ATTENTIVENESS: What Is Meant By Indwelling? by Leighton Ford

Discerning God's Presence in All Things

What Is Meant By Indwelling? by Leighton Ford

From The Attentive Life

One who has spoken compellingly about “indwelling” as the way we know almost everything is the late Hungarian scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi.  Already a world-class physicist, in the 1930s Polanyi turned his attention to the philosophy of science.

In his influential book The Tacit Dimension he told of a conversation he had with a leading Soviet scientist who said that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics saw science as useful only to advance socialism by rationally conceived five-year plans.  Polanyi was dismayed at the limits of this version of how scientists work and how it overlooked the powerful role of intuition.

Polanyi envisioned science as an “indwelling” of what the scientist tacitly knows and discovers, as opposed to a purely rational objectivity.  “We always know more than we can tell” was one key idea at the heart of his philosophy.  The other was “indwelling.”  We know because we “indwell” the thing we know, and in a sense it indwells us.

Indwelling, observed Polanyi, takes place in the way we know other people – getting inside their skin by an act of empathy.  It happens in the way we take in a work of art.  As we look at its surface, we somehow enter into the mind of its creator.  Indwelling happens when we internalize moral values, not merely assenting unquestioningly to the teachings of our parents or society.

Indwelling brings home to us “that it is not by looking at these things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their meaning.”  Parents know their children in this way.  And lovers their beloved.  The skillful technician, athlete, or musician also enters into his work via indwelling.

I once asked my son-in-law, Craig, a fine obstetrician/gynecologist, how he makes diagnoses.  “You’ve got years and years of training and experience, a huge cache of knowledge and tools,” I said.  “How much of that is in the forefront when a patient comes to you complaining of a problem?”

“Not much,” he said.  “I don’t use checklists much unless it’s a really difficult problem.  What I want to do is to really listen to my patient, try to sense what may be out of balance in her whole body.  Then I instinctively draw on all the knowledge and experience.”

When I told him that I was gnawing on Polanyi’s idea of indwelling, he exclaimed, “Tacit knowing!  I read that in college.  It put so much together for me, helped me to see the work and the human body as much more than the sum of its parts.”  Craig is indwelling both his technical knowledge and his patients.  He has allowed his skills to become like the stick in the blind man’s hand, a part of himself with which he reaches out to touch the reality of his patient, to see and hear and know her, so to speak, to indwell her body and soul and even her disease.

Polanyi’s thought is important, and not only as a philosophical point.  It has implications for the attention we as Christ-followers pay in the “secular” parts of our everyday lives, not only in our devotional times.

The Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance, a close friend of Polanyi and a key interpreter of his work, sees a vital connection between Polanyi’s concept of indwelling and Jesus’s teaching about abiding.  All of our work is best accomplished through a process of “tuning in” or indwelling.  Torrance, who often spoke with Polanyi about matters of faith, is convinced that Polanyi’s concept of indwelling finds its source in scripture.

“This strange notion of indwelling,” he says, “comes from John’s gospel – the notion of dwelling and abiding in Christ.”

So indwelling joins abiding and contemplation as means of attentiveness in the Prime time of our lives.

Abiding and indwelling are almost synonyms.  Some translators render Jesus’s words in John 15:4 as, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” others as, “Dwell in me as I dwell in you.”  Still others translate them as, “Remain in me as I remain in you.”  Whatever the translation, the vital reality is that Jesus and his disciples share a common life, as do a vine and its branches.

The thought of God’s “indwelling” his people runs like a golden thread through the Bible, from David’s prayer of longing to dwell in God’s tent, (Psalm 61:4), through the prophet Isaiah’s promise that God the “high and loft one” will “dwell with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,” (Isaiah 57:15), to the birth of Emmanuel, (“God with us,” Matthew 1:23), on to the apostle’s proclamation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” (Colossians 1:27), and finally to the vision of John, the seer of the time, when “the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them,” (Revelation 21:3).

But what is the link between the God who is our eternal dwelling place, to whom hungry spirits long to go, and the God whose transforming presence finally dwells in every nook and cranny of all creation?  John’s gospel story gives us the key: the arrival of the One whose dwelling was with God, who has come to pitch his tent among us and now dwells through his Spirit in those who by faith enter a living relation of loving obedience to him.  In John’s story “indwelling” becomes a matrix in which all relationships meet.

The same intimacy that the Father and Son share will be available to Jesus’s followers, for, he tells them, “The Spirit abides with you, and he will be in you,” (John 14:17).  He promises that “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” (John 14:23).

Indwelling is an imperative for living this new and abundant life.  “Abide in me and I in you,” Jesus commands, picturing branches drawing life from their “dwelling” in their vine’s trunk.  So abiding is both an established and an ongoing relationship.  Abiding, writes Newbigin, “is the continually renewed decision that what has been done once for all by the action of Jesus shall be the basis, the starting point, the context for all my thinking and deciding and doing.”

How do we make this continually renewed decision?  By letting Jesus’s words dwell deeply in us.  “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” said Jesus.  And what follows from this abiding?  Our prayers will be answered, the Father will be glorified, and we will bear abundant fruit and be recognized as Jesus’s disciples, (John 15:7-8).

And how is that fruit recognized?

It will simply be the life of Jesus being made visible in the midst of the life of the world.

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