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May 27, 2012 | 4:00 p.m. | Day of Pentecost
The Power of Postmodern
John W. Vest
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
As I mentioned during my welcome a little while ago, Presbyterians never seem very sure about the Holy Spirit. Though we tend to use thoroughly Trinitarian language, the Spirit isn’t something we talk about very much. Each year we read this story of Pentecost as a historical memory, but we don’t think much about radical manifestations of the Spirit today. Presbyterians are, after all, the frozen chosen. We don’t generally speak in tongues or display other ecstatic behaviors more typical of Charismatic or Pentecostal Christians.
Of course, there was the one time I thought someone was speaking in tongues during this very service. It was in the early days of the 4:00 service, and the pastors were still getting used to our practice of reading prayer cards during communion. As still happens from time to time, one of my colleagues that day was having trouble reading something listed on a prayer card, and there was a long pause. Suddenly a member of the congregation shouted out, “Shala Shamandhazi!” Another pause. Another shout: “Shala Shamandhazi!” As I heard this happen and watched it unfold, my first thought was, this woman is speaking in tongues. But, as it turns out, Shala Shamandhazi—or something like it, since I’m still not sure—was the name of someone being prayed for and this woman simply wanted to help out the struggling pastor. Crisis averted. No tongue speaking at Fourth Presbyterian Church. We were still decent and in order—and we still are.
I suppose it’s unfair to suggest that Presbyterians don’t think about the Holy Spirit at all. We just don’t get too worked up when we do. But that’s pretty much true about most things Presbyterian.
So what do we do with this story of Pentecost from Acts 2? What might this mean for us, nearly two thousand years later, in a church and cultural context quite different from that of the disciples who experienced this astonishing manifestation of God’s Spirit?
Actually I think paying close attention to the particulars of their context and ours will help us think about what Pentecost might mean for us today. It might help us answer the same question the original observers of Pentecost had: “What does this mean?”
The first century followers of Jesus, the ones who were gathered in that upper room, the ones upon whom the Holy Spirit fell, lived in the context of totalizing imperial control. Though the Roman Empire tolerated some degree of cultural pluralism—the Jews, after all, were mostly allowed to practice their own religion—Roman culture was undeniably dominant and normative. Though local languages were allowed, Latin and Greek were the official languages of the Empire. The military, civil, and cultural power of the Empire was absolute.
Into this context blew the flaming winds of God’s Spirit. Jews from around the known world were gathered in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Pentecost. When the Spirit came upon them, they were amazed to discover that they could communicate despite the language and cultural barriers that separated them. But instead of sharing a single language—the kind of unity imposed by empires—they each heard the others speaking in their very own language. So it wasn’t the case that they suddenly knew a different language. Rather, they heard God’s good news proclaimed in their own language, the language of their hearts and minds.
The community was made one in the midst of great diversity. Yet unity was not achieved at the expense of diversity. Rather, the unity of Pentecost embraced and celebrated diversity and plurality. The unity of the Holy Spirit was not like the totalitarian unity of the Empire. Instead, the unity of the Holy Spirit was multilayered, through and through.
In an age when technology can provide almost instantaneous translation, the specifics of the miracle of Pentecost doesn’t seem all that special. But if we think about our very different cultural context, we might begin to see what the Spirit of Pentecost is breathing into the world today.
As global communication and networking continue to flatten our world, we are becoming more and more aware of the incredible diversity of human culture. In the United States, which has long been shaped by a dominant European culture, it is just a matter of time before current minorities become the majority. Yet churches in the United States are not keeping up with this shift. We are still predominantly white in terms of membership and culture, and it is not at all clear to us what a truly multicultural church might look like.
At the same time, religious diversity is also becoming more and more pronounced in American society. Here again, the church is not doing a good job engaging this growing pluralism. Interreligious dialogue and cooperation is more idealistic than experienced in reality. Cultural engagement with diversity is superficial at best and mired in ignorance at worst. Christian churches have survived, in part, by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the diversity that is growing around us. But this is quickly becoming impossible to do.
Within the church itself, differences and conflicts are tearing us apart. The Protestant impulse to divide and start new churches when conflicts reach a boiling point has resulted in a Christianity that is incredibly fractured. Denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been embroiled in controversial disputes over belief and practice for decades, and the result is that we don’t seem to have much energy for anything other than fighting with ourselves. It’s no wonder we don’t really know how to deal with the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of our nation and world: we can’t even figure out how to manage our own diversity.
The instability created by this diversity is compounded by some broader cultural shifts that the church is also struggling to comprehend and adapt to.
First, we are living in a post-Christendom era. For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the twentieth century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.
