OK: so this is the sort of word that folks in my circles love to throw around. In fact, it's the favoured self-description of the neo-Calvinism that has played such an important role in the development of my understanding of Christianity. "The Transforming Vision" is, it turns out, a Reformational/neo-Calvinist version of the biblical worldview. And I happlily embraced (and continue to embrace) that vision. But in the past few years I've become more and more restless with the weak view of the church that seems to go with the Reformational tradition. I remember myself struggling with the redundancy of church while studying at ICS: why bother with worshipping on Sundays when I'm worshipping in the library, in the seminar room, in the coffee shop, etc.? That more recent restlessness is due, in part to my immersion in Anglo-Catholicism at King's College Halifax, in part to my mentors in Anglicanism, Paul Friesen and John Stephenson, and in part to the influence of Rowan Williams, IMO currently the world's greatest English-speaking theologian. Anyway, a devaluing of the church may be understandable, given the dualism that the followers of Kuyper had to confront on their arrival in Canada, where "heavenly" and "spiritual" matters were the province of the church and "earthly" and "material" matters were the province of the state or economy. But neither were the Kuyperians helped by that nasty visible/invisible church distinction that Kuyper inherited from the Reformers. In that view, the "true Christians" (which are individual "souls") are known only to God... which makes the "true Church" an invisible (and mystical) rather than visible (and embodied) reality. A disembodied body, as it were.
However, some within the Reformational tradition (notably the prolific and brilliant young philosopher Jamie Smith of Calvin College) are beginning to recover the importance of the church as visible, worshipping, liturgically formed community which grounds and shapes this transforming vision. Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, two friends who have influenced me deeply, are pushing the necessity of community as well, though taking a somewhat different approach from Smith, invoking communitarians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Wendell Berry. (Walsh has also responded strongly to individualist and intellectualist misreadings of The Transforming Vision here). In Smith's case, he's doing it in dialogue with one of the most interesting theological movements of the present time: Radical Orthodoxy. Indeed, a couple of years ago he and Jim Olthuis (my mentor at the Institute for Christian Studies) organized a conference bringing leading lights in the Reformational and RO movements together. The proceedings have now been published here.
All that said, in all this we're really only rediscovering now what Paul knew 2,000 years ago when he uttered those words we Reformationals prize so much: "I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God (in grafting Gentiles into the one community of faith) that you present your bodies as living sacrifices, wholly acceptable to God (a counter to the cult of ancient Israel which excluded Gentiles), which is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world (he'll talk about this in ch. 13), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may discern what is the will of God (be followers of torah), what is good, and acceptable, and perfect" (Rom 12:1-2). We usually stop there and talk about transformation and renewal in all spheres of life: the political, the moral, the scholarly, aesthetic and cultural, etc. What we miss, I think, is Paul's going on to talk about life not in society, but within the church community, and only then the church community's relation to the empire (ch. 13). But then he quickly returns to the question of life in the church community again (the weaker brother in ch. 14).
It sounds obvious. What it means to be transformed is birthed and demonstrated in the life of a community constituted by worship (12:1), by the sharing of ministries (12:3-8), by the maintenance of (counter-imperial) baptismal identity in the disciplining of desire (13:8-14, c.f. Col 3:5-11) and table-hospitality (ch. 14) and in the midst of all this demonstrating this new life to the powers that be (13:1-7). Does this mean that the transformation Paul has in mind is specifically for the church, and not for the state (empire)? Does Paul even envision a transformation of the state (empire) as he imagines a world in which God is all-in-all? He doesn't seem to. From the description of the church, he goes right to a doxology which picks up where he left off in ch. 11, praising the God who has fulfilled his purposes in creating one new community, of Jews and Gentiles (15:7-12).
This reading seems to run counter to some of my Reformational sensibilities, which have taught me to look to the state as polis, the creationally-ordained place where justice is to sought (and thus where Christians concerned for justice should act). But I wonder... do we thereby overlook the church as counter-polis (here Hauerwas is especially helpful)? After all, the state also seeks to (trans)form our subjectivity in terms of its own ideological purposes. I know classical Reformationals will be screaming structure/direction at me by this point! But can a Christian organization--whether an academic institution, labour organization, or political advocacy agency--maintain its Christian identity apart from those very "churchy" practices of baptismal identification, eucharistic hospitality, and liturgical celebration of the alternative power-centre of the universe? (And a word to any King's students who may be reading this: chapel is not an "option" if you take this Christian formation stuff seriously; it's "essential.")
I'll stop ramblin' now.
I'm contemplating some research into this in the southern African context, where African Initiated churches functioned as a kind of counter-polis to the state during apartheid, and continue to do so. In the meantime, any comments are welcome!