Sunday, May 18, 2008


Well, Trinity Sunday is upon us. I was thinking I'd be preaching at St Stephen's again. My offering last year, Three Ways to Make Sense of One God, is up on Ekklesia. But due to a bit of a communications confusion, that privilege has now fallen to Bob Burn, and I have been freed to sneak off to Wembley and, um, wave my arms around.

Talking of which (dubious link, this) I have shamefully omitted to offer any reflections on Pentecost this year. I see that some biblical studies I delivered at an ecumenical conference in 2002 are still up on the web, the first of which is entitled, Other Languages: The global connectivity of the Spirit. Here's an excerpt:

"[Some] clues about .. very different ‘global futures’ leap out at us from the old politics of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the new economy of the Holy Spirit made visible in its unexpected nemesis, the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.

"First Babel: ‘And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them…’ (NRSV). And, so the story goes, God confounded the designs of those who wished to rule everything through the architecture of power and its corollary, a universal scientific language. ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their speech there, so that they will not understand one another.

"Of course this mythic reversal has its price. Confusion and dispersal leads to continued division and enmity among peoples, as we know from the promise/judgement dynamic of the Hebrew Scriptures. So what does the typology of Pentecost generate by way of an alternative? Well, contrary to what techno-logic might assume, its new solution is not a super-language, what post-modern philosophers now call a 'meta-narrative'. No, it is a proliferation of tongues once more – but this time with the extraordinary added gift of mutuality, communicability, the ability to live with and even ‘in’ each other’s speech worlds: ‘they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

"At Pentecost the outcome of diversification is not hopeless confusion. Rather, with no diminution of difference, indeed a huge multiplication of it, the various peoples each have the wholly unexpected, fulfilling experience of hearing their own speech picked up, recognised and honoured by the stranger. ‘Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each’.

"This interplay of mutuality based on difference is immensely significant. According to the politics of worldly power difference needs to be contained and restrained. Allowing ‘other languages’ means risking ‘other meanings’. Translation is never exact because the patterns of thinking that accompany distinct speech forms are also different. For those who wish to centralise, to lord it over others, this is disastrous. If you would rule the world you must first rule its meanings. That is true whether you are an ardent secularist or a religious ideologue.

"Systems of domination [Walter Wink] say that only one speech is fully legitimate. Yours. Conflict becomes necessary to subdue the potential for linguistic and political chaos. With a bit of civility mixed in you might just achieve similar control via a contract (a legal arrangement) or a democratic settlement, of course. The assumption in this instance is that the meaning of the ‘acceptable’ rules is determined in the same ways as the meaning of language. Indeed rules are language, to a large extent. But instead of trust and relationship it is hegemony and enforcement that ‘call the shots’.

"Chaos, conflict, contract, control. That is perhaps all that difference can lead to when it is bereft of genuinely loving connectivity. In the taxonomy of the Holy Spirit, however, there is a new possibility abroad. Our differences need not cancel each other out. Instead they hold the potential to become part of that endless interplay of voluntary, proximate relationship we call communion. Freedom thus proves the condition for love (attention to the other, as to ourselves) and vice versa." Full text here.

[Pic: (c) Julees stained glass]

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