Holy Spirit A Mystical Politics of Liberation

While theologians often speak of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, talk of the "Holy Spirit" has been hard to formalize as doctrine. One of the early church fathers writing on the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus, had to confess the problem of elusive subject matter. "To be only slightly in error [about the Holy Spirit] was to be orthodox" (Pelikan 1971: 213).

It will be helpful here to follow just a bit of this error of orthodoxy. Amid the struggle with the elusive discourse of Holy Spirit, we can understand how this complex notion persistently emerges to speak of liberating communal change. This liberating function comes to the fore dramatically in settings of oppression and colonization, and this is what especially opened the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to partnership with the African notions of spirits that were deployed against oppressive structures like slavery (Ventura 1985: 113).

Three major sources of theological discourse about the Holy Spirit have steeped Christian ideas of the Holy Spirit in meanings of liberating practice of one sort or another. These are certain biblical emphases, a doctrinal dilemma in debates about "the person" of the Holy Spirit, and the imperial frame of early Jesus movements.

Biblical emphases

Many still read biblical references to the Holy Spirit as primarily having to do with extraordinary signs. Believers may think of miraculous workings of God, which are thought to involve a number of extra-body or psychic experiences, all defying established Western science's views of how things happen. These can all be grouped together as kinds of "spiritism."

The Bible abounds with many references to such spiritistic phenomena. The miracle stories about Jesus have often been read as miraculous, extraordinary signs. The writer of the Acts of the Apostles pauses to marvel at the signs and wonders performed by early Christians in the power of the Spirit.

These spiritistic phenomena, however, do not capture the meanings distinctive to biblical understandings of the Holy Spirit. Spiritistic phenomena, after all, are hardly unique to the Bible. From the time of Greek dramatists like Euripides or the Greek philosopher Democritus, marvelous powers and miraculous acts were regularly believed and depicted. Similarly, extraordinary spiritistic phenomena are not limited to the past. Glossolalia, for example, is a kind of spiritistic practice known in several religions and cultural contexts (Goodman 1972). To gain understanding of the Holy Spirit, biblical scholars have had to look beyond the sheer fact of extraordinary spiritism.

Biblical texts do not easily yield up a unified position on the meaning of the Holy Spirit, and certainly not all relevant passages can be examined here. Those who survey the whole range of biblical discourse on spirit, however, discern in it what I will term a "mystical communalism," in which "Holy Spirit" refers primarily to the mystery of God as intrinsic to, immanent in, communal life and development.

For the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, for example, there is a remembrance of the Hebrew scriptures' supposition that the Holy Spirit is God's power to perform special acts in history and community. These include acts of deliverance from Egypt (Exod. 3-14), and human acts of craftsmanship and artistic design (Exod. 35: 31-2). Here, the mystery of the spirit of God is not so much above as in these special and ordinary acts of history and culture.

When the writer of Luke and Acts summarizes diverse spiritistic wonders (healings, speaking in tongues, deliverances from prison, among others), the emphasis falls even then on the Christian community's specific power to execute concretely its basic tasks. New Testament scholar G. W. Lampe summarizes this tendency: "The Spirit links together and binds into a single operation of God, the whole series of events that began in the Jerusalem temple with the annunciation to Zechariah and reached a climax in the free proclamation of the kingdom of God in the capital city of the Gentile world by the leading apostle" (Lampe 1962: 633, emphasis added).

The notion of Holy Spirit as empowerer of community, a community that proclaims Christ, is also stressed in the writings of Paul and John. Paul, even when writing about seemingly individualistic and spiritistic phenomena, takes the Spirit as primarily Christ's presence in and among the faithful. A summary of Paul's logic here was ably given by New Testament theologian Herman Ridderbos:

The thought is not that the Spirit first shows himself [sic] to individual believers, brings them together into one whole, and thus constitutes the body of Christ. . . . The sequence is accordingly the reverse: those who by virtue of the corporate bond have been united with Christ as the second Adam, have died and been buried with him, may know themselves to be dead to sin and alive to God, may also know themselves to be "in the Spirit." They are, because included in this new life context, no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. (Ridderbos 1975: 221, emphasis added)

The Johannine literature, although often referring to the Spirit as "from above," nevertheless presents the Spirit as personal presence and comforter, dwelling with and in the community of love. It was the writer in the Johannine epistles who stressed that the one who does not love cannot love God (1 John 4: 20).

These biblical emphases, then, stress a biblical notion of the Holy Spirit that is integrally bound up with the creation and nurture of communities of agapic love (Outka 1972). The effect of this emphasis on community is not to override the mystical meanings of spirit, but to envision them as located in the experience of love in a communal ethos, and hence ethically relevant. It is a mystical practice, where transcending experiences of the sacred, paradoxically, spring up most dynamically in ways immanent to concrete human experiences of agapic community.

This is not a social reductionism, either in the sense of reducing the mystery of God "down to" only the social, or in the sense of reducing the mystery of the human individual to only social functions. Instead, both God and individual are located in, found in, known in, and come into their own fullest meanings within, humans' relational ethos of agapic love. Thus these biblical emphases have blended the mystical with the social, in a mystical communalism.

