Why diverse conversation partners – both living and literary – matter
On my first day at Regent College I gathered with a dozen fellow students in an assigned study group. Soon first-day jitters dissolved into fascinating conversation. To my right was a judge from Singapore. To my left a woman originally from Germany, now on leave from a corporate position in Washington, D.C. To her left was a young man catching his breath from a season of strenuous outreach work in the Middle East.
Our professor Iwan Russell-Jones took in our faces, each one a slightly different hue. Smiling, he began to speak in a Welsh accent, stout and lilting at the same time.
“We’re told to ‘put on the mind of Christ,’” he began, echoing the Apostle Paul’s exhortations from passages like Philippians 2:5 and 1 Corinthians 2:16. “Look around this circle. Notice the diversity here – different ethnicities, different vocations, different denominations. Each one of us can only have a particular take on the Truth. But together we might have a real shot at putting on the mind of Christ.”
Over time I began to see what Dr. Russell-Jones meant. A judge from Singapore intuitively grasps certain aspects of the Good News that sail right over the head of, say, a songwriter from Canada … and vice versa. We need each other.
I remembered that little study group the other day as I wrestled with questions being posed in an online forum by members of the Renovaré Book Club (an initiative I oversee as Renovaré’s director of education). We had just finished reading The Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th-century classic extolling the virtues of a particularly mystical form of Christian contemplation.
Some participants struggled with the author. With his emphasis on God’s transcendence, wasn’t he missing God’s immanence? With his advice to lay aside all the language and concepts we have for God (recognizing that God can’t be limited to them), wasn’t he underplaying the significance of the Incarnation?
Yes, I agreed, I think the author of The Cloud emphasizes the via negativa – a pathway focused on the incomprehensible mystery of God – too much. I wish he would be more open to the via positiva – an approach that emphasizes the things we can know about God.
Why then, the readers wanted to know, would we include The Cloud of Unknowing in our Christian spiritual formation book club?
I thought about the unknown author of The Cloud. In my imagination he’s young, a bit wan from all that time in the dark contemplating the ineffable, and most definitely a hipster. I saw him sitting in my old Regent College study group, right next to the judge from Singapore. What would they say to one another? Would the author help the judge open himself up to God’s transcendence, even as the judge helped the author embrace God’s immanence? I bet we could have quite a conversation.
Richard Foster, Renovaré’s founder, has long suggested that to read and argue with (and about) books from across the centuries is to join the “Great Conversation about the growth of the soul.” My colleagues at Renovaré are passionate about reading old books in diverse communities. They argue that each society has its own myopias – blind spots undetectable within current cultural conditions. Our only hope of ever becoming aware of these is through serious engagement with disciples who do not share them – disciples from other places and eras.
My study group at Regent, I see now, was larger than I realized. Athanasius was there, helping us see the gospel through Egyptian 4th-century eyes. Julian of Norwich stayed with us a while, offering breathtaking pictures of the love of Christ in sharp relief against the backdrop of plague-ridden, 14th-century England. Calvin, Luther, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross found their way to us from the 16th century – all in dialogue with each other, with the disciples before them, and now with a tiny international study group in Regent’s basement.
Not everyone gets to go to a place like Regent. But I’m willing to bet that, if you’re reading this column, you have access to two important things – people who don’t look and think the same way you do, and a library card.
The Great Conversation awaits.
From my May/June 2019 Faith Today column