From our January 19 Meeting

For our first meeting we discussed Kathryn Tanner’s chapter, “The Working of the Spirit” (in Christ the Key, 274–301, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), in which Tanner highlights two competing views of the Holy Spirit, and wonders if perhaps Christianity is strengthened when we hold in concert what may seem to be polarities.

A brief summary of the chapter:

The first view of the Spirit, Tanner posits, tends towards an understanding that the Spirit works instantaneously and dramatically by displacing the fallibility of human nature, and providing a clear and unobstructed message of truth: “God simply spoke to me directly, overthrowing in an instant everything that I would otherwise have believed, and therefore the unquestionable authority of what I now believe is assured” (p. 277).

Tanner sees the working of the Spirit in the second view as one which is far more subtle and sustained, utilizing fallible human processes over time to promote divine will: “When human processes become Spirit-filled… something about their human character changes…. Something definite emerges from our acts in history, as we work together and against one another, something that is not fully imaginable, controllable or foreseeable by us…” (p. 281).

Our group discussion certainly favored (as Tanner herself seemed to favor) the second view of the working of the Spirit. We found relief in the idea that if the Spirit works amidst the messiness and ordinariness of life, then perhaps we do not need to bear the entire burden of responsibility and certainty with regard to the actions of our service. We may proceed in our work with intentionality, trusting that the Spirit is operating amidst our flaws and failures.

We also discussed the remarkable aspect of the Spirit’s progressive nature through time. When the second view of the Spirit is considered, then human history becomes a grand narrative whereby things that happen today do not necessarily happen for us alone, but may be part of an elegant unfolding. As the Spirit works throughout time we find that truth of our narrative has emerged from stories of the past and may be foundational for stories to come.

A third point we considered as we began to merge our theological discussion with our study of trauma theory is that of embodiment. Trauma theory highlights how rooted we humans are within our bodies. Similarly, in Christ, Tanner argues, God located divinity directly within humanity, seeking not to displace the flesh, but rather share a home within the very fabric of humanity: “This lack of competitiveness from God’s side, indeed, is the very prerequisite of incarnation: if the divine is to be one with the human in Christ, the presence of the divinity cannot entail the removal of the human” (p. 296).

Ultimately Tanner is seeking equilibrium between the two views of the working of the Spirit. Somehow we are offered partnership with God in the work of promoting the Holy Kingdom. The acceptance of that call to participation, according to Tanner, elevates the human without displacing the human. We may experience the Spirit in a variety of ways, both dramatic and subtle, yet never at the revocation of our humanity.

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