The Not So Big Faith

A number of years ago I got very into the “Not So Big House” movement, loving Sarah Susanka’s emphasis on great domestic design as a means to maximize comfort. People feel comfortable in small spaces, which is why we gravitate toward window seats and inglenooks, and why everyone crowds together in the kitchen at a party. Small, private, carefully planned spaces are havens. We know what to expect from them, and we feel safe.

I’ve been thinking about that scaffolding of architectural safety this week as I read David Benner’s outstanding book on transformation, Spirituality and the Awakening Self. Notice that I didn’t say the book is about spiritual growth. One of the many helpful clarifications Benner makes is that growth is not the same as transformation, not at all.

Spiritual growth, like a child’s physical growth, is fairly predictable and proceeds according to recognizable milestones, like James Fowler’s famous Stages of Faith. Transformation, however, is altogether different. It requires that we jettison much of the comfort of the Not So Big Faith and take a flying leap. Transformation is not about piety and rules and all the metaphorical inglenooks we’ve invented to make what is strange and overpowering feel reassuringly familiar and domesticated. If religion is about claiming truth (and, for some people, holding a monopoly on truth) transformation is about being possessed by Truth with a capital T (p. 81).

Which is why this book scared the holy crap out of me. And I mean that literally. There’s a lot of “holy” crap I’ve named God, and mistaken for God, in my life. It’s just so much easier that way. I go to church and say my prayers and read my scriptures, often because I feel I am supposed to do these things rather than because I expect to be truly transformed by them. Transformation is scary because it opens the door for everything else to change.

I found Spirituality and the Awakening Self to be a remarkably powerful and hopeful book. It did not burden me as some spirituality books unwittingly burden us readers, by placing the onus of transformation squarely on our shoulders. Instead, Benner repeatedly emphasizes that transformation is not something that we can engineer by our own power. Our spiritual practices can sometimes prepare us for transformation, but they do not conjure it. It is a gift from God. It does not proceed in a linear fashion, leading us ever upward, but through a crazy forty-years-in-the-wilderness pattern that makes sense only in hindsight, if ever.

Benner says that spiritual growth is about the spirit, and is well and good. But transformation is about the health and mission of the soul. I had not thought seriously about the difference between “spirit” and “soul,” but in his hands it is far more than merely a semantic distinction. The soul-centered person can stand in a “reflective space” between herself and the events of her life (p. 121). The soul is grounded in daily reality, not pie-in-the-sky ethereal faith or a sanctimonious denial of human failure. It is the soul that can transcend our Not So Big Faith, requiring “a series of surrenders of the smaller selves” we’ve created to ease our comfortable passage through life (p. 191).

In other words, it may feel warm and cozy sitting here by the fireplace, but it’s time to leave the Not So Big Faith behind. In Sarah Susanka’s writing, she argues that the Not So Big House is merely a launching pad; we embrace comfortable, small spaces at home so that we can better tackle the big and often overwhelming world outside.

So it is with my Not So Big Faith.  It has been a peaceful incubator, but only a way station in the end.

Jana Riess is an acquisitions editor in the publishing industry, primarily acquiring in the areas of religion, history, popular culture, ethics, and biblical studies. She is the author, co-author, or editor of nine books, including Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My NeighborWhat Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as a Spiritual GuideMormonism for Dummies; and The Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published. She currently blogs for Religion News Service.

For more conversation on Spirituality and the Awakening Self, visit the Patheos Book Club.

  • http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca David G. Benner

    You are so right, Jana, about the difference between way stations and destinations. But our faith doesn’t have to be big enough to enable transformation; only big enough to enable us to dare to notice our longings for more than the small safe places we accept for our identity and consciousness. Thanks for your review, and for your encouragement to not settle for less than the warm and cozy places that keep us safe but also keep us immature and less than whole.

    • http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/ Jana

      Thanks so much for reading and responding to the review. I was deeply touched by the book and will be ruminating on it for a long time to come.

  • http://www.oboedire.wordpress.com Steve Harper

    I have just received and am beginning to read Benner’s book, and I agree with his notion that transformation is the key to understanding what the spiritual life is all about.

    I want to share the fact that another good source for viewing the Christian life as “transformation” is E. Stanley Jones. I believe he was ahead of his time in many ways, one of them being his belief that the synonym for Christianity is “transformation.” He wrote a book entitled, How To Be a Transformed Person to deal with this notion, but it comes through in most of his other writings as well.

    I offer him as another source to keep tracking on this essential theme.

  • http://www.exploring-spiritual-development.com Margaret Placentra Johnston

    I have not yet read Spirituality and the Awakening Self, so I am still not so sure about the distinction David Benner makes between spirit and soul, or between spiritual growth and transformation. But a careful reading of James Fowler’s two upper stages – Conjunctive Faith and Universalizing Faith – shows how those two stages can lead to the sort of transformation you speak of.

    While the first four of Fowler’s stages may describe predictable and expected stages in spiritual development, those last two leave lots of room for open-ended discovery, and for a stance where the self is diminished (“a series of surrenders of the smaller selves”) and the distinctions among the beliefs of the different religions, (the Not So Big Faiths) are left behind in favor of a broader, more unitive worldview.

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