The Spirit, “Spontaneity” and Justice

[In light of the events of our time, and occasioned by a question about liturgy and spontaneity that I was asked this week, I thought that reposting this short piece from five years ago might be worthwhile.]

The question got my back up.

It set off a passionate response
disproportionate to the question itself.

There was nothing aggressive
about the question, nor the questioner.
Indeed, the questioner
was a former student of mine,
for whom I have very high regard.

Dave Krause, Amanda Jagt and I were leading a workshop on liturgy
for the Christian Reformed community.
We were sharing some of the resources that had emerged out of our worship life at Wine Before Breakfast.

Dave played some music, Amanda led a prayer litany and we talked about how we shape words in our liturgies.

The question came early in the discussion:

“Is there room for spontaneity in this kind of worship? Is there room for the Spirit when the liturgy is written out like this?”

I could feel my blood pressure rise.
There was something about this question that bothered me deeply.

Was it a sense of defensiveness for the WBB community?

Did I have a notion of liturgical ‘correctness’ that was threatened by this question?

I don’t think so.

I responded by saying that I thought that the question was itself rooted in a particularly prevalent heresy in the church that identified the Holy Spirit with spontaneity.

And not only does this view of the Spirit’s ‘spontaneous’ freedom in fact constrict the work and ministry of the Spirit, but also, so many of these ‘spontaneous’ experiences of the Spirit in worship seem to me to be carefully manufactured and manipulated by a certain style of worship leading.

As I said this, I commented on the fact that my emotions were rather intense in my response.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against spontaneity.

I just don’t think that the identification of the Spirit and spontaneity in worship is right.
Forgive me, but in my experience (for what its worth) I find much of this kind of worship to be neither spontaneous nor very much of the Spirit.

Alright, alright, that is a terrible overstatement,
and I’m even feeling grouchy as I write it.

But here’s the problem.

When we make the Spirit into our own personal pipeline to God,
providing us access to daily, moment by moment divine guidance,
then the Spirit becomes party to our own spiritual narcissism.

Or when the Spirit is identified as the source of spontaneous ecstasy,
the holy provider of psycho-spiritual highs,
then the Spirit becomes something of a divine drug dealer.

I don’t know, it just seems to me that all of this ends up domesticating the Holy Spirit, not setting the Spirit free.

It is all so tame.
It is all so safe.
It is all so contrived.

And … for all of its sense of spiritual immediacy,
its sense of a deeply personal
intimacy with the Spirit,
much of this kind of spirituality strikes me as abstract, disconnected, ethereal.

Am I alone in this?
Do you know what I mean?

If the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters at the dawn of creation;
if the Spirit of God was leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage;
if the Spirit of God inspired Jesus to preach good news to the poor and liberty to captives;
then shouldn’t our experience of this Spirit have something to do with
creational flourishing in the midst of ecological despoliation,
liberation in the face of geo-political violence,
and justice in contrast to oppression?

Don’t get me wrong.
I’m not trying to set up a personal/political dichotomy here.
If there is a division it is between abstract and concrete,
between an ethereal spirituality and an earthly one.

And it is all deeply, deeply personal.
I mean, don’t you find it hard to believe in a Creator God
when you live in a world facing ecological collapse on so many levels?

Don’t you find it hard to believe in a God of love in a world of such insidious and pervasive violence?

Doesn’t injustice on our streets and in the very systems of our world make you doubt all this talk about the Kingdom of God?

This is why we need the Spirit of God.

We need a power that comes from beyond our powerlessness.
We need a vision that we are unable to produce for ourselves.
We need a confirmation of the truth, against the evidence.

This is why we need Pentecost.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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