Making a Difference: Theological Reflection

by Anthony Reddie.

This Spectrum paper is a reflection, written by Professor Anthony Reddie, on a lecture he gave at the Spectrum conference in May 2022.

In Anthony’s second session, participants engaged in a Bible study entitled ‘Theological Reflection’. Once again, he started with some reflections based on personal experience. The theme was one of how societies and faith communities deal with the challenge of engaging with issues of sameness or homogeneity and difference, or questions of pluralism, i.e. do people need to be the same or have some unified perspectives in order for them to live together and be one?

When is it right that we affirm difference or when is better that we ignore our differences and rather affirm the things that make us more or less or very similar?

 After an initial introduction participants were split into groups and asked to look at Acts 2: vv. 1-11. They were encouraged to reflect on how the dynamics of sameness and difference were played out in the biblical text. After the groups had reflected on the text, on coming back together, they shared their differing perspectives with each other. Then Anthony shared his reflections on the text and how it offers an important mirror to the continued challenges of sameness and difference in contemporary society, where the dangers of nationalism and populism have been exemplified.

The key aspect of Anthony’s reflections was the challenge as to what difference did religious faith make in terms of how we see those who are marked as ‘the other’. How does faith in Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, impact on our social values? This is especially the case when issues of empire and whiteness are deeply embedded in how we see people, especially those of ethnic parentage or who themselves were born beyond the shores of Britain.

Anthony said, ‘In using this text, I would say that my lifelong commitment to social justice, and liberation from oppression for all people, has emanated from the inspiration gained from this text. I continue to believe that the narrative of the first Pentecost has much to teach us as we struggle with the continued challenge of embracing and affirming difference in our contemporary life in 21st century Britain. For a Black Liberation theologian, much of whose work has been critiquing and challenging White norms and assumptions of superiority, I love the way in which Pentecost demolishes any notion of cultural superiority or Government inspired attacks on multiculturalism in favour of the mantra of sameness and integration’.

Pentecost has a special resonance for our increasingly plural and complex world, because any materialist reading of this text affirms notions of difference and particularity. If physical differences are themselves part of the problem for our post modern, differentiated world, then what are we to make of a text in which difference is visibly celebrated?

In the Pentecost narrative, we hear of people speaking in their mother tongue. There is no presumption of pre-eminence in terms of language, culture or expression. The ability to have visions and dream dreams are the preserve of all human kind, irrespective of class, ethnicity or culture. The God of all, in Christ, has called all humanity into an unconditional relationship with the Divine, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For Methodists, the inclusivity of Pentecost is a reminder that our founder John Wesley was committed to a gospel that spoke to and was available for all people, irrespective of rank or social status. The ‘Four Alls’ of Methodism is a radical restatement of the availability of grace for all peoples and that this prevenient spark calls us into relationship with God and most crucially, with one another.

Inspiration for social justice emerges from the God who challenges us to seek the good of our neighbour and encourages us to find human fulfilment in radical hospitality, in community with others and communion with God, revealed in Jesus.

Liberation Theology often speaks of ‘Base Communities’  and the term is often associated with Marxism or Communism, but one can argue that the roots of this form of simple, faithful living and the following of Jesus’ message can be found in Acts chapter 2.

This text counters all our bourgeois notions of Christian faith as an expression of self-centred, middle class, consumer style individualism. The transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit does not lead to self centred notions of individual blessing and notions of ‘cheap grace’ as we have been admonished by the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, living in the spirit leads to a renewed commitment to live for and to serve others in the name of Christ.

Questions:

1.  Does Acts chapter 2 really have a socio/political dimension?

2. Where is the Holy Spirit at work ‘on the streets’ these days?

3. How may the Church, your church, speak the language of the people today?

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are from talks by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the third of six coming through the year.

3 thoughts on “Making a Difference: Theological Reflection”

  1. Whenever I travel to London from my small home town, I am fascinated by the variety of people – tall and short, large and small, with differing hairstyles and facial features – and then there are the different ethnic groups. The diversity is tremendous. The expressions on the faces are a reminder that behind the external differences is an even greater range of personalities, of skills and experiences, of joys and sorrows, of hopes and hurts, of fears and faiths. As I surveyed the motley group of people on the tube on my last visit to the capital, I wondered what it means, in the light of the billions of different individuals, to say that (wo)man is made in the image of God.

    Of course, many believe that only a limited number reflect the nature of God. Under apartheid, some church leaders in South Africa taught that only white people were in God’s image and other races were inferior. We saw the dreadful dangers of this kind of thinking during the last century. Others see this limit in terms of religious ideas, rather than race. According to different groups, it is only the elect, or those baptized into the right church, or those “born again”, who are “re-created in God’s image and likeness”.

    If year after year a gardener planted a vast array of different flowers, we would dismiss reports that he only liked red flowers or that he considered tulips the one true plant. The glorious diversity in the world hardly reveals a God who wants everyone to be in the same mould, with the same beliefs and ways of thinking. Being a Christian does not make us better than others (or more loved by God); it makes us better than we were and much better placed to realise our full potential. It should make us more ready to accept others for what God loves in them.

    If God is the source of all the creativity, love and self-sacrifice that exists, has been or is yet to come, his immensity cannot be grasped through intellectual pursuit or adequately described in creeds, texts or teaching. Any definition of God can present only a picture that is limited and very often limiting. We gain the clearest appreciation of his nature as we experience the impact of his presence in people’s lives. That presence is far more widespread and revealed in many more varied ways than is usually acknowledged.

    Traditional teaching that God loves us despite what we are, emphasises our “fallen” nature, our sinfulness and our unworthiness – and creates a culture of self-criticism. We should be much more positive, recognize the spark of God in everyone, and see that God loves people because of what they are and their immense potential. It is when individuals feel valued and are given a clear sense of purpose that they are encouraged to be the best that they can be.

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  2. Thank you, Pavel for your comment.

    I would like to make a personal comment with a question.

    I am:
    – a woman
    – from a working-class background
    – not educated to degree level
    – having some physical challenges/disabilities
    – whitish, but interesting heritage

    When there is an article talking about
    – how WE accept all sorts
    – how there might not be a difference
    – or how difference might be celebrated

    Who are the WE who are deciding?

    I feel that I am in categories which are considered inferior. But I don’t want a patronising acceptance from someone who thinks they are superior.

    Jesus never makes me feel inferior.
    As Pavel says, God loves me as I am.
    And that is the place from which I do my work for God as God guides.

    Margaret

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  3. You are right Margaret, who are the WE who are deciding and what is our criteria for our decisions. It is certainly wrong to have the patronising attitude of someone who thinks they are in a “superior category”, or feels proud in the sense of “Look at me being inclusive”! We have to make decisions regarding difference and inclusiveness not based on what WE think about what WE are doing, but on our ethical concern for the other person. As you and Pavel say “God loves me as I am” and it is our duty to love the other person as they are. Categorising people in terms of race, colour, nationality, sexual orientation etc is not good. Even dividing people into categories such as sinners/the saved, Christians/non-Christians, theists/atheists, good/evil, religious/secular etc are invariably a means of dividing people into an “Us” and a “Them”.

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