CHAPTER SEVEN: JESUS, SPIRIT, AND THE TRINITY.
How deeply the image of the "man-god" Jesus has been etched into our Christian heritage and elsewhere! What is called the Incarnation is centred in, and so involved with, the figure of Jesus Christ, that we have "stayed our eyes upon Jesus" and deified him, and forgotten that he was the activity of God\Spirit.
The incident in John 14, where Philip asks of Jesus: "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied" and the response of Jesus: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know Me?" - "to have seen Me is to have seen the Father!" - is usually interpreted as suggesting the divinity of Jesus. Surely Jesus was not suggesting that the Father\God was just like him? Was it not rather that the Father as Spirit was working in him? That the nature\spirit of God was being shown in the nature\spirit of Jesus? "It is the Father (Spirit?) living in me, who is doing the work" - "the Father is greater than I", (John 14:8-9, 10, 28.)
These and other evidences within the Gospels regarding the "indwelling"' of God\Spirit within Jesus are very difficult to explain if Jesus were God, and in view of His own words that God is Spirit!
The true honour is given to Jesus not by bestowing upon Him deity, so that he is elevated to a place in a Triune Godhead, but to honour and love and follow Him, as the truest, chosen human, who was obedient to God\Spirit within him. Here was God experiencing man in a so-far unequalled demonstration of how God can control a human being and live completely within him as Spirit, and as Personal Love. This is the True Incarnation: the Showing of God\Spirit's TOTAL Involvement in humankind and creation. Jesus is a Special Revealing of the Incarnational aspect of Spirit, and so far, perhaps, the greatest humanity can know!
The Gospels and the New Testament Letters are the writings of those to whom Jesus had primary and special appeal. It was to be expected that this appeal of Jesus to His first followers would result in elevating Him to the highest status, namely Godhead. Later, this was followed by the disagreements in the Councils as to his real identity - God or man, or God-man.
Was it the substantive frame of thought, inherited from Greek culture, that evoked these discussions? Could they not think about Jesus and God outside those frames of thought, and knowledge of the day, and thus missed the true identity of both God and Jesus as SPIRIT? The Spirit IS, and IS as Father-PERSONAL; and as Son-LOVE. How will the controversies of the early church be seen if we begin with God as SPIRIT? And how will traditional beliefs regarding the Trinity be affected?
As a teenager, I heard a saying; "The more you know, the more you know you don't know!" This can be applied to personal and communal growth in theological knowledge and awareness. However, we tend to solidify our beliefs in familiar phraseology. Some have never known any other approach than the one they hold, and this hardens into fundamentalist positions which are often defended even unto blood! The history of the Church illustrates this point. But perhaps we have learnt enough of true tolerance and love to be beyond this - or have we?
The belief that spiritual awareness is best explained by, and confined to, the doctrinal forms of belief now held by those within the Christian Church, and all religions, and that they are the soIe basis for spiritual growth, certainly gainsays the truth of the saying above.
There is some fear that the growth of scientific knowledge has undermined the "sure and certain" beliefs of the Church to a dangerous degree. There is also an attitude among the non-church-going community which, deliberately or subconsciously, rejects the "spiel" of the Church as false and\or irrelevant. In view of this tendency to reject the Church and its creeds, if not openly, then in silent avoidance of them, we ask: "Is this rejection, then, to be the fate of the Church?" Will the Church, aware of, and afraid of, the decline of attention to its services and work, still continue to hold to its present format and doctrines? Will it be enough for the Church to strive to awaken interest by evangelistic campaigns, or by charismatic or other practices, but still sticking to unacceptable theological positions?
One of the reasons held for the declining position of the Christian Church is the fact that a number of prominent clergy and theologians have unsettled the faithful by expressing their doubts regarding the divinity of Christ, and His resurrection. One has sympathy with those who thus feel their faith threatened at its very foundation, and who are not offered an acceptable alternative.
An Australian theologian, Dr. Barbara Thiering, has published a book entitled "Jesus the Man." Her dissatisfaction with Christian beliefs, and re-examination of her faith, led her to delve deeply into study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Site of Qumram. These studies led her to the discovery of what is called the Pesher technique.
By using this technique upon the Gospels, she holds that there are revealed hidden meanings in the events and characters of the Gospels and Acts, which are all related to the Qumram community. Jesus was a man associated with other Gospel characters in a kind of political-spiritual community. He did not die on the Cross, so there was no resurrection, and he married Mary Magdalene!
The above brief outline fails to do justice to the immense work of Dr. Thiering, and the quality of her research, but the point of mentioning her work and book, even if one agrees with her stress on Jesus as a man, is that there seems to be a complete absence of transcendence in her assessment of Jesus and the Gospels.