A doctrinal dilemma

Centuries of doctrinal development have been devoted to explaining claims that the Holy Spirit is a unique "person" in a divine Trinity. New Testament analysts have routinely pointed out that the term "Holy Spirit" is, in the scriptures, less "a person," and more a "mysterious power of God," "mode of God's activity," "distinctive endowment of God to people," or again, a "mode of God's operation in the church" (Lampe 1962: 626).

What is particularly striking about the attempts to develop the Holy Spirit as person is their arrival at a dilemma, the only way out of which seems to be through a return to some of the biblical emphases summarized in my previous section, thus underscoring a mystical-communal interpretation of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the nature of the dilemma. On the one hand, Christian theologians, in accord with orthodox trinitarian formulas, have long discussed the Holy Spirit as one of three "persons" in a Godhead. On the other hand, most efforts to fill out a view of the person-like quality of this "third person" flounder, providing, mainly, various portrayals of a general, divine force and presence.

Both horns of this dilemma are problematic. If one holds to the claim of the first horn, one fails to give the Holy Spirit a persuasive sense of being a "person." It certainly does not have the symbolic clarity given by terms like "Father" and "Son," the names used for the other two persons in the Trinity. Those theologians who do reason their way to some argument that the Holy Spirit is a person usually display doctrinal argumentation so complex and intricate that it is gras-pable only in the rarefied atmosphere of a dogmatic elite.

The claim of the other horn of the dilemma, which may seem like a necessity given the failures to clarify the "person" of the Holy Spirit, is also unsatisfactory. This is because the language left over for referring to the Holy Spirit, that of a general divine force and presence, depersonalizes Christian discourse about divine spirit. Talk of the Holy Spirit as "person" at least had a virtue of satisfying people's need for symbols of God and of Spirit, which deployed personal imagery. As anthropologists and scholars of comparative religion have emphasized, there seems to exist, interculturally, a human drive to order social life in accord with some symbol system that relates that social life to an ultimate reality portrayed in terms of personal spirits (Douglas 1970: 45). Some theologians, however, actually prefer impersonal pronouns for the Spirit, to signify the Spirit's work in all creation - as force, power, the movement of the non-human. Paul Tillich's comprehensive correlation of "Spirit" with "Life" is just one well-known example (Tillich 1967: III, 11-294).

Discourse about the Holy Spirit as person did not speak to this need for impersonal metaphors, unless it was articulated in relation to the power of the Creator in the creation. Yet the Holy Spirit as person persisted, in spite of its troubling dilemma and rarefied doctrinal conceptuality, because it was a key place in Christian symbols where the faithful located those aspects of their personal talk about God that could not be adequately included under the personal imagery of Father and Son.

Resulting from this dilemma is a challenge to theologians: how to acknowledge the failure of traditional talk about the Holy Spirit as person, without depriving Christians of a person-like symbolic imagery of spirit. Such a deprivation may seem to be no loss, except that not only does it tend to consign the Holy Spirit to becoming something like what Joseph Haroutunian called an "oblong blur," it also leaves many to reach for repersonalizations of spirit discourse that yield superstitious notions of the Holy Spirit, as "friendly ghost" or personal "guardian angel" (Haroutunian 1975: 319-20). Ghosts and guardian angels may be welcome in some personal mythologies, but they rarely enable a communally shared understanding of the Holy Spirit.

The way forward to meeting the challenge posed by the dilemma is to allow the notion of person, when used for the divine life, to be reconstructed by the mystical communalism of the biblical narratives. That is to say, the "personal" nature of spirit is understood less as discrete ego, and more in the cultural terms of relation. In these latter terms, a person is constituted by the mutual relations to others. To be a person is to be a self within multiple and changing relations, in nature and diverse human contexts (Tillich 1967: I, 168-70; MacMurray 1961). On this model, the Holy Spirit is "inter-person." It is divine personal presence, but a presence that is interpersonal, relational, intersubjective. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the flourishing of such a view of the self lies in the tendency in Jamaican vernacular to refer to one's self in conversation as "I-an'-I" (Murrell et al. 1998: 107ff.). St. Augustine is exemplary of doctrinal debate already pointing in the direction of this interaction between beings as constituting the "person(s)" of the Holy Spirit. In his De Trini-tate, he experimented with imagery of the first person (the Father) as the "Lover," the second person (the Son) as the "Beloved," giving to the third person, the role of "Love" between them (Schaff 1956: 215-17).

More recently, other theologians have proposed renderings of the interpersonal meaning of Holy Spirit. One of the most radical formulations of the social character of the mystery of Holy Spirit was given by Schleiermacher who even seemed, at points, to identify the Holy Spirit with the church's life (Schleiermacher 1976: 560-1). In the twentieth century, Tillich is well known for frequently discussing the Holy Spirit as "Spiritual Community," an ideal community realized in history as one of faith and love, under the impact of "the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ" (Tillich 1967: II, 86-245 passim).

