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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Ziefle

Four Dimensions of Living

I'm interested in knowing why people change.

I mean by this not simple, relatively inconsequential alterations. Instead, I refer to the large, foundational transformations that human beings can experience. In short, I want to know what conversion is all about.

For someone raised in an evangelistically motivated version of the Christian faith, such curiosity makes sense. Testimonies of faith and conversion--and prayers for those who lives lay outside of the healing work of God--made the idea of religious conversion an ever-present concept for me.

Despite fervent hopes, prayers, and even logical arguments, I also know there are some--many, indeed--who never convert to the faith. There are others out there who experience conversions in different directions. And some whose lives seem resistant to the kind of architectural alterations that any kind of conversion portends. In my now forty years of experience with human beings, I have found this is simply the ways things are. What I what, at present, is to understand the why of conversion.

This past summer I took the opportunity to dig a bit deeper into some theory underneath conversion by reading James Loder's The Transforming Moment. Loder was a twentieth-century scholar and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this book, he outlined what he called "four dimensions" of human existence: the self, the world, the void, and the holy. I find these four a helpful starting point for any discussion of human transformation.

The self is relatively easy to understand, as far as it goes. It is perhaps the most basic unit of our being. As human selves live in the world, they are both impacted by it and are hard at work interpreting it in a way that constructs our own "lived worlds."

To operate only at the level of self and world, though, is for a Loder a two-dimensional existence. We can certainly reflect on things about human thought and development by interrogating just these two factors. But to do so misses a fundamental part of human existence.

The first two dimensions must, for Loder, be considered in light of a third--the void. What he means by this is the simple reality that we are not finite. We have limitations and failures great and small, and are bounded at both ends (and throughout) by the fact of non-existence. Significant amongst all these realities lies the basic fact that one day we will die. Despite many attempts to deny this, this void is always there beneath the surface and at the end of our journey. It is haunting. It is scary. But it is there.

Honest consideration of this "void" is important for three-dimensional human knowing and reflection, and ought not to be ignored but honestly grappled with. We do not always do this, though, and I suspect this is one factor connected to our sometimes lack of change.

For the true "transforming moment," as per Loder, a fourth dimension confronts us even in the midst of our wrestling with the void. This final factor Loder describes, from his Christian viewpoint, as the holy. In the midst of the existential crises portended by the void around and within us, the Spirit of God can encounter us. We might say in this way that true spiritual conversion only happens in dialogue with the void. Anything less is simply not truly or foundationally transformational. Ultimate changes cannot happen without ultimate considerations.

I could go on for some time about Loder's schema, but this is not the medium for it. At this point, I will simply say that I find what he writes to be helpful. In a certain sense, what he tells us is almost painfully obvious. It encapsulates the kind of experience and categories that ring true time and again in the midst of religious conversion. Ideas of self, world, void, and the holy may be seen to echo through St. Augustine's own Confessions and his famous "God-shaped hole" analogy, for instance. And yet, a clear discussion of these four dimensions of existence help to provide an usable operating terminology I'm interested in exploring.

I'll almost certainly return to these things more than once in this blog. For now, perhaps, I simply invite us to consider these four dimensions--especially the latter ones--in our own being. Whether this is a personal historical review or a contemporary challenge is, of course, for us to explore.



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