CHAPTER TWO. "SPIRIT" The rarely-used concept of God!
What do we mean by "Spirit"? The following definition of Spirit by Nels F. S. Ferré is only part of a fuller exposition he gives in Chapter 5 of "The Universal Word."
"By spirit I mean the capacity for the fullest possible inclusiveness, accepting the maximum of creative differentiation. (Love and not spirit is productive of such differentiation.) Spirit is the power to remain selfsame and yet to participate, as inner identity, in all forms of being, becoming, and non-being. Spirit is that ground of being or power for being which has the power to create what is in some aspects other than itself. and yet to remain within what is created as its inner identity and even, also, as the power for the integrity of the self-being of the created.
Spirit is the power for flexibility which by being multidimensional can provide as needed such presence and such absence with the created distinctions, such participation and such privacy, and such activity and passivity. Spirit is the reality of perfect identity which yet allows for genuine distinctions of being, doing, and feeling. Spirit is the capacity for congruence that is more than co-inherence, and which can yet co-inhere as needed. Congruence bespeaks identity, whereas co-inherence connotes participation. Spirit is congruent and therefore cannot merely concur.
Spirit is and remains the most inclusive reality, the identity before and beyond, OF, all differentiation whether of being or process. Spirit is the inner unity of all community and communication which is the essence of sameness, with a perfect multidimensional identity which as such can constitute not only the power for all differentiation but the capacity for flexible and conditional relations at the same time and in the same instance but not in the same dimension, of presence and absence, activity and passivity.
Spirit most basically is the reality of the kind of identity which as love and personal purpose, can create and communicate with what is not itself, albeit spirit remains the inner identity of all there is.
Spirit is the category which exhibits the fullest potential for inclusiveness. Ultimately Spirit is. Spirit is one. Reality, in one of its dimensions, is Spirit." (End of quote.)
Those words of profound definition are exciting and explanatory, and provoke an awe-inspiring awareness of the Supremacy and Ultimacy of God\Spirit! With these as our base, let us move on to some further reflections.
What is "Spirit"? Even here our language causes us problems! We tend to think of Spirit in substantive terms. Do we say "IT", or "HE" or "WHAT"? How are we to identify "Spirit"? Is it some "formless vapour", or an "inter-penetrating ethereal presence"? Even in the very attempt to identify Spirit we objectify. In speaking of God/Spirit we have to use language that constantly fails, but we are not then excused from trying to express the reality of the inexpressible!
Perhaps it is ever true that theology is better able to express what God is not, rather than what He is!
In theological terms, and in normal discussion of God, we have more or less adopted the masculine personal term "HE" for God. The New Testament records that Jesus reFerréd to the Spirit as He or Him. Books upon the Holy Spirit, grounded upon Biblical expressions concerning the Spirit, objectively carry on this masculine, "substantive" way of looking at the phenomena of Spirit in the Bible, Church, and life. So, in discussions of "the" Spirit where the gender, substantive way of expressing Spirit prevails, the full awareness of Spirit coming into mind and life is prevented. Anyway, was Jesus referring to the sexual, or the personal, nature of God/Spirit?
In using the personal masculine pronouns concerning God herein, the intention is to emphasise the PERSONAL nature of Spirit, not sexual difference. God/Spirit, having created male and female, knows their sexuality, but as theirs, not His!
"Substance" and "substantive" are used herein to indicate the ontological unit, meaning that which is capable of independent existence. The first chapter of "The Universal Word" entitled "Behind and beyond the Ontological Argument." is enlightening. Ferré confirms that the classical equation (thought, being and goodness).and the drive behind the ontological argument must deeply mean that man believes deep down that he can know an ultimate, that the ultimate is worth knowing, and that the nature of the ultimate matters to both life and knowledge
. Ferré's conclusion that the drive behind the "ontological argument" is faith that truth can be trusted is a pathway some may wish to follow. But for our purpose here we need to know that ontological thinking about God gives Him independent existence as another Being, in this case, as Divine.
We appear to be unable to go beyond "things" to "no-thing". For many minds the concept of "no-thing" or "non-being" is too puzzling! We have admitted that our use of language does not allow us to use other than images or words to express ourselves. We "objectify" our ideas and the concept of utter spirit is perhaps deemed incredible. When we say of God, "he" or "it" or even "she", we objectify and this, of course, we must do in order to communicate, but, in so doing, continue in a substantive mode of thinking. GOD/SPIRIT simply IS! LOVE as PERSONAL SPIRIT simply IS! Humankind tries to "think" God out, to "reason" Him out; to "discover Him"; and even tries to "invent" Him and His ways, as is witnessed by the more exotic religious sects!
