This is the fifth in our series on incarnational presence. To read previous articles, here are links for: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. In this article, Julian Reese and Teresa Hooper explore how we may creatively participate in what God is doing in our departments.
ENCOURAGING CREATIVE PRESENCE
Julian Reese, with Teresa Hooper
“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
Followers of Jesus in the Academy are sent there by Jesus. They enter academic communities where they find themselves to be an incarnational presence. In previous posts we have reflected on how we establish an incarnational presence in an academic community and how we earn an incarnational voice in the intellectual conversation. As we have demonstrated, this is a long, slow, process of building relationships requiring empathy, trust, curiosity, and mutual respect.
In this post we pull together this paradigm of incarnational presence thinking as we consider how we might encourage creative participation in the presence of God.
As an incarnational presence, we do not bring the kingdom, we announce its presence. We participate in an ongoing story.
The Kingdom of God is already a present reality in our academic departments, and the locus of the Kingdom will be found in what these departments are already doing. Like the leaven in a lump of dough, or the seed buried in the soil, or the treasure hidden in a field, we have to find it, recognize it and proclaim it so that we can participate and enter it.
Previously we mentioned how our history department’s interest in Martin Luther and the Reformation led to a fruitful engagement with the department on Luther. God was at work in the interest of the history department scholarship, and this presented opportunity for a campus wide conversation about the legacies of Martin Luther where a Christian voice could speak into the intellectual conversation. We were displaying the presence of the kingdom. We were participating in the presence of God.
Furthermore, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must have a new capacity of will to enter the Kingdom of God.
“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. Unless one is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The Jesus invitation “Follow Me,” is an invitation to participate in his presence. It is a summons to observe and experience what he has to say and what he is doing. It is an opportunity to step into a process that might lead to leaving your business, or giving up all your wealth, or even taking up a cross.
It is an invitation to see before we enter.
In the Incarnation the invisible reality of heaven is made visible in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, earth participates sacramentally in the uncreated realities of God. The invitation of Jesus is to participate in the heavenly realities by an awareness of eternal mysteries found in the present reality of the Kingdom of God.
Participation in this Kingdom is not the same as receiving the Kingdom. It is one thing to taste the food, but quite another to sit at the table and enjoy the meal. We can participate in something without embracing it. People are fed by Jesus who do not enter the kingdom. They are healed, but do not believe. They participate in the Kingdom of God as a present reality, but they have neither the ability to see this Kingdom nor the interest to enter it.
We invite people to participate in this present spiritual reality, experiencing the benefits and tasting the power, that they may have their eyes opened to see and their wills transformed to desire and that they might enjoy the meal.
The academics we serve have seen the techniques, heard the four-point presentations and experienced the evangelical methods, and are not impressed. But they are not unwilling to engage in faith-informed conversation or participate in a public forum on some aspect of Gospel thinking. They are eager to welcome warmly the incarnational presence into their office or their discussion group. They are happy to participate in the presence of the Kingdom of God on their campus, even if they call it by a different name.
In his 2010 book Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, Gordon Smith writes “Evangelicals are walking through a paradigm shift in their understanding of conversion. While revivalism has for more than a century shaped their language of conversion, a new way of speaking of salvation, redemption, and converging is emerging.” (P. ix) Smith goes on to say, “The revivalist heritage has left many contemporary Christians with the belief that conversions are the fruit of right practices or techniques…. But the revivalists’ emphasis on technique, method, and formula has diminished our appreciation of the conversion experience as the fruit of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. Our human participation in the process must honor the rhythms of the Sprit’s work. Evangelism involves discerning the work of the Spirit, learning to be attentive to how the Spirit is at work in this person at this time and in this place.” (P. 12-13)
We encourage participation. We invite relationship.
We do not coerce or hide or deceive. We discern the work of the Spirit, and join him in his rhythms, finding ways to invite people into the presence they are not yet able to see.
Creativity involves the imagination.
To participate in an invisible reality means that participation must be creative. Creativity involves a way of seeing and creative people have a robust and vibrant imagination rooted in the memory of the texts of Scripture.
The Incarnational Presence is in the present. But the imagination of the Incarnational presence has entered the ancient Biblical story and brought the reality of the transcendent into the circumstances of the present world.
Concerns like justice and peace shape the imagination, leading to creative participation in unexpected ways.
Let me give one example from our campus.
On April 27, 2019, a shooter opened fire on the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway California. The shooter was a member of a conservative Christian church, and left a manifesto presenting an obscene attempt at a theological justification of his heinous action.
Shortly after hearing of this tragic event, our Graduate/Faculty Christian ministry was approached by three of our former Veritas Forum conversation partners from the Religious Studies Department, and their Jewish colleague, asking if we could assemble the Christian campus ministers to dialogue about Christianity and the History of Anti-Semitism.
Eight Christian campus pastors met privately with the Religious Studies faculty throughout the Fall Semester and into the early weeks of 2020. Eight Christian male pastors were led by one atheist female academic in a challenging, civil, and honest conversation about issues that concerned us all. Our dialogue concluded with a public Veritas Forum in February, talking about the partnership and the dialogue experience.
Ten years earlier one of our early Veritas participants had been one of these professors, then a young, rising scholar in the department. She had to be asked several times before she took a chance on us and said “yes.” We followed up through the years with other requests for participation in Veritas events, which were always positive experiences for the department as well as for the Christian community. Members of the department began suggesting topics for Veritas conversations. Then they were suggesting speakers.
We led the events, and they were always happy to co-sponsor.
In this 2020 Veritas event, however, THEY came to us, and asked for this dialogue. This was their idea. The topic was in their academic expertise. This time, for the dialogue, they led and we partnered; for the Veritas Forum, we led and they partnered.
We were participating in concerns of the Kingdom of Jesus. Christian and non-believer were overcoming barriers of separation and coming together to consider ways that we might bring healing to the world, and ways we had failed miserably in the past. Relationships were built. Respect was offered. Paradigms were challenged.
Incarnational Presence encouraged creative participation in the reality of the Kingdom of Jesus. We have come to the table together. Now, let us enjoy the feast.
Julian Reese serves Faculty and Graduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxvillle, Tn with InterVarsity’s GFM ministry. He is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) with a B.A. in Bibilical Studies, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.Div.). He is married to Melanie, who serves with him on GFM staff. The Reeses have three grown children on two continents.
The GFM ministry in Knoxville has coordinated the Veritas Forum at the University of Tennessee since 2005, partnering with academic departments in the University. They also sponsor an Apprentice Cohort in Incarnational Presence ministry.