Second, we are living in a period of time many have called postmodernity. In the postmodern era, the multifaceted ways in which Western culture was transformed by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment have all been called into question. New ways of perceiving the world and our place in it have taken root. As a waning fixture of a Western culture that is being dramatically reshaped, the church must come to terms with what postmodernism means for our expression of the gospel.
The modern world—the world given birth through the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—was an age of conquest and control, an age of the machine, an age of analysis, an age of secular science, an age that aspired to absolute objectivity, an age of criticism, an age of individualism, an age of consumerism. It was an age in which Protestantism and institutional religion flourished. (This list is drawn from Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, pp. 16–20.)
But in the postmodern world, all of these elements are being challenged and transformed. Postmodern people—people like most of us—are discontent with the supposed triumph of reason, logic, and technology. While we realize the value of these things, we also realize that they have not brought the peace and happiness they promised. And so we challenge old assumptions and authorities. We are suspicious of objectivity and certainty. We embrace ambiguity, paradox, and plurality. We recognize that the world is much too complex for simplistic explanations. We realize that truth may be relative. We long for a sense of community that transcends the limits of excessive individualism.
And whether we embrace it or not, the world is changing—more rapidly, it seems, than the church can keep up with on its own. The multifaceted impact of globalization has flattened our world in a way unprecedented in human history. Networks of innovation and adaptation we cannot see enmesh us in complex connections through such systems as stock markets, gas prices, and global disease. The human condition cannot be understood locally or nationally but only globally. Web 2.0 and wiki culture have changed the way we collaborate and innovate across the globe. Hierarchies and bureaucracies are being eclipsed by flat, decentralized, and egalitarian organizational models. Within these emerging networks of relationships and collaboration, imagination and experimentation drive innovation in new and exciting ways. (Much of this and preceding paragraphs is drawn from the writing I did for the final report of the PCUSA Mid Councils Commission. You can access the full report online.)
If there is to be a contemporary Pentecost, this is the world into which the flaming winds of God’s Spirit will blow. It seems to me that the first-century Pentecost, in which unity of purpose was achieved without sacrificing the diversity of difference, is something we need just as much—if not more—in the twenty-first century. What if, in our postmodern and post-Christendom world, the Spirit of Pentecost was to empower the church to embrace difference and diversity not as a liability but as the greatest gift God has given us?
For the past several weeks I have been enthralled by a theological concept known as polydoxy. Catherine Keller, a theologian at Drew University, and Laurel Schneider, a theologian in our own backyard at Chicago Theological Seminary, have assembled a collection of essays that explore this intriguing concept (Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider, eds., Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation). Orthodoxy is the notion that there is one right way to believe. Polydoxy suggests that perhaps there are multiple right ways to believe.
This is an idea well suited for the postmodern, post-Christendom, pluralistic world I have described. Polydoxy recognizes that Christian theology has always been characterized by multiplicity and diversity, that orthodoxy has always been an illusion advanced by the winners of theological debates. Polydoxy embraces uncertainty and ambiguity, recognizing that it is impossible to know the mysteries of life with any precision. John Calvin knew this when he talked about our propensity for idolatry. Paul Tillich knew this when he talked about the “Protestant Principle” that refuses to make absolute what is relative. And polydoxy is grounded in the relationships that bind us all together, a posture that corresponds well to our flat, networked world.
Could it be that just as God’s Spirit surprised the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost by showing them that each could hear God’s word in their own language, God’s Sprit may surprise the church today by showing us that we can each hear God’s word in different ways and that this is not a problem but a gift? Why must we spend so much energy trying to say who is right and who is wrong? Why must we fight over difference of belief and practice? Why must we view diversity as a danger?
Here in this place, we articulate and share the gospel in a particular way. It doesn’t take much exploration to find in this city other ways of articulating and sharing this good news. Even within this church, each pastor probably does it in a slightly different way. And my hunch is that every individual person gathered here today understands God’s good news in some unique way.
A postmodern polydoxy suggests that this is the way it has always been and always will be. And God’s Spirit—opening our ears, opening our hearts, opening our minds—tells us that this is OK. We don’t need to be in competition with each other. It’s not a zero-sum game: the rightness of one does not necessitate the wrongness of another. God calls us to something much bigger than this.
I don’t believe that God’s Sprit ignited the imaginations of one group of people two thousand years ago and then took the next two thousand years off. God’s Spirit continues to move, continues to inspire, continues to challenge, continues to unsettle, continues to shake things up.
Compared to what we read in Acts 2, it’s a brand new world out there. But God’s Sprit still has something to say. Are we listening?