Thinking Through the Creed, Part 7

I believe in the Holy Spirit. . .

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  (John 16: 7-12).

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  (Isaiah 43: 16-19).

I saved the toughest part for last.  I think there is no question that the Holy Spirit is the neglected person of the Trinity.  For better or for worse, people seem to have an idea of who God the Father is, and there is a rich vein of materials to talk about with regard to Jesus, the Son.  But the Holy Spirit is much more inchoate than those two, to the point where people just kind of throw up their hands or resort to generic, unhelpful metaphors (the Holy Spirit as a dove, for example).  I find myself in basically the same boat.  The best I can do here is four ideas about God that seem to be associated with the Holy Spirit--God as Immanent, God as Relational, God as Liberator, and God as Catalyst for Transformation.

One quick caveat.  I find it's really hard to talk about the Holy Spirit without falling into some form of quasi-modalism.  Modalism is a very old idea/heresy in which the one God exhibits three "modes" known as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Strict modalism, of the kind condemned by early theologians like Tertullian, would say that when God is in "Father mode" God cannot also be in "Son mode" or "Spirit mode."  But if you get rid of that idea, you are left with the idea that these three Persons are descriptions of different "modes of acting" of the one God.  That's probably modalism, too, but I cannot find a way to intelligently talk about the Persons, especially the Spirit, except in terms of modes of acting (without viewing them as three separate divine entities, which is obviously problematic, too).  So, I am going to own my modalism and move on.

Anyway, let's go back once again to the beach metaphor.  The basic idea here is that we are physical creatures of the land, and we encounter the divine ocean at the beach.  And yet, we also carry the ocean inside us, as our blood has is a similar mix of salts to that of the ocean.  The divine is both "out there" and "in here"--something that transcends the reality we experience, but also is an integral, constituent part of our existence.  This immanent dimension of God, the part that is "closer to us than we are to ourselves," as Augustine said, is the Holy Spirit.

Because the Holy Spirit is so close to us, the Holy Spirit is a good vehicle for thinking about the relational dimension of God.  It seems to me that Christianity lost this relational dimension in its formal theology over time, relegating it to the mystical tradition, which was and is perceived as being the domain of specialists and "elite" believers.  I suspect this is because of a Greek philosophy/Enlightenment-influenced desire to have God represent pure, impassive reason, free of "corruption" that would come from too close a connection to flawed and ambiguous people.

But, one of the exciting things about modern theology is that there seems to be a movement to reconnect with the idea that God is in a continuous and on-going relationship with God's creation, rather than the clean dividing lines of previous views.
To use a English soccer (or football, as they would say) phrase, God "gets stuck in" to God's creation.  Whether you think about this through the lens of the work of Rene Girard and those influenced by him, or through ideas like Process Theology and/or Open Theism (or some combination of both), the emphasis is placed the notion that God is engaged in a dynamic relationship with us.  This relationship is not simply a one-sided one, where God acts and we passively respond or don't respond; but has an ebb and flow like any other kind of relationship.  That "place" of ebb and flow, that "center" of the relationship between God and I, that to me is where the Holy Spirit dwells.

So, the Holy Spirit is deeply personal.  But it is not exclusively personal, in the sense that everyone's experience of the Holy Spirit is entirely idiosyncratic.  There is a definite arc to the work of the Spirit.  A big part of that arc can be seen in John's Gospel, where Jesus refers to the Spirit as the "parakletos" in Greek.  That word is often translated as something like "helper," which is true but misses the deeper dimension of the word.  The NRSV, quoted at the beginning of the post, translates it as "Advocate," in the specific sense of "defense lawyer," the one who stands beside the accused criminal during his or her time of trial.  Which of course raises the question--if the Holy Spirit is our defense lawyer, who is the prosecutor?  Girard insists, drawing again on John's Gospel, that the prosecutor is Satan, the Accuser, the one who inspires all manner of scapegoating and unjust persecution.  The Holy Spirit, thus, is a principle of justice--protecting the innocent from persecution, while at the same time illuminating would-be persecutors as to their role in the terrible machine that is the Sacred.  When Martin Luther King says that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, he is talking about the work of the Spirit in the world.

The last idea that I can offer about the Spirit is something I have talked about before, and that is the idea of the Spirit as the Wild Goose.  One of the fundamental temptations in dealing with religion is to reduce belief to an idol.  We do this because once it is an idol, it is something that we can control and be certain about, and maybe even use against someone else.  This is a natural inclination, but it is a bad one that we have to fight against.  And sometimes we need to be kicked in the rear end, and we need to have our idols shattered so that we can see them as the idols that they are.  This principle, which to us seems chaotic and destructive but is actually very good and necessary for us, is why Celtic Christians referred to the Spirit as the Wild Goose.  They understood that sometimes the Spirit is the peaceful dove as it is usually portrayed, but sometimes it is a massive, loud, ungainly bird that destroys everything in your house.

But sometimes we need that.  Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency and our certainties, so that we can be open to seeing things in a different life.  I've beaten this idea to death, but I think one of the biggest problems in Christianity right now is that we are locked into our too-rigid orthodoxies, for fear of upsetting our theological apple carts.  Those carts are really starting to strain under the weight of history.  We can see this as a catastrophe and run around saying that the sky is falling, or we can blame it on nefarious outside forces and turn inward.  Or, perhaps we can see this as the Wild Goose clearing out the brush with a bit of a controlled forest fire, so that new growth can come in later?

I am optimistic that it is the later, but I recognize that this diagnosis is some tough medicine for many who were really attracted to the forest as it was.  Things are really weird in Christianity right now, no doubt about it.  And I am not sure we are on the downward slope of the weirdness just yet.  But, at the end of the day, this is not our show; it's God's show.  If God wants to make a new way in the wilderness, then God will make a new way in the wilderness, whether we like it or not.  God's done it before.

So, those are some disorganized thoughts on the toughest part of the Trinity to wrap one's mind around.  The thread running through all of these ideas, I think, is that God is not some distant figure that looks down on the world from a detached viewpoint, but is instead deeply enmeshed in the world, and in and with us.  The Spirit is here, with us, always.


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