes people change? How do they change? These are the questions that scholars of spiritual formation and transformation are asking. We shall examine spiritual formation and transformation in order to answer what and how do people change. Aside from theology, I will draw upon the developmental and system theories of social sciences to help us to understand spiritual formation and transformation. Social sciences gives us the insight into the epistemological (knowing), ethical (acting), and ontological (being) processes of spiritual formation and transformation.

Formation and Transformation

Broadly, changes in a person may be considered first-order if it involves coping mechanisms in order to reduce anxiety. It is primarily behavioural. This is confined to the context in which the person finds himself or herself to be. First-order change may be considered spiritual formation. In a Christian context, a person may find that he or she fits into the Christian faith community by adopting the behavioural practices of the community in order to experience the sense of belonging.

Second-order change is more complex and involves a development of a new way of knowing and relating to a person’s perception of reality. It involves profound changes in self-identity and understanding of the “meaning of life.” In religious context, it means a new revelation and relation to the sacred.  This is akin to Reformed Christian educator James Loder’s “convictional knowing” and is spiritual transformation (1989, 93-122). Christian spiritual transformation is solely the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 10-16). Spiritual transformation may be instantaneous or gradual over a few years.

The key to spiritual formation and transformation is both the work of the Holy Spirit and the willingness of a person to yield to the Spirit. Hence spiritual formation may not lead to transformation. However, spiritual formation provides the fertile soil in which transformation may take place. Many spiritual writers describe spiritual formation as ‘planting of seeds.” The dynamic process of spiritual transformation is often sparked by a period of conflict. Loder expands our understanding of this process in his “logic of transformation’ built upon the foundation of his “four dimensions of (human) being” (1989, 67-91).

Dimensions of Our Being

According to Loder, there are four dimensions that make up our being. These are self, world, void and the Holy. The “world” also known as “lived world” is our construct of the reality we live in. It gives context to our knowing and a foundation to build our relationships. The “self” is us as the knower. The “void” is the source of our fear because it is a negation of our world. The void has many faces such as death, emptiness, lostness and non-existence. Whenever the void encroaches on our lived world, it creates a point of conflict. The self will try to restore the balance because the self will not be able to live in the void. “The Holy” offers the self a sense of transcendent. The sense of transcendent is the antidote to the void. The way the self deals with the conflict caused by void in our world is a process which Loder calls a “logic of transformation” in The Transforming Moment [1] (1989, 35-44). If the process is to be successful it requires the assistance of the Holy. A new balance will then be created. This balance will have a new world that has been reconstructed during the process of transformation. Loder calls this new world “convictional knowing” as it involves a new way of looking at things and a new world view. Acknowledging the role of the Holy, he describes “[c]onvictional knowing is the patterned process by which the Holy Spirit transforms all transformations of the human spirit” (1989, 93).

The Logic of Transformation

Loder perceives that the logic of transformation as a knowing event.  Transformation is a knowing event because it is the process in which the self (knower) comes to a discovery of a new way of knowing. The logic of transformation occurs in a series of consequential steps in which there are continuity and discontinuity; (1) conflict, (2) interlude for scanning, (3) constructive act of imagination, (4) release and opening, and (5) interpretation.

Conflict occurs wherever there is a discontinuity in our lived world. It may be an adverse incident such as an accident, an illness, loss of a loved one, or a sense of restlessness which threatened the continuity or stability of our lived world. Such a conflict may arise out of our consciousness or unconsciousness. The conflict provokes painful anxiety.

Our “self” cannot live with this anxiety. As a “knower” it is not comfortable with not knowing. Therefore it begins scanning for possible ways to resolve the conflict and reduces the anxiety level. This scanning may be both conscious and unconscious acts occurring concurrently. This period of scanning may last moments or years.

Suddenly a solution appears. This solution may not be due to logical reasoning but by a constructive act of imagination. Two or more non-compatible solutions may come together to produce a workable resolution to the conflict. Loder describes this as “insight felt with intuitive force” (1989, 3). This is the key process in transformation.

The appearance of the solution, sometimes known as the “aha” moment is accompanied by the release of energy which is the response of our unconscious and reduces the anxiety level. Simultaneously there is the opening of the knower to new and expanded knowing or consciousness. This opening is a response of our conscious. Our knowing is expanded by this opening resulting in a transformed lived world where we are able to see thing clearer than before. It involves our renew self-identity and our relationship to our lived world.