The trend of our thinking to a theology of a God above, remote from, and beyond us, while necessary in a sense, and valuable, needs to be reversed, so to speak, and we begin to think and theologize about GOD AS SPIRIT "downward" as it were! That is: Transcendent God/Spirit immanent, in all, through ALL, in ways we have never dreamt possible! This is a Presence of Spirit sometimes felt, or not felt; a Presence of which one may be only partially aware, but of which one may develop a deeper awareness. A Presence of Spirit "in whom we live, and move, and have our BEING"; and "in whom all things cohere". (Acts 17:28 and Colossians 1:17). And a Presence that is inescapable and inevitable!
To realise this Presence is not merely to enter another religious dimension, but to enter reality! It is to begin finding some answers to theological and practical problems, even if it raises another lot of questions! The aim of this writing is simply to point to a way of thinking about, and awareness of, God/Spirit in non-substantive terms. The implications of this different aprehension of the nature of God, and the questions it raises, lie within God/Spirit, and those who think, and live them out!
The present theological picture of God as a "Being"presents a somewhat powerless figure, if, as such Being, He allows, and seemingly ignores, the often tragic experiences of humanity. If He is the powerful, loving God/Being as is currently presented, it creates doubts as to His love and omnipotence. But, if God is the Personal Spirit of Love, then, logically, He cannot be outside or beyond our human experience, but intimately present and involved in it!
The reality of that awareness must change the ways in which we regard and worship God/Spirit. The mystery and transcendence are still there, but knowing God/Spirit inclusively experiencing our lives changes everything! The intention herein is to provoke thinking about that Faith and Reality as will evoke a truer apprehension of God as Spirit. Then answers will be found, even as new questions arise, but all within the Reality of God/Spirit!
Even when we speak of "spirit" or "spiritual" things the question of "what is real" inevitably crops up. The most obvious REALITY is how things appear to us. We live in a world of matter, and often that is all that matters! That is the reality! "That is a real world out there !" is the cry of the self-styled realist, who sees the world and life as "is", and its meaning in pragmatic terms. So, the "material" person, and, to some extent, also the "spiritual" person, are overborne by the sheer weight of the world of material things pressing in upon them. The materialist interprets everything in terms of substance, and is akin to Thomas of the doubting mind, who, unless he can see and touch, cannot believe. It is not "real" to him!
On the other hand, the "spiritual" human has some grasp of the dimensions of the Spirit, and lives in and by it according to the strength of his faith and conviction that it matters more than "matter". But, he too, still thinks about it all from a substance viewpoint, often even in his deepest spiritual experience. This, I believe, is a fact of life. We have to use images to communicate, to try and express the inexpressible, and this is undeniably an essential activity of the mind and human spirituality. But we still find it difficult to grasp the essential nature of God as Spirit. We think of the "material" and the "spiritual" as in a dichotomy - "never the twain shall meet"!
Even in Christian theology, with the Incarnation seemingly negating the above dichotomy - GOD becoming MAN - there remains a strong substantive way of thinking of it. Thus, - A God, in Heaven or Eternity, who dons earthly form for a time, and then after a physical death, rises physically from the grave, and ascends into heaven to sit at the right-hand of God! We speak and sing of a God who came to, and walked this earth, and rose from its earthiness back, we presume, into what was his state before the earth journey! This is purposely crudely put to emphasize its substantive nature. It would be rejected by some, but, in effect, this is the average substantive or ontological concept of what God was doing in Jesus Christ.
Then there is the further complexity of how the western and Christian world view the traditional time of Incarnation - Christmas.There the celebration of Christmas is still a useful, beautiful, and deeply meaningful season, but the combination of good-will and peace with economic factors and spending orgy, sits loosely with Incarnation.
The celebration of the Reality of Incarnation ought to be removed from Christmas. Let Christmas continue to be a Festival of Joy - but let Incarnation of God/Spirit in humanity be celebrated freed from the substantive frame in which it is currently presented at Christmastime! The separation might make people think about the whole truth of Incarnation, for, as Ferré' writes: "Incarnation is not God walking on earth but the Son of God living the life of love"! (?)
The above substantive attitude to Incarnation is reinforced by the way Christian teaching refers to the Spirit. This teaching uses biblical references to "the Spirit of God", "the Holy Spirit", "Spirit"; to build up a doctrinal profile of Spirit. In speaking of God, this teaching refers to Him in Trinitarian terms as "Father", "Son", and "Holy Spirit". Christian doctrines stress the Fall of Man, his sin, his alienation from God, his need of repentance and turning to God. Then follows the receiving of the Spirit of God in forgiveness and reconciliation, and the possibility of having the Spirit as an aid to growth in holiness. This is a shorthand description of the teaching of the Church, but it must suffice as an illustration.
