What is the Holy Spirit? How does it work in the actual world we live in? [Questioning faith #5]

Ted Grimsrud—November 14, 2022

I’ve never known how to think about the Holy Spirit, “the third person of the Trinity.” As I remember, one of my first stirrings of resistance to doctrinal orthodoxy when I was in my early 20s had to do with questioning the idea that it was meaningful to call the Holy Spirit a “person,” to think of the Holy Spirit as part of God in the same sense as Jesus and “the Father.” But I can’t say that I have spent a lot of time thinking about it or researching it.

Problems with “Holy Spirit” doctrine

It was pointed out to me in a seminary class in 1981 that there is something a bit strange in the Apostles’ Creed—at least strange if one is expecting the Creed to give us a definition of the Trinity. It starts with clear, albeit brief and rather cryptic, statements about belief in “God the Father almighty” and in “Jesus Christ, his only Son.” But when we get to the “Third Person,” all we get is this, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” This is then followed by five beliefs that are also only mentioned, not defined. So, what does it mean to “believe in the Holy Spirit”? The original Nicene Creed of 325 also simply says “we believe … in the Holy Spirit” without explanation.

We do get more in the revised Nicene Creed of 381 (also known as the “Nicene-Constantinople Creed”). “We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” This helps a little, especially the notion of the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.” That is one place that does seem to touch on what we learn from the Bible, especially Genesis 1–2 where we read of the Spirit moving over the waters at the moment of creation and of the Spirit being breathed into the dust of the earth at the creation of the first human being.

Part of my problem from early on was my sense that the idea of the Holy Spirit as a kind of doctrinal necessity (as if, for whatever reason, we need a threesome in our Christian doctrine of God to differentiate us from Judaism and Islam) did not ring true. It didn’t seem warranted from the Bible, and it was part of the making of God into a creature of dogma rather than the experience of love and relationality in life. What happened, though, was that I mainly lost interest in the Holy Spirit. It has always seemed kind of peripheral to faith, not something worth thinking about all that much.

I still haven’t thought about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (or the doctrine of the Trinity, for that matter) very much. It simply has not played a significant role in my theological work. I think that is okay, insofar as the Holy Spirit is to be considered as a doctrinal formulation. However, when I try to think of God in the world, especially in light of my thoughts about God as love, then the notion of God as Spirit becomes much more interesting and relevant—and more directly connected with the biblical story.

The Spirit of life

What if we think of the Holy Spirit in relation to an affirmation of the sacredness of life itself—and of each living creature? Maybe we should think of Holy Spirit language as a way of articulating a sense of God as present wherever there is life. One could draw such a sense from the Genesis 1–2 texts I mentioned above. The Spirit as the breath of God that passed over the waters to bring life into being. And the Spirit as the breath of God that animated the dust of the earth to bring forth humanity.

I think it is important to hold those two references together. The point of the special mention of the Spirit in the creation of humanity is not, I would say, to differentiate humanity from other creatures nearly so much as to emphasize the connection between humanity and other creatures. We are all creatures. We are all, we would say now, animals. The long history of human exceptionalism (that we are different from and better than other creatures) has had a devasting impact on other creatures, and now, as we face the abyss of the end of the viability of human life on this planet, we see that that sense of differentiation has had devastating impact on human beings ourselves.

Likewise, I would suggest that thinking of our being alive as being due to the presence of God’s Spirit in us does point to what has often been called “a spark of divinity” in each human being. However, this “spark” is something that we share with all other living creatures and recognizing that all of life is indicative of the presence of the Spirit in each of us should enhance a sense of solidarity and care with and for all of life.

The traditional Trinitarian formulation seems to be a way to hold on to the idea of God being involved in the world while also being this autonomous, Other, all-powerful ruler of the universe. I find it more believable to affirm the Spirit as the main expression of God and largely to jettison the attributes usually attributed to “God the Father.” In making that move, I find myself much more interested in the Spirit and want to give that aspect of God a fuller accounting than the mere mention of “the Holy Spirit” with no content that we see in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. However, I am not confident that the term “Holy Spirit” can be rescued from how it is used in traditional Christian dogma. Maybe simply “Spirit” works better.

