I’m now in the sixth year of a Ph.D. program in English literature; odds are there will be a seventh. Being at this stage of things can make for some existential confusion. On the one hand, I’ve become less incompetent than I used to be: I’ve given conference papers that were very well received by respected people in my field. But on the other, I’m not quite yet a colleague on par with the professors on my dissertation committee, as every round of feedback on my work continues to confirm. Writing a dissertation is kind of like being in purgatory: there’s clearly some purpose to the whole thing, and rumor has it that at some point I’ll be allowed to leave, but in the meantime the idea of purificatory suffering more than adequately describes the experience. Under the circumstances, my not actually believing in purgatory offers little consolation.
Even so, grad school has taught me something about being in a state of formation. For me, the idea of formation can’t be separated from the idea of God as Creator. This idea lies very near the core of my faith: it sustains my sense of God’s purposes for human life. In my faith tradition—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons)—we are taught that every human being is a spirit child of God and as such has the potential to become like God. This means that each of us is undergoing a process of creation, one of whose purposes is to make us creators ourselves.
Facing this process inevitably poses some challenges. For one, we usually only see the hoped-for outcome through a glass, darkly. A major part of our challenge is figuring out just what it is we’re working toward.
What might look like a failure of imagination, however, could more optimistically be described as an invitation to respond creatively. After his wife’s death, C. S. Lewis wrote that God often plays the iconoclast with the pictures that we create of him. Time and again, we find ourselves faced with a pile of shards where once we thought we had perhaps begun to understand something about God. In such circumstances, how shall we remain faithful, when we can hardly be sure of what we should even be faithful to?
Latter-day Saints do not believe in creation ex nihilo, or the idea that God created the universe out of nothing. Rather, we believe that God took pre-existing matter and organized it into something beautiful and majestic, perfectly suited to his purposes. In our crises of faith we can look to this example.
Like the French bricoleur, who imaginatively repurposes whatever happens to be lying about in order to make something new, our aim is not to reconstitute the old, just as it always had been, but to salvage what we can from its fragments, bending and twisting the pieces until something workable begins to emerge. If our early creations resemble preschool art projects, with random bits of construction paper glued together, we may aspire in time to pull off something on the order of Matisse’s marvelous late work with paper cutouts (click on “Collection,” then “Les oeuvres,” then “Gouaches découpées”; read more here). Similar materials: radically different results.
Getting from our first tentative efforts with paper and scissors to work on the level of Matisse (or something greater, if we can but imagine it) will probably involve more false starts than we care to admit to ourselves in the present. We are all bound to find from time to time that the prospect of repeatedly failing and starting over can be more than a little disheartening. Our own actions, along with the actions of others, often make discouragement seem like the only fitting response to reality as we know it. Creativity means choosing life over despair, refusing ultimately to fail.
This brings me to a crucial point about being in a state of formation: we’re all in this together. Although our circumstances differ considerably, in many respects we’re up against similar things. I believe that this recognition of some common thread running through the diversity of human experience helps to explain why religion speaks so powerfully to many people, and why even religion cannot claim a monopoly on compassion, sympathy, and service. Even if we must ultimately face some aspects of life alone, we look out into the various collectives in which we participate for guidance and comfort. Or we see the thread and imagine new collectives that might fill these needs.
My dissertation work illustrates what I’m talking about. Most of my working time is spent holed up alone, staring at my computer or a book (or both at the same time). In the end, nobody can write the thing but me. And yet I read lots of academic books, each one representing someone else’s effort at what I’m attempting. Alongside the living communities of family and church that are a source of unequaled energy, these represent another, silent, community from which I draw strength. So the next time you look at a bibliography, don’t stop after raiding it for useful tidbits (though do that, by all means); instead, look beyond its alphabetic artificiality and imagine the process of formation that it records, however obscurely, along with the constellation of assistance that made such formation possible. The thread runs through such places, too, and the potential for energy is there if we will see it.
I’m hoping that State of Formation will enable its contributors and readers to forge a new community, one that can amplify the capacities for good now present in those communities to which we already belong. We’re undertaking a very difficult sort of dialogue here, but also a very necessary one. My hope is that amidst the inevitable spiritual and intellectual dead ends that accompany our various attempts at creation and re-creation, we will never lose the resolve to carry on.