This doctrinal separation of Spirit from man with its exclusive, conditional nature of Spirit, arises, I believe, from dualistic thinking. While there are biblical grounds for this "exclusive" thinking of the "Holy" Spirit, there are also biblical grounds for thinking of the Spirit in an "inclusive" way. One of these is in the Third Chapter of John"s Gospel.
In this chapter, Jesus, in speaking of the Spirit as being like the wind, and as the instigator of the second birth, was saying two inescapable truths. First - that the Spirit is UNPREDICTABLE ("It bloweth where it will"). Second - The Spirit is the agent of regeneration. However, Christian Theology has woven these words into a tight, dogmatic description of the birth of a Christian. It is by the Spirit who cannot be seen, and is a necessary or obligatory experience (You MUST be born again). So it is urged upon his hearers by the evangelist, and a required experience of the converted - to be a born-again Christian!
This limited form of presenting the Spirit as a kind of ingredient in the recipe for salvation disregards the utterly free Spirit made explicit by the words of Jesus about the unpredictable ways of the wind - "You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going!" In other words, Spirit cannot be captured and put under a microscope and analysed, and its functions listed and categorised, and combined in a doctrine entitled: "The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit"!
After Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the mythical story of His resurrection tells us that the image of God/Spirit in Him could not be contained there in that tomb, nor in a box labelled "The Spirit"! We have isolated and protected ourselves from the full impact of Spirit upon our lives, by these attempts to nail God/Spirit down to our descriptions of His/Its entity and activities.
Such thinking fails to appreciate fully the unpredictability and inevitability of Spirit. By thinking of God AND Spirit as "beings" we put them in a category into which Spirit cannot, and never will, be fitted! This substantive thinking of Spirit prevents us understanding the Primacy of Spirit. God IS Spirit! We acknowledge the "spirituality" of God and the Spirit, but in forms that blind us to the inclusive reality of Spirit. With this concept of Spirit it cannot be "God is A spirit", or "God is a spiritual personality", but simply "God IS Spirit". And Spirit is as the wind, unpredictable and unbound!
The wind can be a gentle breeze, or a gale. Its effect can be the cooling of our brows, or blow us off our feet. The bending tree or waving branches, the swaying plants or the scudding clouds are evidences of the wind"s presence. But the wind itself is not seen by us, and we cannot fully trace or predict its activities. Our modern weather experts, of course, can predict some of its activities, but at the time Jesus spoke the complete unpredictability of the wind was acknowledged and understood by most. What they did not then understand, nor is it yet fully understood, is Spirit"s unpredictability, and freedom to be itself, controllable by none!
This attempt to contain Spirit within our theological boxes, marked "For religious purposes only", denies the complete availability for, and permeation of all life, by, and through, Spirit. Whatever description we use, we are unable to describe fully Spirit's activity,in various senses, in all of creation. God/Spirit is in nature, history, persons, and in all the traumas, tragedies, dramas, and discords of human life, as well as in life's joys and pleasures and peace. Further, should we not say that all these phenomena of existence are IN God/Spirit?
Nature, in all its variables, (for instance the wind) can be the "blessing-bane" of the world. The immensity of the universe and its solar systems; the infinite complexities of life under the microscope; the diversity of peoples and cultures; all these in some sense, are the creation, and under the direction, of Spirit. However, there are aspects of creation for which Creator/Spirit is responsible, but in which he/it is not personally present.
The book of Genesis tells us that man was made in the "image" of God. One of the perversions of a substantive theology is to make God in our image. But if God is Spirit, then in our complex, human personage, there is Spirit also! Not another spirit like God's spirit, but God/Spirit actually IN, OF, ABOUT, human beings!
Thus, God/Spirit is experiencing them, in all their human vagaries, joys and sorrows, trials and temptations, but still exercising the freedom to be Spirit, and accepting the "over-against-ness" in them that means either acceptance or rejection. Analytically, this is the difference in Spirit's relation to nature and to persons. Ferré thus distinguishes nature as "spirit in general" and in persons as "Spirit of God" and/or "Holy Spirit. (?)
For God/Spirit is not only spirit, but Love. His love allows us freedom to be human, sinful or good, and is hopeful that we will come to realise that our birth into this life, needs another, or second, birth. This re-birth is into the realisation of Spirit as the reality of all existence, especially our own!.
