This came up yesterday in a conversation with one of my grad students as we talked about the “faith formation” of people in a Bible discussion he facilitates. Each week they meet to discuss a different passage of scripture and gain a great deal from their interaction with the text as well as each other. They study “inductively” going from specific observations in the text to more general conclusions and applications of these conclusions to their own context. What we both noticed though was how easy it was for each week’s discussion to stand alone like a single “dot” on a paper without forming a bigger picture of, in this case, the Christian faith.
I was reminded then of a colleague who taught me a great deal about leading Bible discussions of a step he often included that he called “formulation.” We found that in studying a book of the Bible (or another piece of literature for that matter) the writers didn’t simply give us a series of disconnected stories but often traced and developed various themes or motifs through their work. For example, in Mark Jesus speaks of himself as “the son of man”, a term that could mean “a human being” or perhaps something more. Formulation might look at what we observe Jesus saying about “the son of man” throughout Mark. My friend is studying the book of Acts with his group and it contains a number of “sermons” by various figures (probably summaries because most could be read aloud in a minute or so and were probably longer). We talked about how one could develop an idea of these earliest believers grasp of the Christian message by looking for both unique and recurring elements in the sermons.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write book reviews. What I find I am trying to do is boil down works of 100,000 words or more to an 800 word or less summary that “connects the dots” of the main ideas of a work and my reaction to those ideas. I used to be daunted by this task as a grade school-er assigned a book review. I actually think all those Bible study experiences of formulation, of looking for patterns, has helped with that process.
The more challenging task for me, at least, is to do the same thing with life. It’s easy for life to simply feel like a jumble of “experience dots” on a piece of paper. A steady stream of emails, texts, tweets, and posts on news feeds only accentuates this. Periodically I take retreat days. Sometimes I use the practice of examen to review the day. As a Christian I describe my aspiration in life as “following Jesus.” I have to admit that it is not always clear every day where that is taking me. Sometimes these practices of looking back seem crucial to begin to “connect the dots”. I begin to trace some of the patterns of the unique ways Christ is working in my life while other things still seem murky. It doesn’t all make sense, but this reflection gives me enough to see that there is One who is making sense of my life as I go forward.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Steve Jobs said something similar in his Stanford Commencement address in 2005:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”
As a Christian, I think that “something” is the Jesus I follow and that it is a life lived pursuing him that “connects the dots”into something that is not a chaotic jumble. Those times of looking back teach me to trust him as a good guide as well as deepening my self-understanding. But each day faces me afresh with the choice to venture forth into the unknown trusting that it is one more dot in the picture.