An Article

Last year, I was invite to contribute an article to an edited academic book that sought to bring together different emphases under the theme of “spirits in the world.” It was an honor to be invited as the editors and many of the other contributors are world class theologians. This is, in other words, a work that seeks mature thinking on very complicated subjects. The subject I am to focus on is that of “spirits in history.”

I just sent off my fifth draft to the editors this morning.

I am realizing through this process that I am caught between two realities of my present identity. I am a student, thus a person who has much to learn and, as such, I must remain open to being instructed by those who have much more experience, learning, and authority. They have titles of authority, to be sure, but these are not why I need to listen to them, and learn from them. I really do have a lot to learn and they have the experience to share their learning with me. As such, while I have been given a topic to work out, I have to learn how to orient my contribution within their vision, so that what I write fits with the overall conception of the book as a whole.

On the other side, however, I have what I think is a unique contribution to the subject, one that has been informed by significant thinking, writing, reading on the topics at hand, and one which, I think, is also shaped by my imagination and creativity. One might even say shaped by the Spirit’s work with my spirit in considering the work of spirits in history.

It might be possible, in good academic form, to consider these a dialectic, a thesis and an antitheses that find coherent resolution in the discovery of a synthesis. That would make being a student and being an imaginative contributor two opposing poles, making for a tension that has to be carefully navigated. Maybe this is precisely how to best understand the tension as a lived reality.

I bring this up not to tout my own burgeoning academic contributions, but because as I thought about this I remembered my conflict from last week about church life. I hid the post that tried to, with all manner of prefatory comments, sort out the reasons for my negative reactions to a sermon I agreed with, but here’s my basic summary. The church tends to emphasize exhortation in words and other rhetoric, but does not give the space for discovering how to work out such exhortations in practice. The church is, in my mind, a place not where the word is merely preached but a place where the word is expressed in a manifold of different gifts that are themselves the work of the Spirit of Christ in the midst of the whole Body of Christ. We learn to become in the church that which we are to be in this world. This learning is not at all just about passive listening, but about expressive exploration.

Which means the process of church should, it seems, be similar to the process I described above wherein people are both students and contributors. There never is an instance in which a person is either wholly one or wholly the other. In ideal circumstances these are not set up as contradictory positions, but rather are seen as integrating learning and expressing in a cohesive whole, responding to what others are doing, learning from them, while fully engaged in a contribution of their own.

What I’m coming to see is that instituted passivity undermines not only active contribution but also the passivity itself. As people are confronted by exhortations which are given no clear avenue of response or developed practice, the tension between student and contributor is sharpened, and people cannot live long in this tension. They become either wholly passive, and thus non-responsive, or break free from what they see as the constraints. Some do, certainly, break out as contributory participants in a church, but these tend to be a small percentage, not least because there are often only so many roles that are given contributory status.

And, wow, I’m realizing how much I still need to sort this out by the complex way I’m going about describing it. But, as I said my goal was to write as the words came out, this must be the words are coming out this morning.

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