One does not deny the experience of those who describe their spirituality as "being born again". But, like human birth, one does not stay in a continual state of just being born! There is growth in awareness and knowledge, and experience of life in the world. So, too, there is growth in awareness of Spirit. Because Spirit is love, there is also His/Its acceptance of our slow and limited acceptance of what life in Spirit means. We are accepted as we are, where we are! But there is possible unlimited growth for us in awareness of Spirit!
In this growth, perhaps, we will find where psychic phenomena, spirit possession, demonic behaviour, and psychic consciousness fit in? The criteria for judgement will be whether such phenomena expresses love, otherwise it is a distortion of the image of God/Spirit within.
There will be activities of Spirit within us, of which we will not be aware, or only dimly perceive. There may come a time when we are aware of Spirit's regenerative power in us, then go on in increasing awareness of God/Spirit's experience of, and in us. This is accompanied by the realisation that God/Spirit EXPERIENCES all life, all creation, all peoples, all existence, and even humanity's suffering! But such Love's suffering is in time/history, not in eternity!
Spirit/God acts in multidimensional ways in everything. His/Its attention to creation/nature is not on the same level as His/Its attention to humanity - which is made in His/Its image. That image is surely "spirit", with capacity to respond to its Creator/Spirit.
So, Spirit/God experiences all the levels of humanity's responses to His/Its activity within them. Rejection and acceptance, understanding and misunderstanding, indeed, no part of life-nature-creation-existence can be outside Spirit's presence, control and direction.
"Well," it could be said, "doesn't that allow humanity to opt out of responsibility? If the Spirit is in and through all things, even my sinning, I can do anything without any responsibility! Since it is God/Spirit in me doing it, I could say therefore, `It wasn't me, it was God!'" Oddly enough, there are those who claim the reverse, and say: "It was the devil in me that made me do it!"
However, perhaps such excuses reveal the inborn consciousness of Good and Evil, and of choice (freewill). The "experiment" of God/Spirit in seeking to create love in humanity is, what may be called ra risky one", being founded in and of Love. The individual develops capacity to choose, and takes a stance on his/her choices which are based upon emotion, or reason, or prejudice, or faith. Some choices may be based upon a combination of these. But finally it is a matter of faith, whether in one's own judgement, or in divine influence.
Individuals, from a faith stance, can make a choice and open their life consciously to God/Spirit, who awaits such response. The inclusiveness of God/Spirit's activity surely includes the above choice, yet is still there in the rejection, or ignorance, or unawareness, of such Activity. It is the TOTAL experience of God/Spirit in all the experiences of the personalities created by Him. Paul says truly: "We may be unfaithful, but he is always faithful, for he cannot disown his own self." (2 Tim. 2:12)
We are given this power of denial in order that our degree of response will not be made under duress, or determined in any way, but freely made. Yet, even here, God/Spirit cannot be totally absent!
Nor can God/Spirit be absent from the person of Jesus Christ, who, as the New Testament tells us was ultimately brought to death upon a cross, and believed to have conquered death. If we believe that he is the incarnation of God/Spirit in humanity, then it means that Jesus was the expression of God/Spirit in a totally obedient human being.
Surely this means that God as Spirit is incarnate in humanity, experiencing its crosses, pain, and all that humanity experiences! The "chaos" of existence, with its opposites of joy and sorrow, tragedy and happiness, ill-being and well-being, are combined in a kind of yin-yang totality which is God/Spirit inter-penetrating, sustaining, "living" it all!
When a person undergoes a tragic loss, and cries: "Why does God do this to me?", others give sympathy and understanding. The deeper the tragedy, the greater the compassion and understanding. But, might not the real query be: "Why does God/Spirit suffer this with and in me?" For Incarnation was more than God coming as a human being to provide a sacrificial substitute for sin, so that humans could be forgiven! Incarnation was the revealing of God/Spirit actually in the experiences of humanity, and thereby involving all that forgiveness and reconciliation mean.!
Much is made in theology of the Holiness of God, and His abhorrence of sin. Man is a sinner, but God in His love becomes in Jesus a substitute for the sinner. This is brief analysis and other theories of the atonement can be more acceptable. But are these the whole truth? The astonishing truth could be that if God is Spirit and was in Jesus, then the division between God and humanity is more a matter of response of spirit-image in humanity to the innate penetration of God/Spirit. The At-one-ment is the linking of God/Spirit with the image of spirit in humanity, and
thus experiencing humanity!