The final stage is the step of interpretation where we used our transformed knowing to rebuild or improved upon our lived world. This reworking may be forward and backwards. In reworking our lives forward, which Loder named “correspondence” we now live our lives with a renewed sense of identity and purpose. In reworking backward or “congruence” we are able to understand our past experiences in a new light due to our new understanding.

By the process of the logic of transformation, the conflict caused by the void encroaching into our world is resolved by a new or transformed way knowing which has reconstructed our world to this new way of knowing. The logic of transformation is facilitated by the Holy in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The journey of spiritual formation and transformation

Spiritual transformation is not a once-off process but is a repeating process as we growing in our spiritual journey transforming our being into one like Christ or Christ-likeness (Gal. 4:19). Robert Wuthrow (1998) from his study of the North American spirituality discerned a continual movement of people between the spiritualities of dwelling and seeking[2]. Spiritual dwelling is a place of comfort where there is a balance between void and the Holy. A conflict between the void and the Holy is often what thrusts a person into a spiritual seeking. Such a seeking will continue until a resolution is achieved involving a transformation. However, for some people, such resolution is not achieved and they continue to wander in their seeking. Building upon Loder’s work of the logic of transformation and the dimension of the being, Reformed theologian Leron Shults and psychologist Steven Sandage in Transforming Spirituality (2006) offers a better understanding of our spiritual journey of formation and transformation in their intensification model of spiritual transformation. The diagram below illustrates the relation of spiritual dwelling and seeking in their model.


Figure 1: Balancing Spiritual Dwelling and Seeking[3]

(Shults & Sandage, 2006; developed by D. & B. Fairfield)

In their intensification model of spiritual transformation, the internal ring represents the “cycle” of spiritual dwelling, using Wuthnow’s term. It includes “connection to a spiritual community and tradition that legitimize certain rituals and spiritual practices and provides a sense of continuity to spiritual experience” (2006, 32). Staying in the cycle of spiritual dwelling may lead to boredom and spiritual stagnation. This may lead some to move out to the outer cycle of spiritual seeking which may lead to “systemic and redemptive transformation.” When transformed, such persons may re-enter the cycle of spiritual dwelling with a deeper relationship with God and a renewed sense of purpose.

Shults and Sandage’s intensification model of spiritual transformation seems to emphasise more on the outer ring of spiritual seeking than in the inner ring of spiritual dwelling. While agreeing with their model, I will like to suggest that apart from boredom and spiritual stagnancy, acute life events may drive some to move into the cycle of spiritual seeking. As we have seen with Loder’s dimensions of being, any discontinuity of our lived world will create the impetus to seek for a resolution.

I will further like to suggest that the spiritual dwelling is also a place of preparation for the cycle of spiritual seeking. There are many spiritual formative processes that may be embedded within a spiritual dwelling that equips a person for the scanning and constructive act of imagination phase of their transformation. This enculturation of formative elements in a Christian faith community may shorten the time of scanning and also reduce the chances of poor theological choices in the constructive act of imagination. Furthermore, those who re-enter the spiritual dwelling after their experience of transformation may contribute by fine tuning these spiritual formative elements, thus helping others in the same journey.

Finally, the Holy Spirit has a vital role in the transformation process. Though this did not appear in the diagram, Shults acknowledges the importance of the Holy Spirit in stating that “our understanding of the creaturely human spirit will be shaped by (whether consciously or not) by our understanding of the creative divine Spirit” (2006, 39; italics author’s). In the area of formation and transformation, the role of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasised.


Social science theories are helpful in our understanding of spiritual formation and transformation. Spiritual formation is considered first-order change while spiritual transformation is a second-order change. Loder’s dimensions of being give us a map to understand spiritual formation and transformation. The process of spiritual transformation may be observed by Loder’s logic of transformation. Finally Shults and Sandage expand our understanding of the movement between the spiritualities of dwelling and seeking. This paper has shown that an integration of theology and psychology is a valuable way to give us a better understanding of spiritual formation and transformation.


Loder, James E. 1989. The Transforming Moment. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard.

Shults, F.LeRon and Steven J. Sandage. 2006. Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkerley, CA: University of California.


[1] Loder, James E. 1989. The Transforming Moment. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard. James Loder expanded on this in his later book. Loder, James. 1998. The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkerley, CA: University of California.

[3] Shults, F.LeRon and Steven J. Sandage, 2006. Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 33. Shults and Sandage credits couple educators Barbara and Don Fairfield of Landman, MD for developing the original diagram which they have adapted. Sandage first adapted it for his crucible theory of transformation in couples’ relationships and then together with Shults for their intensification model of spiritual transformation.


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