Twentieth-century liberation theologians, such as those in Latin America, or contemporary feminist theologians, have also stressed the interpersonal as the locus of the Holy Spirit. For Gustavo GutiƩrrez, the Holy Spirit refers primarily to divine presence in the "specific fabric of human relationships, in persons who are in concrete historical situations" (GutiƩrrez 1988: 109). Feminist theologian Sallie McFague argues that feminists see the Holy Spirit as "a central, if not primary, 'name' for God," but emphasizes the spirit of God as "basically and radically immanent" and in relations of "love and empowerment, of life and liberty, for people and for the natural world" (McFague 1996: 147).

In all these ways, the person-like imagery of divine spirit is preserved but the notion of "Holy Spirit as person" is refocused as interpersonal. The liberation and feminist readings, however, draw from still another source, one giving to Holy Spirit not just a mystical communal interpersonalism but also a pointed and liberating focus. To this we now turn.

Imperial framing of early Jesus movements

The imperial context of the Jesus movements tends to give their spirit discourse another trait. The biblical narrative's view of the Spirit as an agapic mystical communalism can be seen as related to conflicts of power. Hence, the Spirit's mystical communalism is also a mystical politics.

Consider the imperial frame. Jesus' life and work were played out in Galilee and Judea, under a Roman rule and occupation fusing local Herodian kings and religious elites into a ruling apparatus centered on a temple-state system in Jerusalem (Mack 1995). Jesus' closeness to agrarian life and Galilean peoples gave his work a distinctive spiritual character that put him in tension with this ruling apparatus and its religious supporters (Sawicki 2000).

Galilee was a site that was a crossroads of imperial conflict, and its agrarian peoples were long subordinated to meeting the economic and political needs of empire. They also had generated years of resistance to empire (Horsley 1995: 275-6). Jesus, too, would be seen as marginal to the ruling religious and political elites centered on the temple-state in Jerusalem.

Many official churches have stripped their message of much of its political meaning, but it was intrinsic to the early Jesus movement. The very notion of "Gospel," as applied to Jesus' message, for example, was derived from the Roman imperial discourse, where it was used for the "glad tidings" that conquering generals would announce to the citizens after battle (Myers 1988: 123-4). Its appropriation for Jesus' basic message suggests an overall challenge to the religion and politics of the standing imperial order.

There are many more signs of the anti-imperial character of the Jesus movement than can be treated in this essay. We might list just a few: the Gospel presentations of Jesus as contesting the temple-state; Mark's not-so-veiled suggestion that Jesus was in opposition to Roman occupying soldiers with his story of Jesus' exorcism of a demon named "Legion"; Jesus' death by crucifixion, a mode of execution reserved for the seditious who threatened the religiously backed imperial order; the apostle Paul's centering his message on the imperially distasteful notion that a shamed crucified one could be "Lord" (kyrios) or "Savior" (soter), terms traditionally used for the Caesars.

Even in the well-known passage about the Holy Spirit descending upon believers on the fifth Sunday after Easter ("Pentecost"), we can note the counter-imperial implications of the Spirit's emergence. As narrated in Acts 2, people from many lands are described as hearing the new message about Jesus, and hearing it in their own languages. Most traditional interpreters focus on this event in its "extraordinariness," i.e. the strangeness of many hearing in their own diverse tongues. The real marvel, however, is not the surprising translation of a message into many tongues, but that the multilinguistic understanding among many peoples proceeds from Galileans (Acts 2: 7). This suggests also a new polity, one present and emergent from the striking anti-imperial space of tiny resistant Galilee.

When one recalls the content of the message of the Jesus figure, whom the writer of Luke and Acts says was working in the "power of the Spirit" (Luke 4: 14), the Galilean interest in contesting the political reach of empire is strong indeed. Luke's Jesus is dramatically portrayed as one who reaches back to the prophets in order to advance a radically inclusive message of liberation.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4: 18)

This liberating message etches into the Bible's mystical communalism of agapic practice a strong anti-imperial posture and practice.

The community of spirit in the Jesus movement, therefore, was profoundly anti-imperial in nature, indeed was such almost by definition of context. It tended to develop a communal ethos that rejected the establishment of hierarchical power (Schussler Fiorenza 1993: 94; cf. Horsley and Silberman 1997:

163-83). It was marked by a restless political contentiousness; a series of large and small daily resistances to oppressive powers, and a building of new community for and among repressed groups (Sawicki 2000: 172-4). This gave the Spirit of God in Christian community a liberationist character, and this means that the mystical communion of agapic praxis had a strong political element.

That the Spirit was liberating or freeing signified also, of course, that the divine life was, in itself (and not just for the world), distinguished by that freedom. Hence the divine life that is believed to act in history, etched deeply into the dynamism and structure of all creation, is a veritable pulsing of freedom, a resource for catalyzing change in the present (to varying degrees) or change in an eschatological or apocalyptic future (Tillich 1967: I, 232-3).

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