Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character. It is a process that happens to everyone.… We each become a certain kind of person in the depths of our being, gaining a specific type of character. — Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart
Formation is inescapable. Through experiences, choices and genetics, we each become a kind of person, and our vision of the world and choices available to us are wound tightly with this character. Any spiritual or moral tradition, from Christianity to Enlightenment rationalism to capitalism (and yes, even existentialism and queer theory), whether possessing the language to say so openly or not, aims to shape that character in a particular direction.
I think this is true. But it stands in a certain tension with queer theory and experience. On a theoretical level, queer perspectives highlight the instability, flux, and oppressive nature of “norms” and call us way from binaries toward fluidity. This seems to push against intentionally seeking formation in a particular way or tradition. More interesting to me is the way that the painful experience of sexual minorities encountering spiritual and religious traditions gives us reason to be wary of the language of formation. Words like “change” and the idea that there is a normal way of being human (heteronormative, cisgendered) that one should aspire toward in order to be healthy, have been destructive for many of us.
In response, much queer spirituality celebrates the individual, the expressive self, and the present goodness of each person. Calls to “change” or “grow” are suspected of being plays of power, oppression and repression, messages of shame against pride in who one discovers oneself to be.
And yet the basic insight of Willard above remains true: we are the kind of creatures who take on, through narrative and experience and relationship, a certain form and then give expression to that form. Certainly this form is a complex interaction between features internal to us and the experiences and teaching we encounter. But even a free expressivism is not natively implanted in us, waiting to be unshackled from the bondage of norms; it too must be formed, we often feel we must strive to release ourselves from the chains of shame and fear and to unmask, to come out, to live our truth. This also is formation, and requires much courageous work (as any queer person knows).
There is much to explore about the interaction of queer experience and formation, but I want to suggest off the bat that these two belong together rather than at odds. At minimum we must admit that no matter what our theories about human life allow us to say, we are always being formed. To be articulate about this allows us to be critical and questioning about the ways we are being formed currently, allows us to ask if the formation we have taken on enables us to be the kinds of people we would like to be. (It will be another question to determine what kind of people we want to be, and why.)
This is a minimal admission to formation. But I would suggest another reason for this conversation: queer people, as with any minority voice, have something critical to add to the formation of all lives. The presence and voices of queer experience contribute to the possibilities for the formation of straight lives. This is not only a matter of queer people accessing the rich resources that exist in the field of spiritual formation; it is also about allowing queer voices to shape that field in new and unexpected ways. I hope to explore these together.