Eureka moments and transformation

paul on the road to damascus

Paul on the road to Damascus (sixteenth century painting)

By Christine Sorensen

What are your Eureka moments?

‘Eureka’ was the theme of the recent Wisdom’s Feast in Ballarat, picking up an important moment in Australian history, and the notion of sudden creative discovery. There were times to tell stories of ‘eureka moments’ in our own lives and to think of ways that our faith and lives had been transformed. Taking time to hear others’ stories, and remember our own transformative moments, leads to a special thankfulness of the hand of God on our lives.

Sometimes we choose a transformative path. At other times transformation is thrust upon us and how we respond is the measure of the transformation we make.

I suspect, however, that there are many more possible eureka moments in our lives that never come to fruition, because we don’t grasp the opportunity for transformation that is proffered. We stand at the brink and turn away: maybe because the known is safe, or we don’t want to take on the hard work of re-thinking and re-understanding ways of being and doing, or for a myriad other reasons. Do you ever consider moments of possible transformation from which you walked away?

When I use the word ‘transformation’ here I am talking about the kind of transformation that is deep and lasting. Three common characteristics observed about transformative change are that it is radical, discontinuous and generally permanent.

Radical change refers to change in underlying structures: how various parts of a system are organised and relate to each other will undergo rearrangement in transformation. These structures might be individual belief systems, ways of knowing, or even organisational structures.

Discontinuity is based on the limits to incremental change. Sometimes changing little by little gets to a place where no more change is possible and the old has to be replaced or left behind in order for a new way to come into being. For instance adding or removing members to a group may lead to a place where the group realises it needs to function in a different way.

Permanent as a characteristic of transformation is less clear: there is some circularity in the argument, in that if transformation is not permanent then was it transformation anyway? Conversations about apostasy are an example of the controversy regarding permanence in change.

Beyond these three basic characteristics are variables that show differences in how transformation occurs: some of these variables are the time frame, the locus of the change, the active or passive response, and how much of the change is driven by heart (emotion) and head (rationality).

Transformations can be individual or corporate. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is an example of radical, discontinuous, permanent individual transformation: his belief structure changed, his orientation to Christ and what that meant in his understanding of his own heritage changed, and his faith transformation continued in the face of struggle and persecution. A brief reading of the Damascus event could lead to saying Paul’s transformation was sudden, in response to an external locus, leading to an active response, and passionate – but also rational with Paul interrogating his belief structures.

The founding of the Uniting Church could be seen as a case study in corporate transformation. I can recall my mother going to meetings about church union in the ’70s: in New Zealand the churches ultimately did not take on the challenge. The Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches in Australia did. That is something very special now in the DNA of the UCA.

Thinking through the characteristics and variables of the Uniting Church coming into being might help us in our own ongoing transformational challenges. The three basic characteristics are seen in the radical structural change from three denominations into one, discontinuity as the old structures finished and a new entity came into being, and permanent (at least for 40 years).

The variables are quite different to Paul’s sudden individual change. The Uniting Church did not come about suddenly but it was carefully thought through over many years, with reports and revisions of what became the Basis of Union. It was a very active change, well debated across all sections of the participating groups and ultimately deliberately chosen.

It was an internally mediated change; people wanted it and worked for it. Yet at the same time, church union was a response to external global changes in the ways people started to think through faith and church in mid-20th century society. Reading through the reports and the careful thinking and debate around the foundation documents shows that, while there was much rational debate, attention was also paid to the emotions, to the heart that people brought to their denominational traditions.

When thinking of transformation in this way it is clearly something more than superficial change – more than a new sign out the front, different services and programs. As we face opportunities for transformation, for permanent radical discontinuity, it might sound exciting to one, needful to another, and downright scary to everyone.

Managing the time frame, the wrangle of head and heart, internal ownership or externally forced upon us will make a big difference. If you go back to your eureka moments of the past, can you see how your own transformations might have picked up some of these characteristics and variables? What about the opportunities that you didn’t pick up: what variables might have put you off?

I hope that as we come to possible eureka moments we can face them and move into positive transformation in our individual lives and as a church facing an unknown future.

Christine Sorensen
Formation Co-ordinator
Centre for Theology & Ministry

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