“Enduring foreignness and unfamiliarity.” The implications of Michael Welker’s theology of the Spirit for a theological hermeneutic for strangers

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For a long time the separation of South Africans from one another in every conceivable way brought about serious, disconcerting challenges. Due to numerous divisive measures over many years, people became alienated, estranged from one another, in a variety of ways. For many reasons South Africans are strangers to one another. This essay argues that a biblical and public theology of the Spirit can contribute towards a more differentiated and diversified theological hermeneutics of strangers and can benefit societies that face enduring foreignness and unfamiliarity.

In the first part of the article various discourses about living with strangers are highlighted. The South African public and systematic theologian Dirk J. Smit researched the many, complex challenges emanating from the situation as described above. A thread throughout his research is his quest for a grammar and a frame of reference to address these challenges and to enrich or refine discussions about living together in contemporary societies. He investigated how to refigure discourses about living with strangers and how available discourses help to reflect on others, outsiders, those who are different and who are, in short, strangers. He designed a typology based on a survey of various discourses about living with others in contemporary literature that describe ways, challenges and possibilities of living particularly with strangers. These include the following: the recognition of kin, risking hospitality, reckoning with reciprocity, relying on tolerance, respecting human dignity, rejoicing in difference, restoring justice, resisting the enemy, remembering victims, realising one’s own strangeness, and redeeming kenosis.

The second part of this essay further differentiates and moves beyond several of these discourses. It investigates how a theology of the Spirit surpasses several of these discourses about strangers, referring particularly to the work of Michael Welker, the German systematic theologian who has researched these themes in depth. In his biblical theology he develops, differentiates and redefines at least four theological themes about the Spirit that contribute to a theological hermeneutic for strangers. They are the Spirit that has been poured out; the Spirit and biblical law; the Spirit, creation and new creation; and the Spirit and the coming reign.

In the light of a differentiated redefinition of these four theological themes related to the Spirit, a third section highlights the contribution of a theology of the Spirit to a more differentiated hermeneutic for strangers.

In conclusion it is asked why South African are strangers to one another if a theology of the Spirit contributes to a more differentiated theological hermeneutic for strangers.

A theology of the Spirit that takes the pouring out of the Spirit seriously, therefore underscores the importance of the discourse that rejoices in difference. In an important section in his work with the title God the Spirit, Welker analyses pluralism and individualism. He (1994a:21-27) argues that the Spirit is being revealed in invigorating, pluralistic structures. This is not a disintegrative pluralism, but a pluralism that constitutes enriching, invigorating fields of power (Kraftfelder). It is also not about abstract, uniform individualism that reduces everything to unrealistic equality or to “the ego” or “the subject” (Welker 1994a:21). Instead, the individualism of the Spirit “is marked by diverse concreteness and by concrete diversity, without crumbling into the indeterminate plurality of ‘pure’ individuality. No one is totally the same as others, and no one is unique in every respect” (Welker 1994a:22, my italics). The Spirit of God, in this manner, gives rise to multiple fields of power that are sensitive to differences.

A theology of the Spirit further differentiates and develops discourses that are concerned with a respect for dignity that guarantees respect for and protects the integrity of everyone, including strangers (Smit 2016:21). According to Welker, powerful and invigorating forms of pluralism are to be distinguished from disintegrative and debilitating forms, just like forms of individualism that enrich community are to be distinguished from forms that destroy it. The unity at issue here “permits many hierarchical structures to exist side by side and to alternate with each other” (Welker 1994a:23). Unity and equality are interrelated “with poly-individual diversity and abundance” (Welker 1994a:23). Plurality, therefore, does not simply mean “the infinite diversity of individuals in their respective uniqueness” (Welker 1994a:23).

A theology of the Spirit might in this manner contribute meaningfully to discourses concerned with the resistance of the enemy. The Spirit works union, unanimity and unity among people. The “unity of the Spirit” not only tolerates differences and differentiation, but also maintains and even cultivates differences that do not contradict the intentions of biblical law (Welker 1994a:22). For Welker, the Spirit is effective in such a way that a differentiated, diversified community is not only sensitive to differences, but consistently reduces differences that contradict the biblical laws of justice and mercy and in this way causes alienation (Welker 1994a:23). Enacting these biblical laws that should, according to him, contribute toward a security of expectations, can protect strangers against the so-called enemy, i.e. potential or real enemies who work against justice. Such a theology can also protect the enemy, when resistance turns to revenge, vengeance, retribution. In terms of the discourse regarding evil, such a theology might thus be able to work against the demonisation of the other and of strangers, the ones often regarded as evil.

A theology of the Spirit that differentiates the connection between the Spirit and biblical law furthermore takes up discourses concerned with the restoring of justice. The fact that Welker repeatedly emphasises that the elements of the law are to be expected with a degree of certainty, contributes to discourses reckoning on reciprocity. A Spirit-theology exceeds such discourses due to the fact that indirect reciprocity takes place almost unconsciously. It argues that reciprocity is so deeply interwoven with the fabric of contemporary life that people do not see their relationship with strangers in terms of an ethical or moral task or activity. “They do not feel challenged by the presence of any strangers, they do not consciously regard their participation as the result of ethical or moral considerations and decisions on their part” (Smit 2016:17). Smit argues that whenever these considerations and decisions no longer take place consciously, but must be decided or at least carry away people’s approval, “they often restrict their reciprocity and exclude others and strangers” (Smit 2016:17). In this sense a theology of the Spirit also extends beyond a mere reckoning on reciprocity. A theology of the Spirit precisely promotes a conscious, calculated decision to actively reduce differences that contradicts biblical laws. It works towards what Welker labels a withdrawal of the self precisely for the other, i.e. the stranger.

In addition, a theology of the Spirit further differentiates and develops discourses that remember victims. Welker’s developed understanding of the relation between the Spirit and the law, that are to be expected also by others, by strangers, allows for remembering – not only in the future, but also in the past – those who have been alienated.

Welker develops his critique of natural law in his work on the creating and recreating work of the Spirit. For him natural law, in the words of Whitehead, has to ignore the fact that life lives at the expense of other life. A theology that further develops the creating and recreating work of the Spirit thus exceeds and surpasses discourses that are concerned merely with the recognition of kin. In those discourses, focused inter alia on living together with those who in some or other way are included “naturally”, others are often excluded, regarded as not belonging, as no kin, as outsiders, strangers, perhaps even as threats and enemies (Smit 2016:15).

A theology of the Spirit also contributes toward discourses through its call for risking hospitality. Different spheres of life are to be integrated and brought into life-furthering relationships. It moves beyond hospitality discourses merely, or even primarily, applicable on a personal level, i.e. direct and immediate relationships of individuals with others (Smit 2016:17).

In addition, a theology of the Spirit reveals the shortcomings of discourses relying merely on tolerance. A theology of the Spirit, taking the creating and recreating work of the Spirit seriously, rather underlines the fact that “the reality is much more complicated and contested and that the real problems facing ethical projects are much more difficult and demanding” (Smit 2016:18).

A theology of the Spirit reflecting an ethos of free, creative self-withdrawal enriches discourses with the motif of redeeming kenosis. In addition, such a theology, focused not only on free, creative self-withdrawal on behalf of others, but also on self-withdrawal for our sake, on our behalf, further differentiates an attentiveness to the numerous discourses concerned with a realisation of our own strangeness.

Keywords: Dirk J. Smit; Holy Spirit; Michael Welker; strangers

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Voortdurende onbekendheid en vreemdheid. Die implikasies van Michael Welker se teologie van die Gees vir ’n teologiese hermeneutiek vir vreemdelinge

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