Perhaps even the most critical observer of the New Testament Scriptures will admit to the spiritual dimension of transcendence that arises from them. Dr. Thiering has pursued her thesis almost to the point of the infallibility of the Pesher technique! The question arises: what is most credible, the transcendent note of the Gospels, or the Pesher technique?
The suggestion arises from the theme of this present book that there is another technique, if it can be so-called, and that is "Spirit" technique! By this not only is all of creation and life Spirit-created, but that such phenomena as the Christian scriptures are to be interpreted from the basic reality of God as Spirit!
The New Testament Scriptures are a human expression of the character, teaching, and influence of Jesus. That God\Spirit was in him, and in what was written of him, is not doubted. What is doubted is that every word is authentic. What emerges, as the Scriptures are read in the light of God as Spirit, and not as three persons, is a greater clarity of understanding. The miracles or signs of Jesus are not impossible, but does God\Spirit really need them? Were they Spirit's concession to a sign-loving generation? Why do miracles of that type not occur today? If ever a generation needed such "persuasions", it is surely this one!
The transcendent figure of Jesus, linked with his teaching of God as Spirit, creates a new perspective from which the Scriptures are to be interpreted. This could mean that the critical approach will be accepted, and the Scriptures no longer held inviolable, and used in defence of outworn positions, but freed to be pursued in clearer understanding of them, with God perceived as Spirit as the chief clue.
Therefore, the so-called rattacks" on the Christian Faith by scholars, theologians and clergy, plus the modern rejection of the Church and religion, are challenges to the Christian community to discover the real nature of God as Spirit, which means forsaking the present substantive mode of thinking.
For instance, was Jesus a substantive thinker when he said: "This is my body. This is my blood."? Was he an incredible egotist? Was he speaking about real flesh and blood, or was he referring to the bread and wine as symbols of his person and character as Spirit? Was he misunderstood, and this misunderstanding carried on by St. Paul?
There are problems in the Gospel records about the body of Jesus, from the time of the Last Supper -"this is my body" - to his bodily appearances after death to the disciples, and his final ascension into heaven. To carry on this substantive interpretation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and by inference, our own bodily resurrection, creates problems, not that God\Spirit could not re-assemble our bodily person, but that it does not agree with the concept of God as Spirit! Our bodies are created, and not meant to be permanent in any sense! Recall: "we are spirit with a body, not a body with a spirit"!
Jesus is recorded as saying: "God is Spirit", and as giving long teaching on "the Holy Spirit". As a man, was he so close to God\Spirit, that he felt a Son of God, and had these insights, yet was still a human being as we all are?
The present-day worship of Jesus in hymn and prayer, and action such as the "Global March for Jesus", undoubtedly means much to those involved. But this understanding and belief that "Jesus is Lord" is carried further to "Jesus is God"! But if God is Spirit, how can that be? A Three-person Godhead? A mystery too great for human minds? How can we love God with all our minds, if required to imagine him as One in Three Persons, whereas with God seen as Spirit, we remove a great deal of the mystery!
For God\Spirit, being all-inclusive, and not divisive as we are, is in, and works through, the "Jesus" religion, the fundamentalists, the conservatives, the evangelicals, and charismatic groups! God\Spirit is in and through these Christian and all other religions, individuals and groups, as they are in various stages of spiritual apprehension, and exhibit caring and love.
However, the Christian Church, and all believers in "being"-based religions, have to face the fact that their theological explanations of their faith do not fit completely into the understanding of God as Spirit. One opens a hymn book of a church and finds a section headed "The Being of God", and later on there is a section on "The Holy Spirit", and so on. Theological works also have sections on various aspects of divinity. This systematic co-ordination of theology fails to grasp the first truth of divinity that God is Spirit and not BEING. Consequently, Divinity is divided into a neat doctrinal package of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One cannot avoid the feeling that in this packaging "the" Spirit is s of inferior quality - a kind of secondary, though necessary, adjunct to the object of our faith.
The problem begins when we speak of God as a PERSONAL BEING - even if thought of as transcendent - just as we are personal beings. We carry over into the Godhead our ideas of personality and individuality, and each of the so-called Persons of the Trinity have personality and individuality. To reverse this trend we need to think of GOD AS SPIRIT, who\which is no "being" or "person" as we commonly understand being and personality.
To think of the IDENTITY of God as SPIRIT takes us beyond the idea of God as BEING - and makes "fatherhood" (the personal) and "Love" (Jesus) expressions of the dominant nature of God/Spirit. God is not a Father person. Jesus is not a God person. Both "Father" and "Son" are expressions of the multidimensionality of Spirit. They have been so expressed in history in the will of God\Spirit - "in the fullness of time". Out of that Special Event who was Jesus Christ, has come a Special awareness of Spirit. Has there been sufficient study of the significance of the Gospel of John, especially the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters on Spirit? Are they still interpreted from within a framework of settled creeds and concepts of "being", and never from the ultimate that God's identity is Spirit?