The Spirit and human creativity

As discussed in a previous post, I have trouble with attributing the notion of “divine inspiration” to the Bible—at least in the sense of God’s involvement in a way that overrides the limits and frailties of the human writers of the Bible. However, in light of the above discussion, I realize that I have no trouble with the idea of “inspiration” if we define it carefully. That would mean “God-breathed” as in the “breath of God” (meaning the Spirit) being the life-force that animates all of life, including human life.

If we think of the Spirit being engaged with humanity in the sense that all of life is a manifestation of the Spirit, then it would not be hard to imagine that all human creativity, all expressions of life-enhancing thought and action are genuinely inspired. Thus, inspiration is not about God overriding our humanness but about God being expressed in our humanness. Thus, the frailties, the imperfections, even the failings of the Bible are not evidence of the Bible not being inspired. Rather, they are the necessary and inevitable evidence that the Bible is a human document. And, being a human document is the only way the Bible could possibly be inspired. You cannot have an inspired Bible that is not created by human beings with all the problems that are inevitably part of such creating.

This is not to say that everything human beings think and write and say is inspired. I would want to reserve that term for creativity that is life-enhancing. Christians, at least, should think of God in terms of what we see emphasized in the life and teaching of Jesus. From Jesus, we learn that God is best imagined in terms of love. So, what would follow in my thinking is that whatever guides us and empowers us in embodying love of neighbor is “inspired.” We may apply this interpretive principle to the Bible. Insofar as the Bible empowers love it is inspired, God-breathed, the work of the Spirit.

I have no problem thinking of the Bible as being the same kind of phenomenon as other love-empowering writing, as love-empowering art, as all love-empowering creativity. I do think the Bible can work well as a kind of master story that helps us discern what is of God in everything else. This master story as a whole, I would say, is of the Spirit. Even “inspired revelation.” That means we do not seek to separate the inspired from the uninspired so much as read the parts of the Bible that do not seem to be love-empowering in light of the parts that do. We also recognize that all the parts are necessary to understand the whole properly.

The go-between God

A number of years ago, British theologian John Taylor wrote a helpful book on the doctrine of the Spirit that he called The Go-Between God. I have not read the book for several decades, so I am not quite sure how well I would like it now. But I did like it at the time because Taylor placed a strong emphasis on God’s work to enhance interhuman connections. I like the image of God’s main work being that of helping creation function creatively in the relationships between creatures that are necessary and beautiful.

A second book that I read, several times, more recently, is Martin Buber’s classic, I and Thou. Buber also reflects on God’s presence in the space between us as the empowering element of live that enables relationships. More recently, scientists, philosophers, theologians, and many others have helped us understand better and better that the universe is alive, that connection is fundamental among all elements of the universe.

This seems like a good context to develop more thoroughly our understanding of God as Spirit. The traditional understandings of God as Wholly Other seem more to have empowered the devastating dynamic of separation and fragmentation that emerged out of Western civilization. Certainly, many quite insightful thinkers have worked hard to construct Christian theologies that hold onto the classic creedal and confessional formulations while also affirming the universe’s fundamental relationality. So, I do not want to say that that cannot be done, that traditional Christian doctrines are hopeless. I will say, though, that I do not find that they inspire me in my efforts to understand the interconnections among all things—an understanding that seems necessary to our work to contribute to healing in our hurting environment.

This healing work is our vocation, without a doubt. I believe we need to affirm all efforts that do enhance healing. For me, an effort that seems worth pursuing is the effort to understand God as Spirit that is present wherever there is life. The practices in the civilized world to treat the physical world, the animate world, and the human world simply as objects to use need to be resisted and ended. Theology has an important role to play in that resistance. I believe that all our faith convictions need to be scrutinized as we discern what kind of thinking and believing will help us contribute to healing—this certainly includes our basic convictions about God and Jesus. What kind of God image will help us find creativity and connection?

Questioning Faith blog series

4 thoughts on “What is the Holy Spirit? How does it work in the actual world we live in? [Questioning faith #5]

  1. Your emphasis on the Spirit and creativity reminded me of the blessing I gave my daughter upon her 8th grade graduation, when she planned to go to an arts high school to study theatrical production and design: May you be like the artist Bezaleel, the first person in the Bible said to be filled with the spirit, who was commissioned to design the costumes, props and settings for the wilderness tabernacle.

    It was great to be reminded that an artist was the first person in the Bible to be described in this way, reaffirming how connected the Spirit is with human creativity.

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