Parish the Thought September 2017 by Dr. Dana Wright

Let us love one another, for love is from God.


We are in the midst of a series on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in four interrelated dimensions of human experience. We’ve touched on organic transformation in which we become more fully aware of our being embodied      creatures. We’ve also discussed the Spirit’s transformation of ego, placing ego in the   service of agape love. This month we focus on the Spirit’s transformation of social existence. The corollary of the ego’s transformation in the social realm is the transformation of human role structures.


Roles are constructions of the human spirit that mediate social relations. We learn various roles through primary socialization (family dynamics) and secondary socialization (i.e., friendships, schooling, peer pressure, publicly defined values, expectations, etc.). In classical Freudian thinking, a young boy experiences socially disapproved (Oedipal) desires for the mother. He solves the dilemma by identifying with the father and learning the appropriate role of a male. Frustrated Electra desires place the little girl in the same sort of dilemma and she learns the role of female by identifying with the mother. These male and female role structures are more or less    reinforced in multiple ways through the life span. As children grow they also must learn the proper roles of student and friend and, later on, worker, employee, spouse, citizen, etc.


Roles, therefore, serve the social development of persons in a variety of settings. Roles are indeed an efficient way to develop and maintain community. For example, children who learn the role of student or friend prepares them to enter a number of new situations without having to start from scratch. They enter each grade with enough understanding of what is required or needed that allows them to succeed in relation to others. Roles are mediating structures that fill in the space among relations so that everyone knows what is expected and approved. When everyone plays his/her role properly, the group task can be fulfilled. If too many people break role, tensions arise such that social existence is skewed or thwarted. In this way social roles support normal social function.


However, from a Christian standpoint, normal social function may not be normal at all. There are a number of theological problems with roles as mediating structures. First, they are    fundamentally dehumanizing. The human spirit creates roles to solve social problems. But human   beings are so much more than the roles they create. They are so much more than what any given society dictates their roles should be. For example, if people see me only in my role as student (i.e., you are a good student or a bad student), they haven’t seen me in my particularity. Second, roles mediate essentially impersonal relations, role to role. But they can’t mediate the depth of person-to-person intimacy such as is required by the Gospel. If I am so much more than the role I play, then my relation to another requires that I see them at a deeper level than their role.


This ability to see and experience the other as other, intimately and not according to role, is the work of the Holy Spirit in the social dimension of existence. In the Spirit I am empowered to break role or reverse role or abandon role in order to let the particularity of the other person reveal herself to me spirit-to-spirit, not role-to-role. Roles no longer define me. Just as the Spirit works deeper than ego, so the Spirit works deeper than role. In the Spirit, ego and role are not eliminated but they are placed in the service of spiritual communion. The church is called to be filled with the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit, to love in the Spirit. These are not just sentiments. They are the work of the Spirit transforming ego and role structures in order to make true community possible in an ego-inflated, impersonal world.