Beside the Christian Church in its main-stream divisions, there also exist various groups, sects, religions, each with their respective followers. Looking at these as a whole, we perceive an amazing diversity of spiritual searching in humanity. All of this is, in some sense, in Spirit. But we are not speaking merely of ra life force", "energy",or whatever the various groups call their motivation or inspiration. rather, it is in the particular "clue" that is given in the revelation of God as Spirit in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that any claim of Christianity or any other religion to be the true one can be made. However, Christianity can claim that its revelation of GOD/SPIRIT as inter-penetrating ALL, came out of its origins. The Jesus of the Gospels gives a clearer view of the meaning of Spirit, Who/Which we affirm again, is the PERSONAL SPIRIT OF LOVE.
It is possible for everyone to identify with God\Spirit, because of the Spirit-image in them. God\Spirit is in all humans, but with great variety. (See 1 Cor. 12:4-13). And, unpalatable as it may appear,
God\Spirit is in both evil and good, in some senses! God\Spirit is unconfined, unlimited, but is also able to be present or absent, according to humanity's need of freedom, and His own will and purpose, and always out of Love. This does not mean that people can make absurd claims (as happens) such as: "the Spirit made me do it!" This claim is sometimes made to try to justify odd and evil behaviour. But if God\Spirit is in and through all, even such distortions, what then? Does God\Spirit tolerate all such distortions, and does even absorb them?
Nels Ferré conceives life on earth as a learning process for humanity - the learning of Love - which, if God IS LOVE, will mean "becoming" Love, eventually, in eternal terms. If SPIRIT IS, and IS in all things, persons, and events, etc., then it is truly God's experience of us that we are talking about! The ferments, the oppositions, the wars, the strivings and seekings, the whole experiences of humankind and Creation are God/Spirit at work, in either an active or passive sense, but still experiencing all that happens, working in all humanity for all to become Love!
To grasp this demands the forsaking of the common understanding of "spirit" that makes God A spirit, among other spirits, paradoxically, as a spiritual "being"! Whereas the biblical affirmation in John 4:24 is: "GOD IS SPIRIT", despite the Amplified Bible's rendering: "God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being)...". This is a contradiction!.
The controversies in the Early Church as to the exact nature of Christ are ironically referred to as being dependent upon whether an `i' should be in or out! Whether the Son was homoiousios "of the same substance" as the Father, or, homoousios, "of like substance?'" That question is important, but for the purpose in hand, note the use of the word "substance". The thinking seems to be in terms of Being and not of Spirit. One wonders what might have transpired in the Councils had this been seen? However, this is speculation, and presumptuous! The Councils proceeded with the arguments whether Christ was of one or dual natures. Was this then of no real importance? Were the Church leaders, whatever their motivation in trying to solve the problem, chasing a chimera? Or, was it the best possible answer at that stage?
Whatever the final judgement may be on the folly or wisdom of this particular period and problem and the persons concerned, it was a tremendous witness to the influence of the character of Jesus Christ, AND, if we accept the place of Spirit/God in all things, then this particular episode was a stage in the development towards a "SPIRIT-ual" view of the whole Creation!
The question then is not whether Christianity has been wrong, but whether its interpretations have been misunderstood, or distorted, or misused. The History of Christianity has been marred by distortions of its chief motif of Love, but also marked by deeper developments in Christian thinking and action. The periods in History such as the Reformation, the Renaissance, etc. with their deeper thinking and change, together with the less dramatic eras of history, were all times in which God\Spirit was working, for He/It is never "totally" absent at any time or place. Whether it be our times of progression or regression, God\Spirit is never wholly absent.
He\It is present or absent according to need, and especially for learning, and is respectful of our freedom to make mistakes, and receptive of our decisions toward Love.
The Church and its People, while generally accepting the idea of growth in the awareness of Truth (Ref.- "The Spirit will lead you into all truth" - John 16:13) limits it to a growth within the accepted creeds and current life of the Church. Can we be sure that the traditional Church with its dogmas is final? The reference earlier to a Third People of God suggests not! Who is to say that under God\Spirit there may not be successive Peoples of God? And also changes in tradition-laden structures? There could be, and will be, changes in Church life and structure, comparable to the changes made, say, from the Middle Ages to today!
