Spirit at Work

Sometimes a word can capture our imagination and we can use it to bring deeper understanding to many situations. Such a word is “dialectic.” It is derived from the Greek word for conversation. In ancient Greece, Socrates made this word famous by his practice of exposing false beliefs and arriving at truths through dialogue with people─known as the Socratic Method.

In time, the term has taken on expanded notions. Here we will use dialectic to mean reasoning that entertains opposed ideas or elements and that seeks to resolve their conflict. We plan to show that when we can spot dialectic in the spiritual life, we can spot the Spirit at work.

Gospel Dialectic. Gospel means “good news”. Theologian Douglas John Hall explains that news refers to something that is not yet already known or realized, and that it is “good” as opposed to “bad” news: “The good news is good because it challenges and displaces bad news. Gospel addresses us at the place where we are overwhelmed by an awareness of what is wrong with the world and with ourselves in it. It is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.” That is dialectic!

Gospel has to be discovered in the situation we are in, and it is never easy because it plunges us into the thick of things. When the Jews were being rounded up in Nazi Germany, a bishop asked himself how he could begin to protest and proclaim the gospel in that situation. He resolved the dialectic by declaring: “Gospel today is this: Jesus Christ was a Jew!” The Spirit was at work! If the Gospels are not challenging or surprising us, we are not looking deeply enough into ourselves or our world.

Spiritual Dialectic. In the spiritual life, we experience something like the good news/bad news tension of the Gospels when we deeply undergo opposing experiences in short order: now our woundedness and then the Spirit’s call to healing or wholeness; or now our personal conflictedness and then our awareness of the Spirit’s guidance; or now our powerlessness and then the realization of the Spirit’s self-giving.

In each case, two opposing experiences. One, a very negative but necessary insight. The other, a very positive and uplifting insight. Do we dismiss the negative insight and grab onto the positive one? No, we must hold onto these opposing insights in creative tension, not in some diluted form, but at the same time fully feeling both. We must look for the dialectic to be resolved, and await “another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.” In other words, the Spirit is at work and his gifts are not far behind!

Another example. We experience heartfelt understanding of Jesus’ love for us in His passion and death. We also get some insight into the mysterious connection of our woun-dedness with Jesus’ suffering. Again, two opposing experiences. The result could be dis-couragement or loss of self-esteem. But that is not the Spirit’s way. The Spirit gives cour-age and consolation. Again, fully enter into the opposing experiences, and let the Spirit work at producing in you radical love of God and others. The Spirit resolves the dialectic!

At the heart of the spiritual life, we experience dialectic. We are programmed for relationship with an Infinite Being, an Infinite Lover, but we are powerless to carry on such a relationship. Who can carry on a relationship with an Infinite Being? By ourselves we can’t. We must acknowledge our powerlessness and call upon the Spirit to empower us to relate to the Infinite Lover. At the same time, we must act as if everything depended on us and hope that the Spirit will bring some good out of our fumbling actions. Let the Spirit resolve the dialectic!

Communal Dialectic. Where there is more than one person, there is disagreement. That is true of marriages, civil and faith communities. We must seek to find “another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.” We must dialogue. We must look for the Spirit to work his miracle and resolve the dialectic.

The spiritual genius of Pope John XXlll was to call the Church into dialogue with other Christians, Eastern and Western thinkers, and the modern world. One notable result was the Ecumenical Movement where opposing faiths worked out a dialectical development of doctrine without losing their core beliefs. The Spirit was and is at work!