Imagine a quiz programme where the participants are asked, who was Jesus? People would have no difficulty in having something to say. However, if you ask them who the Holy Spirit is, they would no doubt be nonplussed. Jesus is easy to relate to, but in general we don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit, and even the churchgoers on this quiz panel would quickly run out of things to say. We feel a little bit at a loss about the HS. This is partly because for most of us it attracts a lot less attention than Jesus does. We don’t immediately feel we are talking about a person, and in the English language we can sometimes refer to the Spirit as “it”, and that is a denial that the HS is person. In the ancient Syriac language the Spirit is “she”, and in what I’m going to say I shall follow the Syriac practice.
There has been a lot of enthusiasm about the Spirit since about the 1960s. The Spirit is inspiring, innovative, bringer of life and of new things. The Spirit is the presence and life of God in the wonders of the world, and in the sacraments and the life of the church. Some of this enthusiasm has even been in danger of going to far. The charismatic movement has done wonders for Christian worship across the globe, but enthusiasm about the Spirit does run the risk of running into extravagance , leading to subjectivity run riot, dreams and fantasies disconnected from reasonable teaching.
One difficulty for us about the Spirit is this: with Jesus there is a historical story that is highly specific and powerfully engaging. But with the Spirit it begins to feel rather abstract. Where is the back-story of the Spirit? Of course, when you look at it, this is nonsense, because the powerful story of Jesus is the whole point about that person of the Trinity – Jesus became incarnate.
But another problem concerns many of the things we say about the Spirit – for instance we see the Spirit as being linked with the tradition of the divine wisdom, and we see the Spirit as the power of God. But Paul says Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Or again, are told that the Spirit prays in us; but Christ is in us too, always praying. …..And so on. One theologian has that he has been so struck by this problem even suggested a re-wording of a song from Annie get your Gun:
Anything the Spirit can do, the Son can do better; The Son can do anything better than She.
(E.F.Rogers: After the Spirit, p.9)
So are we just doing a lot of lip-service to the Holy Spirit, while really God can feel not much like 3 in one, one in 3, but more like one in 2½.
If this is a problem, is it a problem with the Holy Spirit, or a problem with us? If you asked Christians from the Eastern Orthodox churches, they would say it is a problem with us. If so, what is our problem?
1. The 1st problem is that we are so concerned about what the Holy Spirit does. Now if you think of somebody you know, and you did a list of the things they do – they work in a shop, let’s say, and they go dancing, they keep budgerigars, and so on – your listener would still hardly know anything about the person, and certainly would not know them as a human being. That list of information about what they do would be a start, but only a very limited start. We in the Western churches are very obsessed with our end of things, with what we get. Meister Eckhart in the 13th century said that we treat God like a cow – we want to have some milk to take home, so we can make cheese with it. We are prone to seeing the Spirit as an autonomous entity doling out doses of things that we need. We can indeed say the Holy Spirit does a whole range of fantastic things, some of which I have already mentioned, and all of that is firmly part of the Christian faith. Those things are a start. But we have to go further. This leads to a 2nd way in which we are the problem.
2. Because we are heirs of the Enlightenment, and of the 19th century, we have a very particular idea of what a “person” is. The modern world is fixated on the person as an autonomous individual. We make our own lives according to our own choices, and are sufficient to ourselves. Unless the gospel spreads again in our society, this is, in the long term, a recipe for disaster. This is because persons are social beings in our very fabric through and through. South Africans like to refer to the term Ubuntu – which roughly means “I am a person through other persons”. Our problem with the Holy Spirit can be because we treating the Spirit in isolation. Because our society has made us what we are, we will tend to see the 3 persons of the Holy Trinity something like autonomous individuals. The Holy Spirit is always in the unity of the Trinity. We can’t find a satisfactory label for the Holy Spirit by separating the Spirit out from the Trinity as if we were putting the Spirit on a slide under a microscope. The end of all our journeyings is the Trinity. The 3 persons are persons in and through each other in a perpetual interchange of love. To follow Christ, in the Holy Spirit, is to be drawn into that interchange of love. Whenever we pray, that is the direction our journey is taking. Wherever Christ is at work, there is the Holy Spirit; wherever the Holy Spirit is active, there is Christ. If we want to understand personhood, the Trinity is the place to look. From the Trinity we today have a lot to learn about what it is to be persons.
3. There is a 3rd problem with the way we go about thinking about the Holy Spirit, and that is our tendency to see the Spirit as abstract. A bit like a ghost, or a cloud of gas. According to the Scriptures, however, the spirit is far from abstract. We see in them a Holy Spirit that is always doing concrete things in concrete situations. In the Annunciation Mary becomes pregnant through the Holy Spirit, at Christ’s baptism the Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, at Pentecost there is an experience of wind and Fire, and so on. This then continues in the life of the Church. At a baptism the candidate is plunged or at least doused in water and they have hands laid on them, at the anointing of the sick oil is applied, at ordination hands are laid, and so on. We should always return to the Scriptures and the life of the church, for our basic images of the Spirit. Our sense of the abstract come from the fact that we cannot see the spirit in the same way we can see Jesus in a crucifix or an icon or in the Eucharist. The face of the Spirit we cannot see.
If there are all those problems about how we think of the Holy Spirit, how should we be imagining the Spirit? The Trinity is the key. The unfathomable mystery of God the 3 in one. We know many attributes of the Spirit, and things that the spirit does, but we have everything yet to learn, and we do that by setting our sights on the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is unimaginable mystery, depths of the beauty yet unseen, a person of persons of whose ways we only know but the outskirts.
For example, in a little while some people here will be ordained. The Bishop will say, “receive the Holy Spirit”. The candidate looks to the Holy Spirit as the mysterious sanctifying power of God, ordering them and the Church. And then we go on to look further – to the Trinity. In that laying on of hands we are being drawn into the life of the mysterious Trinity, about whom we know and understand so little – in ordination the candidate is drawn into the love and life of the Trinity, into that loving participation of each of the 3 persons in each other.
What is said of ordination is true of any other part of the Church’s life: when a baby is baptised in the name of the Trinity the same can be said, or when a sick person is anointed, when we make our confession, when we celebrate and receive the Eucharist, when we celebrate the daily prayers of the church, when we pray. God is certainly happy to give us supplies, but the higher we go the more we realise that that is only the start. The further forward we go, the more we realise we are simply attending to the 3 persons in one, and being drawn to participation in them. More and more, we are simply looking.
Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire;
teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of Both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along
this may be our endless song,
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.