Women priests and all! The problem of women priests in the Church of Emgland, while discussed on the basis of tradition, biblical backing, and sexual difference will inevitably continue! But, is God/Spirit bound by tradition? Does God/Spirit have sexuality? Or, does He/It only know it as a difference in humanity, which is part of Creation? Human sexuality can be misused, distorted, but is not part of the nature of God/Spirit. It is again emphasized that the personal, masculine pronoun is used only to stress the nature of God/Spirit as personal. Recent claims of God as "Mother", perpetuate the concept of God as "being", and a bi-sexual one at that! The Universal, all-inclusive God/Spirit surely can only be satisfied with an All-inclusive People of God/Spirit! Or, is there sexual difference in God/Spirit's image in humanity?
Are our differences, typified by our use of "us" and "them", to forever prevail? God/Spirit knows our experience of differences in colour and creed, in language and culture, in sex and sexuality, but not as His
exoerience. He is personal, but not a masculine person. His Spirit-Image within each human being is the true basis of Love for All, but which becomes distorted by our ego-centred sense of difference to others.
We need to escape from our exclusiveness and entrenched positions
into the Liberty of God\Spirit with all the risks attached. God\Spirit can never be excluded, and was, and is, in all the variations of faith and religion and life. God\Spirit is in Creation, History, the rise and fall of civilizations, in war and disasters, in economic and national crises, and, to put it in very minute but important and moving terms, in the cry of a baby, in the tears of a mother, in the pain and suffering of children, in bereavement and sorrow wherever it occurs.
In examining the theology of some theologians, one finds there is exciting, provocative writing from them on the existing themes of Christian Theology. Though many come close to the immanence of Spirit in all things, there seems to be little awareness of the TOTAL INCLUSIVENESS OF SPIRIT.
All know the difficulty of finding words to describe the "inexpressible". The words can only be approximate, but because of the activity of God\Spirit in humanity, and in the revelatory nature of the Incarnation, they also can have meaning, and that far, can be trusted. The words of E. H. W. Meyerstein are appropriate here:
"Myth is my tongue,
which means not that I cheat,
but I stagger in a light
too great to bear!"
John Macquarie, in "The Humility of God", pages 4-5,(?) writes beautifully of that Humility, but he still uses "God" as a separate "Being". For instance, to write: "God who is always coming out of Himself in love and sharing in self-giving." is to make God a "being" of substance and not Spirit. The truth of the self-giving of God is there, but we need new words to describe the nature of God as SPIRIT, to reinterpret incarnation and the Person of Jesus.
Some theological works seem to treat Spirit (Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit) in a SUBORDINATE fashion. Working from all the biblical expressions regarding the Spirit, it seems that a total guidance for Christian living and belief is built up, with the Spirit being a kind of spiritual aide, reverently called in to assist in spiritual development, with clearly defined roads to that spirituality, as prayer, bible-reading, attendance at worship, and service to mankind.
All of this is very helpful and necessary, but it misses the point of the all-pervasiveness of Spirit. It seeks to define the activity of God/Spirit; it tries to chain Spirit to the Church and its people; and, only grudgingly, it would seem, allows Spirit an uninhibited place in the world!.
Will this attitude to Spirit continue? Do we not need a re-examination of the Scriptures from the stance of God as Spirit? Do we not need to re-assess the total Christian and other spiritual experiences of mankind, and do so in relation to the Christian clue to the nature of God as Spirit? It is not that the theological thought of the past and present is meaningless. God\Spirit is in it all, patiently seeking to awaken the human mind and spirit to His Reality as Personal Spirit.
The current situation of the Christian Church and the suggested attitude-change to God as Spirit, may be likened to a worker-artisan who has had to change the tools of his trade to better express his workmanship. What changes is not his basic trade or profession but the tools he employs.
Similarly, the spiritual experience as known in Christianity and other religions, has used tools of expression that have become outworn, and it needs other tools better able to express Faith and experience. The experience of God by, and in, humanity, or God's experience in, and with, the individual and group, is the same God\Spirit, but the "tools" for expressing it must align with the on-going understanding and awareness of the all-inclusiveness of God\Spirit.
The varied spiritual experiences of humankind, therefore, are not nullified by inadequate explanatory theology expressed in substantive terms. But those experiences are ever open to the possibility of a deeper apprehension and awareness of God as Spirit, and its implications for all Life.
Thus the conflicts between the rationalist mind and the mind of faith, are not useless battles. They are God\Spirit seeking to lead into all truth. The present confused conflict between Christianity regarded as THE TRUTH, and the spiritual insights of other religions, plus the reasoned assaults of rationalists and scientists, and the views of disenchanted theologians and clergy, is really a conflict leading to truth. It is not a question of who will be the victor, but how God\Spirit will bring out of the conflict, an understanding and acceptance of SPIRIT as the Reality beyond, and yet in, all the other "realities" we accept, sometimes as false "ultimates".