In this second of a two-part series, University of Roehampton researcher and friend of SWF James Butler discusses the challenges of taking discernment processes online. In part two, he explores the issue of online spiritual discernment.
Owl photo by Richard Brooks
The lockdown has raised some deep theological questions about communion when people can’t physically meet. What should we do about the Eucharist when we are all meeting virtually? While this is not the question that I’m going to explore in this post, it comes from the same fundamental question: has the Holy Spirit made it online? In my first post I explored some of the practicalities of the focus group and particularly how the conversation changes. I now turn to thinking about what it might mean theologically to have conversations of discernment online. Once again, these reflections are the fruit of a conversation with Helen Cameron over what happens when you take research online.
While having good conversation is an important part of theological action research, it is not about having good conversations for their own sake. The theological conviction is that through these conversations theology is disclosed and that this disclosure is a (partial) revelation of God’s action. Theological action research talks about four voices of theology: the theology in what people do (the operant); the theology in what people say (the espoused); the voice of scripture and our church traditions (normative); and the theology of the academy (the formal). In bringing together the voices through actual conversations between real people, reflecting on data, we can experience these moments of disclosure. So the obvious question to ask is, do these moments of disclosure still happen online? As with the practicalities of conversation, actually trying it and reflecting on the process will be vital to responding to this question, but before doing that, there may be some helpful issues to think through.
As I wrote the previous post about the need for greater facilitation of conversation, I began to fear that a more facilitated and structured conversation might lose this sense of the Spirit at work. But then I caught myself, because what I’m at risk of saying is that the Spirit is only present in the spontaneous. In fact, if everything is spontaneous and reactive we might be just as likely to miss the Spirit. The key then, is to develop a discerning conversation. As we have worked in theological action research we have recognised virtues that are important in this kind of conversation: humility, confidence of truth telling, loving the other’s voice and living with complexity and a lack of resolution. It may be that a Zoom environment begins to reveal other virtues which are vital to these conversations, such as patience and opening space for other’s voices. What has also become clear is that if this is a conversation of discernment, then spiritual practices are going to be important. For us this has meant introducing practices of prayer into these meetings. How can these kinds of prayer practices be developed online?
Silent prayer might seem strange for an online setting, but given that the dominant form of communication on Zoom is speech, being silent together is quite a subversive act, and forces us to acknowledge and be open to the work of the Spirit.
Sometimes In a reflector meeting, despite good conversations, deeper insight and revelation feel elusive; it’s only after the chat over lunch or during the coffee on the bench outside that something ‘clicks’. Similarly, the off the cuff remark or moment of humour can be the thing which opens up the conversation. On a very practical note this means taking breaks to have coffee, taking permitted lockdown exercise halfway through the conversation or making some space to pray and reflect alone. What it also reveals is that good conversation doesn’t guarantee God’s disclosure. Any revelation that takes place is gift. By God’s action God reveals something of God’s self to us. This means that a discerning conversation is not about finding the formula to make the magic happen. In other words, if the energised conversation and a posture of discernment can’t guarantee disclosure we also should not equate good conversation with theological disclosure.
The answer to our problem of facilitating these reflective, discerning conversations online isn’t simply a case of trying harder. The important thing is to engage in conversation, trusting that God is acting through the Holy Spirit in our conversations. We are putting ourselves in a discerning and prayerful posture, and through the Spirit can experience and notice those moments of disclosure if and when they occur.
While the suggestions I made in the previous post might help you to develop a fruitful meeting they do not of themselves guarantee revelation and disclosure; these are gifts from the Spirit. While the answer to whether the Spirit has ‘made it online’ might only come though giving it a try, there are plenty of suggestions and practices which will help us to be open and responsive to each other, and to the Spirit.