Changing Convictions About the Holy Spirit? 1996/2011 (2)

[How, if at all, have my views about the Holy Spirit changed in the past 15 years? This is the sixth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) since I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons describing in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I posted an excerpt from my sermon on the Holy Spirit here. Now I will reflect on my current convictions about the Holy Spirit. Here are links to the first four posts—the first two are on my views of God 15 years ago and on present-day thoughts about God. The third and fourth are on, first, my thoughts from 15 years ago and then some current thoughts on Jesus.]

Ted Grimsrud—July 17, 2011

When I addressed convictions about the Holy Spirit in my 1996 sermon, I followed what I imagine is a common pattern. I did that sermon not so much because of any deep-seated interest that I might have had in that particular topic but mainly because I assumed one shouldn’t talk about convictions about God and Jesus without also including the Holy Spirit.

We see this pattern as far back as the Apostles’ Creed. After statements on God and Jesus that contain significant, if tightly packed, content about those two themes, the Creed turns to the Holy Spirit with a statement remarkable for how little it actually says about the Holy Spirit: “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”

I did say a bit more about the Holy Spirit in my sermon than the Apostles’ Creed does. I like what I said, as far as it went. But more recently, I have some more substantial thoughts. I have been trying to think more deeply about what actually our understanding of the Holy Spirit might contribute to our broader theological perspective. Rather than being a kind of add on to a theology grounded in other motifs, what if we genuinely took our understanding of the Holy Spirit as one of our generative themes?The basic picture I presented in the 1996 sermon points in the right direction, I still believe. To think of the Holy Spirit is to think of God’s presence today in our lives and in the broader world. So, there is a sense that our awareness of and understanding of that presence is what makes up a big part of our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The basic point I made then, and would still make today, has to do with the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of life—it creates life, it sustains life.

In my understanding today, I want to push this assertion about the Spirit of life much further. In the sermon, I mostly focused on the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing people to faith, especially Christians coming to trust in Jesus and to live faithfully. That’s a correct point, but it’s too narrow. I have noticed two place in the first two chapters of Genesis where the Hebrew word ruach, which is translated into Greek as pneumos (the word in the New Testament for Spirit), is used in ways that could be understood as positing the direct presence of the Spirit in the broader creation.

Genesis 1:2 speaks of “a wind from God [sweeping] over the face of the waters” (NRSV). This could be translated, “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” That is, this could be seen as an affirmation that the Holy Spirit is present in the act of creation itself and, hence, is present throughout the world—in nature, certainly, but also in all cultures, wherever there is life of any sort. So, our doctrine of creation could be linked closely with our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This would go counter to some popular Christian views that present the Holy Spirit as in some sense mainly limited to Christian contexts.

Then, to make this point stronger, we see ruach used again in Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils of the breath of life.” That is, the Lord breathed into this first human being “the Spirit of life.” That is, each human being comes into existence inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Hence, our theological anthropology could also be linked closely with our doctrine of the Holy Spirit—and also move in a more universalist direction with the sense that, for example, all human acts of creative love are empowered by the Holy Spirit, whether in overtly Christian contexts or not.

Now, these two theological assertions—that creation and anthropology should both be seen in terms of the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever there is life and should not be approached in ways that make sharp distinctions between Christians and non-Christians—would require much more support than simply a couple of prooftexts that are given new translations. However, I think these two Genesis texts can be symbolic of possible new ways of thinking of the Holy Spirit that are far more generous and open in relation to the broader world.

The other aspect of the 1996 sermon that I would push much further is the ethical component of our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, the ethical was a major part of the picture I presented, but as I read the sermon now I think I focus on “beliefs” and on “being Christian” more than on direct engagement in healing work in the broader world. I now want to emphasize even more that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of engaged love and restorative justice—and is the source of these healing dynamics wherever they take place. To be filled with the Spirit is to be engaged in social transformation that moves from domination to partnership—to be engaged in social transformation that moves from domination to partnership is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

As a Christian, I believe that there is an inextricable link between healing work in all its forms and Christian faith. One who is engaged in healing work should find Christianity (defined as trust in God definitively shaped by the message of Jesus) enormously attractive, and one who identifies oneself as a Christian should find oneself inexorably drawn to direct engagement in healing work that must include social transformation.

