Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The age of the Spirit (Sunday Reflections for June 7, 2009)

The day of Pentecost remembers the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Filled with the same Spirit that Jesus had, the disciples and the church are empowered to continue his mission of proclaiming the gospel and making real the presence of God’s kingdom. In Christian theology, the Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and, like the Pentecost festival, has tended to get short shrift. God the Father and Jesus the Son outshine the Holy Spirit, just as Christmas and Easter eclipse their lowly liturgical sibling, Pentecost.

In official church doctrine, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal members of the Trinity. Each person is a “face” (Greek persona = “mask”) of the one true God. In practice, of course, the church has had great difficulty keeping all three of these balls in the air in this theological juggling act. Theologians acknowledge the impossibility of fully explaining the concept and so dub it a “mystery”. To religious outsiders, including many Muslims and Jews, there is no mystery: Christians are really tri-theists rather than monotheists.

There is another way to think of the Christian Trinity. In this view, the Trinity says more about us and our attempts to understand God than it does about who or what God truly is. In this understanding the Trinity is more about chronology than ontology, more about humanity’s evolving experience and understanding of God over time than about God’s being or nature.

The adoption of monotheism is viewed as ancient Judaism’s great contribution to the world’s religious history. The idea that there was one supreme God was certainly developing in other places but Judaism embraced it most strongly and enthusiastically. The notion’s popularity spread quickly. The gods of the Greek pantheon, for example, while personal and understandable, nonetheless seemed too human. The tales about them often resembled contemporary soap operas, with humans often the innocent victims of their squabbles and game-playing. As for morality, the rules often seemed to be made up as they went along.

The God of the Jews—at first Yahweh and then simply "The Lord"—while often mysterious and inscrutable, nonetheless proclaimed his unending love for his people. The end goal of the grand drama of the Hebrew Bible was nothing less than the redemption of the world. God’s revealed Torah/Law was seen as a firm and (fairly) clear statement of how humans should live. It was the operating manual for human life and society.

Christianity continued and spread Jewish monotheism. This wasn't surprising since it was based on the teaching of a faithful Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. As indicated above, things did get complicated, however, because Christians insisted that Jesus wasn’t just a rabbi, indeed not just a normal human being. He was also God’s Son, though the church was never able to agree fully on what that meant.

A big part of Jesus popularity, however, was the result of church's giving him a divine nature. As the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, Jesus gave God a “human face”. The God of the Jews, while combining power and compassion, was still experienced as being rather distant and even frightening. Indeed, some have seen the growth of that distance in the Bible itself, moving from a God who walks with Adam and Eve, then talks but remains invisible to Abraham and Moses, then speaks only through prophets, and and in the latest stage not showing up at all in the book of Esther!

It wasn’t long, however, before this human face of God also began to drift away. The approachable Jesus of the gospels gradually was overwhelmed by “Christ the Lord” who ruled the world from his heavenly throne. At the same time, the mission of spreading the gospel was replaced by the church's bureaucratic dispensing of forgiveness and salvation. To compensate, popular piety developed the cult of Mary and the saints who became intermediaries not unlike the alderman who can get you a zoning variance. You offered your prayers and devotion in hopes they would put in a good word for you.

Throughout this time and to the present day there has also always been, to use a recently popular phrase, a “minority report”. Christians holding this view believed that not only did Jesus give God a human face, he also revealed God’s presence in humanity—gave humans a divine face, if you will. They took seriously Paul’s and the gospels’ teaching that the Spirit which empowered Jesus was also present in his followers. Even more fundamentally, this understanding reached back to Genesis’ creation stories which said that humans were made in God’s image and that God made Adam by breathing into (in-spirit-ing, inspiring) a lump of dirt (humus, human).

What happened to Jesus after his crucifixion? An argument can be made that the real point of the Easter/Ascension/Pentecost stories is not so much that Jesus went to heaven but that via the Spirit he entered his disciples. Hence, Paul declares we are each “temples of the Holy Spirit” and the church is “the body of Christ”. We live now by the power of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.

The notion of Christ as an intermediary between humanity and God is fading. It was overused and abused by a church that kept people coming by convincing them of their depravity and sinfulness. Fear of hell seemed more motivating than teaching that Christ’s Spirit now lived inside his followers. Go to church, take the sacraments, pray, confess your sins, leave your offerings and maybe Jesus will intervene for you with the Big Guy.

Today most people just aren’t buying it. I often hear church leaders sneer at the increasingly common confession, “I’m not religious but I am spiritual”. While there are certainly varying degrees of sincerity behind such a statement, it actually sounds more in keeping with the Bible than many church creeds. And so, ironically, it may be that “average people” have come to a better understanding of what Jesus and the Bible were trying to teach than has today’s church. Rather than a prize to be earned by jumping through ecclesiastical hoops, the life of God and the Spirit is an already present reality needing to be discovered and embraced.

Perhaps then today we have entered an age where God as Spirit is the most meaningful and appealing “face” that God can have for us. Rather than trying to reach a God who is somewhere else, we now are challenged to be empowered by a God who is everywhere and even more importantly, right here—closer than we probably ever imagined. While this understanding may be new in some ways, it is also true that one of the first persons to demonstrate it in his own life was the Jesus we find in Paul and the gospels, a child of the ancient family of Abraham. Thus the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is affirmed again: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us.”


Anonymous said...


Another engaging and insightful post.

I am a big fan of Paul (obviously, or I wouldn't have written a novel about him), but I think he shares some blame for perverting the very human, Hebrew concepts of son of God and Lord into more Hellenistic concepts of the divine man. At least, I think he may have started the trajectory that became Johnnine (the word was God), and then Nicene.

As always, your posts have me thinking.

Doug said...

You may be right Obie, though Hellenistic influences were nearly ubiquitous in Judaism in the 1st century, especially outside Palestine. The Jesus to "divine man" progression may have been inevitable.

Paul is such a puzzle (well, what about 1st c. Christianity isn't?). I don't know how familiar you are with the "mythic Jesus" folks but one of their key pieces of evidence is the unhistorical nature of Paul's Jesus, i.e. besides the crucifixion, Paul seems to know nothing about Jesus' life and little if anything about his teachings. In this view, the progression is the reverse of that of the traditional historical critical explanation. In other words, rather than a historical Jesus being mythologized (e.g. becoming a divine man) a mythological Jesus became historicized, with the creation of the gospel narratives. So Jesus was always and only a divine man for Paul and the early church, his death and resurrection drama having been played out entirely in the heavenly realm. The mission and proclamation needs of the church then led to the expansion of his "biography".

Frankly I have to admit there is some logic to this and I have yet to read a genuinely convincing refutation of it. 2000 years later I am not sure it makes any difference, though some people would certainly be distressed to hear "their Jesus" never actually walked the earth. I do think we greatly underestimate the human tendency to exaggerate and fictionalize, as we're reminded each time some best-selling autobiography is discovered to actually be a "dramatization" of the author's life. I loved the explanation of one exposed writer who said, "Well, it felt true to me." And I think he was sincere!