A brief review of where this series has taken us so far:
- Phyllis Tickle believes we are entering the Age of the Spirit, a new era for humanity in which the Holy Spirit is more fully engaged as member of the divine trinity.
- “Spirits” are things we experience every day. People have unique spirits, as do places and organizations. We are all aware of the spiritual on some level.
So there are spirits of peace, and there are human spirits, and there spirits of disorder and chaos. And… there is also a Holy Spirit, which has sometimes also been called the “Spirit of the Lord” or the “Spirit of God.”
Christians often speak about the Holy Spirit, suggesting a uniqueness that distinguishes itself from all of the other spirits. Also, Christians have often referred to the Spirit of God using gendered pronouns. Over the centuries, it has sometimes been a feminine gender (“she”), but mostly it has been a masculine gender (“he”). Both, however, suggest that the Holy Spirit is a personality, not merely an abstract “force.”
So in the Holy Spirit, we have a “spirit” in the sense I talked about in the last post. But this Spirit is markedly different from other spirits. And those who have experienced this Spirit talk about the Spirit like they would a person.
Paul – the apostle from the New Testament – wrote a lot of very interesting things about the Holy Spirit. In fact, you could say that he and his friends were obsessed with the subject. Here is an example that some of you may have encountered recently, if you go to a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
Here, we have a description not only of the Spirit, but of what the Spirit is doing in our world. Paul believes that he and others have encountered this Spirit of God. In fact, not only have they encountered it. This same spirit also inhabits them – it has become part of them, as are their own, human spirits.
This is a remarkable claim that ought to sound as crazy to us as it no doubt did to the people in Paul’s day. Paul tells the people who receive this letter that – because they have received this Spirit of God – they are able to understand things that would otherwise seem foolish to those who have the “spirit of the world.”
Now, at this point, I think a lot of people miss something very important, and to understand what people miss here, you need to understand something about Paul and the reasons he wrote so many letters.
Paul believes that we are living not in one world, but in two. They both exist in the same time and space, but they are vastly different in one respect: the first is governed by something that Paul often calls flesh or sinful nature. This is a world where people crawl over each other to get to the top, and where those who have wealth and power don’t hesitate to use them to dominate others. It is a world where might makes right. When Paul talks about the “spirit of the world,” he is talking about the spirit that drives people to behave in destructive ways within that world.
But Paul believes there is also another world, one which was birthed when Jesus rose from the dead. In this world, Jesus is considered the “Christ” or “Messiah,” and he has become the true Lord over everything. And now this new world is slowly pushing its way onto the scene – one where humanity can live together in peace and harmony, and where mutual love gives birth to a new era of joy. Paul does not ordinarily use the same language to describe this as Jesus. Jesus called it the “kingdom of God.” But there is no doubt that Paul believed in it, just as Jesus, before him, had taught.
Paul says that the Spirit of God gives his readers the “mind of Christ” in the text that I cited above. In other words, he is saying that his readers no longer have spirits that drive them to live in the old world. Instead, their spirits - inhabited by the Spirit – are part of this new world.
And what does this Spirit that is ushering in the coming world look like? Paul writes about it in another letter, this time to a church in Galatia:
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Do you see the same idea here? The spirit of the world – which here is described as “flesh with its passions and desires” – is gone. The new Spirit, one of love, joy, peace, etc. now inhabits the believer.
Another example. When Luke writes about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he tells a story about Jesus reading from a book in the Old Testament called Isaiah. Luke uses this story to tell us what Jesus is about. And what does the text say?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And there we have the same idea again: this Holy Spirit is “upon” Jesus at the start of his ministry. The result? The poor receive good news, the unjustly captive are set free, the blind see, the oppressed go free. It is a fantastic picture of God’s new world, which this text describes as “the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That – in a nutshell – is my take on the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition. The Holy Spirit is is some ways a “spirit” like any other – a transcendent quality that we sense all around us, but which defies simple observation by sight, sound, or touch. Yet the Spirit of God is also unique, personal, and divine. This Spirit inhabits us so that we are capable of living in this new world where peace, kindness, and gentleness reign supreme.
Next, I plan to talk about two traditions that have taken the Holy Spirit very seriously. First, the more recent charismatic tradition. And second, the more ancient contemplative tradition. What do they have to offer?