The Church needs a theology of the Holy Spirit which is rooted as much in his disruptive force as in his comforting touch
Welcome to the era of disruption. Digital start-ups are subverting and re-structuring industries across the world. Uber has disrupted the taxi industry; Google, information; Airbnb, hotels; Spotify, music; Amazon, publishing; Instagram, photography. None of these names were known only a few years ago but they are now leading brands, turning established industries upside down. Few prisoners have been taken; countless jobs have been lost. Disruption is in vogue and those who perpetrate it wear the badge with pride.
The history of capitalism suggests we should accept this as part of the necessary cycle of competitiveness. Those who object to the job losses incurred by the digital revolution are compared to Luddites standing in the way of history. When the debate is framed this way, there is no argument to be made. However, more searching questions should be asked of the new environment. In hollowing out a huge number of jobs, the digital entrepreneurs have only just initiated a revolution that will sweep the working world. People become much less whimsical about economic change when it arrives at the door of their office or factory.
In developing the software which makes it possible to cut out a large swathe of middle income jobs, digital entrepreneurs have created astonishing levels of wealth for a small handful of people; in some cases, they have also intentionally create a series of zero hours contracts with menial pay, no perks and ruthlessly monitored comfort breaks. Are we supposed to believe these kinds of jobs represent human progress? As the revolution spreads, inequality rises.
Major economic revolutions are often accompanied by a rise in religious practice as people seek solace, meaning and an anchor in life. In the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit is cherished as a comforter, a unifier and a peace-giver. These are all true, but he is also - dare it be said - a disrupter too. As the Holy Spirit came in power at Pentecost, the Temple, the law and the status of Israel were all disrupted. Gentiles were included, a priesthood of all believers was established and gifts were distributed to all.
These may have been history defining moments, but the Holy Spirit has continued to disrupt the Church when it has grown complacent and self-seeking or so cold in its love there is no warmth to share with those who do not know the love God has for them. Periodic revivals in history across the world are evidence of the disruptive power of the Holy Spirit. We long for these moments without truly understanding the impact they would make on how we live.
Joseph Schumpeter described the economic process where economic structures are built, subverted and overcome by newer forms as ‘creative destruction’. It has become a creedal statement of capitalism and thus one which does not receive much critical scrutiny. The overturning of established industries is an inevitable impact of competition and may be preferable to the overweening power of some entrenched businesses, but should destroying something be described as a creative act? He, and others, may have unconsciously heard the echo of a deeper melody: of death and resurrection. Schumpeter depicts the process of creative destruction as a ‘gale’, a word customarily used to describe the effects of the Holy Spirit.
There is one big difference between the creative disruption of the digital start-ups and that of the Spirit. Where Silicon Valley hollows out the role and skills of many people, the Holy Spirit newly empowers more and more people with gifts to use in service of others.
The Church has often been resistant to the creative gale of the Holy Spirit because he changes us inside out and this is initially painful. We prefer life support to death and resurrection. Authentic Christian living compels the Church to keep a theology of the Holy Spirit which is rooted as much in his disruptive force as in his comforting touch. And the Church in Britain needs this more than ever.
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