The philosophies of "substance" and "process" blind us to the truth of Spirit. Though, in God/Spirit's design, the theology behind the Creeds and doctrines of the Church, including the Trinity, has had a needful place, it has taken us along the pathway of substance thinking. The orthodox, and sometimes "infallible" doctrines of the early and continuing Church, have to face the possibility, if not of total error, then of deep-rooted distortion!.
What is the something "Special" in the Christ-Event? Is it that God suddenly acted at a certain period in history, and appeared in the man, Jesus, who became a son of God? Through Jesus, did God activate a movement, which later disputed the worth and value of the Event, and who Jesus actually was? A dispute that still continues!
Was it a "special" act of God in a "special" man, in a "special" time? Or, was it a revelation of what God/Spirit is eternally? Was it, from humanity's level, a SPECIAL ACT, but from God/Spirit's level, a revelation of what He is, and always has been, and ever will be? And that revelation is: God = the personal Spirit of Love!
There is some truth underlying the book and claim that Incarnation is a myth. At least in the way Incarnation has been interpreted. Thus; God, a Person, actually becoming man in the Person of Jesus. Beyond that myth is the true Incarnation: God as Spirit, indwelling humanity, with open purpose for it! The doctrines of the Church when regarded as "final" statements, are the real myth, for beyond every stage of so-called finality, is the "still-to-be-disclosed-truth"! "..the Spirit of truth...will lead you to the complete truth." (John l6:13)
Where Jesus spoke of the Spirit as being like the wind, it has been treated as a nice, mystic, simile of the Spirit, instead of understanding the insight and experience of Jesus about the non-substantiality, unpredictability, and inclusiveness of Spirit! What was released at Pentecost was not a "new" Spirit, nor a fresh "in-coming" of the Spirit of God, but the releasing of a new understanding of God as SPIRIT! For humanity it seemed like a totally new experience, and so it was, but, for God/Spirit it was the place and time to act and show His constant indwelling in the lives of humanity. "The kingdom of God is among you." (Luke l7:21) "The Spirit of truth.....is with you, he is in you." (John 14:17) Was this latter a mere statement of what was happening, or was it a recognition that Spirit hitherto had been seen as only being WITH man, but now, WITHIN man?
We tend to give ”the” Spirit a "substantive" presence in life. We speak of "He" or "It". We give to the Spirit personality and being. We talk of "possessing" the Spirit; or of a "Spirit-filled person", as though He or It were something we could have as a special gift. We forget the "open-ended-ness" with which Jesus is recorded as speaking of the Holy Spirit in John's Gospel.
The "unbound" nature of Spirit, "blowing where it will", means that we cannot preclude it, or control it, or treat it conditionally, or tie it down to our dogmas. Our substantive method of treating Spirit prevents us from grasping His/Its inclusive nature. Therefore we miss the wonder of the nature of God/Spirit who is the IDENTITY of all creation, and is in humanity, in all things, everywhere and everything. But Spirit is not merely everything and everywhere in pantheistic terms, and to be identified as a force, or power, or foundation.
Spirit simply IS! And that "IS-NESS" of Spirit means that HE IS, IN SOME SENSE, IN ALL CREATION, with the power of differentiation and distinctions. Teilhard de Chardin in one of his Pensees (?) speaks to God as "You who are more me than myself". My individual being, and the individual being of every human creature is that special part of God's creation in which He is as Spirit. We are part of Creation and Humanity, but we cannot be a "part" of God/Spirit!
The personal question arises: "How can I begin to conceive of God/Spirit being Me?" This could never be an egoistic claim, but occurs when we reverse our thinking and conceive God/Spirit not as a Divine Being; not as a Person, as we are, but as SPIRIT who is PERSONAL, without personality; who is LOVE, and not merely a loving being; who is SPIRIT, and not a divine spiritual being.
Is not the trinitarian formula for God, which was formed out of the theological tribulations of the early Church, an inadequate though valuable statement of the multidimensional nature of God/Spirit? The THREE PERSONS, THREE MODES, THREE MANIFESTATIONS, or whatever language we use concerning the Trinity, are they not attempts to describe God/Spirit's multidimensional nature, function and activity?
God, the Personal Spirit of Love, can be said to have within Himself/Itself, at the same time and without division: 1. Ultimacy - the "First without a second"; 2. Love - expressed in Incarnation in the First-born of many brethren, Jesus; and 3. Unity - expressed through Spirit permeating all things, and All being in Spirit, especially humanity in whom the reflected image of Spirit can respond to its source - the Personal Spirit of Love. Is this the TRUE TRINITY?