At the same time, I think it is only honest to recognize that many healers either know nothing about Christianity or are deterred from moving toward the Christianity they observe because they (accurately) see the (I would say false) Christianity they observe as antithetical to their healing work. This is because many Christians are not actually doing healing work—in fact, at least since the 4th century link between Christianity and Empire, Christianity has all too often been closely tied in with forces of domination, not partnership.

The phenomenon of non-Christian healers and Christian oppressors leads to a big question related to our understanding of the Holy Spirit—where do we see the Spirit most present: where there is healing work being done, no matter the formal religious affiliation of the healers, or where Christians come together for religious services, no matter the injustices of the worshipers? One can push this question too far, but I raise it mainly to say that I believe (based mostly on the message of Jesus but also drawing now on the universalistic implications of my reading of Genesis 1 and 2) the priority in our theology of the Spirit must be on the practical, the ethical, the concrete acts of healing and social transformation.

One area where my thinking has moved far beyond what I was talking about fifteen years ago is on thinking about the Holy Spirit in relation to my doctrine of God, which includes further reflection on the theme of Trinity.

The biggest part of my sermon was a set of reflections on four key characteristics of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit as life-giving, empathetic, dynamic, and loving. These still seem like good points to me. But how do they relate to our doctrine of God?

One way of thinking about God in a Christian framework is to posit God as “Three-in-One” in a way that each of the “Three” has distinct characteristics. So you do have the empathetic, loving presence of the Holy Spirit. But then you also have the human Jesus, whole lived a sinless life so he might be a pure sacrifice that will enable us to have your sins forgiven. (If we have a different sensibility, we could also talk here about Jesus as prophet who sides with the vulnerable and alienates the powerful so much they execute him.) And, behind it all, you have the all-powerful, judging, all-knowing, in-control “Father God.”

One problem with this approach (and it’s crucial to recognize that it is an “approach,” a human construction, an interpretation—not a simple reporting of the “facts”) is that it emphasizes the “Three” much more than the “One.” And if we do think about the “One,” we tend to think most of all the “Father God” as the most definitive image of God. And, then, of course, we will minimize both the empathetic gentleness of the Spirit and the partisan social engagement of Jesus in favor of the “law and order Father.”

But what if we still took the metaphor of Trinity seriously, but tried much harder to emphasize the “One” side of the “Three-in-One” formula—and in doing this took our understanding of the Holy Spirit with the utmost seriousness? What if, instead of taking the “Father God” image as our ruling metaphor we took the empathic, loving, gently persuasive Holy Spirit as our ruling metaphor? This could lead to a very different notion of God as Trinity.

We could still have a sense of God’s transcendence and universal rule, but we’d understand it more in terms of God-as-Holy-Spirit present wherever there is compassion and healing justice. We’d understand it more as a warrant to respect other cultures and even religious traditions as loci of God’s healing work in the universe than as a warrant for the kind of cultural imperialism that sees our culture having the vocation of bringing “truth” to the “heathen.”

We could still have the sense of God’s awareness of all things (“all-knowing”), but it’s an awareness more akin to a loving matriarch in a large clan whose knowledge most of all is personal and relational, compassionate and benevolent—rather than akin to a computer that gathers facts or an intelligence agency of a superpower utilizing knowledge as power-over.

So, this way of thinking about the Holy Spirit in relation to our broader understanding of God has a great deal of promise, I think. It also pushes us to take our doctrine of the Holy Spirit much more seriously—to move it from the periphery (remember again the Apostles’ Creed) to the very center of our theological (and ethical!) reflection.

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3 thoughts on “Changing Convictions About the Holy Spirit? 1996/2011 (2)

  1. Oh, my. I have only read a few paragraphs of this post, and I just have to let you know, the thrill of joy that swept over me at the thought “each human being comes into existence inhabited by the Holy Spirit.” It is the opposite to the pang of pain I feel when I read/hear about eternal punishment or annihilation.
    I realize emotions are no indicator of Truth or validity, but it is interesting how some new concepts can strike a definite reactionary chord in us.
    I am enjoying this thought-provoking series of posts; thank you.

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