Friday 7 January 2011

Kyle David Bennett on Discerning the Spirit

In the latest Comment, Kyle David Bennett offers some reflections via Richard J. Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010) and James K.A. Smith’s Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

For his part, Richard Mouw argues that ‘faithfulness to one’s principles and beliefs and politeness to those who disagree with these principles and beliefs is fundamental to any Christian civility’. Yet Mouw also argues that our way of seeing and understanding, informed by God’s revelation, also ‘constitutes the Christian nature of our civility’. So, while anyone can be polite, ‘being polite because of God’s command to be polite and one’s understanding of others as “special creations” of God is a unique characteristic of Christianity’. And, as Mouw notes, we also need to participate in practices that cultivate this sort of understanding.

Thus, as Bennett notes:

‘We need the church. The church, with its liturgical practices and spiritual formation, teaches and forms us to be civil. By its own “civility” and incarnation of a particular perception and way of being in the world, the church cultivates this civility in us... We cannot be civil on our own. To be civil, we need both perception and spirituality, instruction by God and intimacy with God.’

Even so, according to Bennett, the revelation of others as ‘special creatures’ does not exhaust the theological resources for Christian civility.

‘This other layer is God’s presence in creation, and in particular, his action within it. We need a Christian civility that is informed by a thorough sensitivity to the Spirit’s presence and work in the mundane of creation, including our civil encounters. We need a Christian civility that is not only informed by revelation and spirituality, but discerns the Spirit in the civil.’

Bennett appeals here to the work of James Smith. While he is seeking to articulate the contributions to philosophy of a distinctly Pentecostal philosophy and is not directly addressing civility as such, yet Smith argues that a central element of a Pentecostal worldview is the element of surprise – the expectation of surprise, an ‘eye’ for the ‘surprise’ of the Spirit in creation.

Bennett picks up on this, noting:

‘A Christian civility, then, in light of Smith’s challenge, would take note of the Spirit’s presence and work in all aspects and rhythms of creation, including civil encounters... Too many notions of Christian civility assume God is absent or only observing in the everyday events of public life. We need a more trinitarian and eschatological understanding of God’s dynamic relationship to creation and how we relate to God and live within this creation... Such a logic, such an understanding, encourages us to move about the world with fear and delight, being sensitive to the Spirit’s presence and work in all things, including those we come into contact with in public spaces.

And he concludes:

‘We are surrounded by the gracious activity of God. We need to be mindful of this at all times, especially when we are in public spaces. God cannot be monopolized. We need to treat others with civility not only because they are created in God’s image, but also because they may be the very vessel through which God speaks to us and others. It should make a difference to understand that our interaction with others is not only before God, or in response to God, but a result of God and God’s interacting in our interactions. We need to discern the Spirit’s presence and work in our civil encounters, for such discernment is an important layer of a Christian notion of civility.’

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