We launched the New Leaf Blog in April of this year, and so far we have had nine regular contributors write for us, while eight guest writers have shared their thoughts. If you have been following the blog, then you might be wondering why there have been so many different authors featured.
As editor of the New Leaf blog, I place a high value on diverse voices. We don’t always get it right, and there are many voices that we still haven’t heard from, but it is something on which we place a high priority.
Why is diversity of voice a value of the New Leaf blog? A simple reason is that I love hearing from diverse perspectives and finding the thread of connection that runs from one story to another, that thread of humanity that connects us all. But beneath that thought is a theological conviction that we all have a voice that should be heard, because we don’t know where, when or who the Holy Spirit will use to speak Truth to the community of faith.
Yes, I’ll grant that if everyone gets to speak, then you, as the listener, need to use discernment as you listen or read. I hope you are doing that anyway, even if the voices you hear are curated for you. It is a good practice to always take a moment to think carefully about anything that you read. The exercise of discernment is an important skill to develop, not just about reading material, but for the sake of character development, too.
Can I share with you an historical example of this theological conviction that says everyone gets to speak? I come from the theological tradition of Wesleyanism, the people of faith who acknowledge the historical leaders of John and Charles Wesley, brothers who found themselves at the centre of a revival in eighteenth-century England. When it came time for me to choose a research topic for my graduate work, I found myself listening to the stories of this revival movement. More specifically, asking how did people talk about Christian maturity in the wake of revival. I discovered many fascinating friends in this historical moment, and loved spending time reading their stories.
Some of the stories I stumbled upon were part of a controversy in London in the 1760s. Revival thrived at that time, and there was a climax of the amount of extraordinary spiritual experiences. One such experience, known as perfect love, was connected to a particular way of understanding Christian maturity. As the number of people who claimed this perfect love grew, a group of them pulled away from community, creating division in the wider group. They claimed to have knowledge of God that was beyond those without the shared experience. Furthermore, the reason for the withdrawal was because they refused to be taught by anyone but their own leaders. They claimed that if another leader did not have this shared experience of God, then that leader should not be teaching those who did have that experience — this experience which signalled maturity. Their main teachers were men named Maxfield and Bell, and this conviction not to be taught by outsiders, left even Charles and John Wesley on the outside.
John Wesley found himself in the midst of this controversy, he didn’t want to speak too quickly to condemn those who walked away — because there were good people in that group — but he offered a strong word of caution to the group, because of their stubborn spirit in refusing to be taught by anyone but their leader, Mr. Maxfield.
He wrote in a pamphlet — the social media of the time —
“But if you think you have more knowledge than you really have; if you think you are so taught by God, as no longer need man’s teaching, pride lieth at the door. Yes you have need to be taught, and not only by Mr. Maxfield, by one another, by Mr. Morgan or me, but by the weakest preacher in London, yea by all men; for God sendeth by whom he will send. Don’t therefore say to any who would advise or reprove you, “You are blind: you cannot teach me. This is your wisdom: this is your carnal reckoning”: but calmly weigh all things before God. O let there be in you that lowly mind which was in Christ Jesus. And be ye clothed likewise in humility.” (John Wesley, Cautions and Directions given to the Greatest Professors in the Methodist Societies, 1762)
I have to admit that this reproof stings a little. It speaks to so much of the value system of the church today, where we seek the best thinkers, the most famous charismatic leaders, the best-selling authors. We need to remember that the Kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy world where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Humility is a tricky virtue to cultivate, because if you ever feel like you have mastered it, pride creeps in. But if we learn from history here, one way to seek after humility is to seek to be taught by the weakest, yet Spirit-filled, one among the group.
Listening to everyone is a fine ideal, but this historical example raises broader questions based on this idea, especially in light of this emerging communication medium called “the blog.” It seems like everyone has taken the opportunity to speak using the blog or other social media as a platform. As the editor of the New Leaf blog, I’ve been thinking about the best use of the medium of “blogness.” One way that the blog can be used well is to tell stories. At its best, the blog (and the internet more generally) can create a level playing field, a democracy of sorts, where many voices get a chance to speak. What better way to share stories than through this type of platform.
Yet, there are legitimate questions about whether the internet and public forums which are guided by popularity are the best way to receive spiritual teaching. The question of authority, or accountability are raised. These are valid issues to wrestle with as we learn to be good readers and listeners. My response to these concerns, in the specific context of the New Leaf blog is that the stories you read here will try to represent diversity, yet with a centre of gravity that pulls us together around shared values. If you are seeking out a neat and tidy theology (or an echo chamber that confirms your opinions) you might be in the wrong place. We want to hear the stories and thoughts that challenge us, that unsettle us, that point to the humanness we share with people who are other than ourselves. And we feel that wrestling with questions and doubt are not incompatible with faith — in fact it may be essential to faith development.
From time to time there has been controversy stirred up online about women teaching in a Christian context. And in the above quote from John Wesley, I hope you can hear beyond the masculine language, and know that the listen to all voices applies to both women and men. After all it was a few years (but only a few) before the Spirit descended on the women of the Methodist movement and they were no longer quiet. Then the men had to learn how to listen to the Spirit through them, too.
But that’s another story for another time.