The Holy Spirit in the World

Fulcrum Conference Islington

Inciting Insight: The Holy Spirit

Friday 29th April 2005

The Holy Spirit in the World

Jane Williams
Visiting Lecturer in Theology, King's College, London

Jane Williams - visiting lecturer in theology, King's College, London

Karl Rahner said: 'I really only want to tell the reader something very simple. Human persons in every age, always and everywhere, whether they realise it and reflect upon it or not, are in relationship with the unutterable mystery of human life that we call God' (Karl Rahner in Dialogue, quoted in Grenz and Olson, p. 240).

Karl Barth, on the other hand, described such theologies of innate human connection with God as 'the invention of the Antichrist' (CD 2.1, p. 82).

Traditionally, this has been seen as a characteristic distinction between catholic and protestant theologies. Catholics are caricatured as being more generally in favour of 'natural theology', while Protestants are supposed to stick with a strict theology of revealed knowledge of God only.

Whether this distinction is anything more than a misleading generalisation is neither here nor there. In terms of our discussion today, the question is whether my title is really any different from Bishop Tom's. Is there any knowledge of the work of the Holy Spirit outside the church, the body of Christ? Or can I just say 'I agree with the Bishop of Durham', and leave it at that?

There are good and bad reasons for wanting to talk about the Holy Spirit in the world, as distinct from the church.

Good reasons include a proper respect for the religious seriousness of those who are not Christians, and proper humility from those of us who are Christians, but know that we have often been taught our Christian duty from outside the church.

Bad reasons include a general woolly desire not to appear too exclusivist in our claims about the church, and to fit comfortably into the culture we live in. There can also be a lazy confusion about the doctrine of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit seems to be the nice, new-agey, non-sexist person of the Trinity, most easily detached from the potentially embarrassing language of Father and Son. We can talk about the Spirit in all kinds of contexts where to talk about Jesus or the Father could sound strident or, perish the thought, evangelistic.

There are also good and bad reasons for refusing to talk about the Holy Spirit outside the church. Barth, for example, saw that in his own time his countrymen had simply assumed a seamless connection between God and culture, so that they could not hear God's challenge or his word of judgement on what they were doing. So it is good to be cautious about assuming that the Holy Spirit shares our standards. But we must not introduce a kind of dualism into our relationship with the world. God is the creator and Lord of the whole world, and cannot be confined to the places that we think of as religious.

The Bible does give us some grounds for talking about the Holy Spirit in the world, particularly in the way in which the Spirit is seen as life-giver and animator of all creation. If we can safely assume that Spirit and breath can often be used interchangeably, the role of the Spirit in creation is a central one. Genesis 1.2 describes the Spirit or wind of God in the nothingness before creation. As the Spirit blows, God speaks his creative Word, and something that is not God, that is separate from God, begins to come into existence. In the second Genesis creation story, too, the breath or Spirit of God is what gives life to the creature that God has made from the dust of the ground. God breathes life into Adam, and as the Spirit goes out into the dust, a life that is distinct from God, yet alive with God's life is made. The Spirit creates both the difference and the connectedness between our life and God's.

Psalm 104 makes the point that the Spirit not only gives life but also sustains it: 'when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust; when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground' (Psalm 104.29-30). A similar point is made as Ezekiel watches the breath or Spirit of God animating the dry bones (cf. Ezekiel 37).

But although this may be exegetically interesting, I'm not sure that it gets us much further, in terms of thinking about the Holy Spirit in the world. The texts we have cited do not legitimate any idea that the work of the Holy Spirit in the world can be understood or described in a way that is distinct from the whole work of God in creating and redeeming. God does not have one idea when creating, in which he is assisted by the Holy Spirit, and another idea in redeeming, in which he assisted by the Son. For Christians, the doctrine of creation is viewed in the context of the doctrine of God the Trinity, and the purpose of creation can only be understood in that context. There is no backdoor way to a doctrine of the Spirit in creation except through the Trinitarian purposes of God. I am, in that sense, with Barth in being sceptical about natural knowledge of God. But I don't think that necessarily leads to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is only active in the church, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

The Genesis creation stories do not belong only to Christians but, irresistibly, Christians see here a Trinitarian theology of creation. God the Father goes out in the spoken, intelligible Word, the Son, through the agency of the breath or Spirit of God. In perfect communion, the persons of the Trinity begin to mirror their own inner life of relation in the world that they choose to make. As God makes human beings, he makes them in relation, because that is the only model of being that the universe knows, reflecting its maker.

God is not constrained to create - there is nothing he needs from creation that he does not already possess, and there are no external partners in God's creative act. God creates out of nothing and simply for joy, for fun, you might say. But although nothing makes God create, it is natural that he should. The doctrine of the Trinity suggests that God's nature is already dynamic interplay, even without creation. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are differentiated, though each can only be seen in and understood through the others. The Son is the 'image of the invisible God' (Colossians 1.15), the one who makes the Father imaginable. The Spirit is the breath of the Father, which makes the Son Word, intelligible communication.

But if Genesis imagines a time in which the creation reflects that perfect unity through difference, self-knowledge through attention to the other, it also paints the sorry reality that it knows, which is that the world no longer understands itself like that. Now, self-realisation comes at the expense of rivalry with others, and knowing ourselves as different from each other is a cause for war. In other words, the story of creation moves swiftly into the story of sin and separation, into the description of a world which was made to mirror the life of God and yet does not understand the Word God speaks to it in Jesus. This is how the first chapter of John's gospel describes the sweep of it, from creation through the Word to our rejection of the Word, so that what once gave being to everything now appears only to animate those how become children of God, new-born into the family of Jesus the Son.

Inevitably, the New Testament concentrates on the new creation in Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in breathing the life of Christ into the body of Christ, so that we, too, can call God 'Abba, Father', as only Jesus is entitled to do. But that does not mean that the writers of the New Testament have forgotten that God is the world's creator, and that it exists only for God's purposes, whatever it may think. The New Testament writers are not, for one moment, deceived into thinking that God has given up being the world's God, and decided just to concentrate on Christians. And it is often where the work of the Holy Spirit is mentioned that we get the clues to what God is up to with his world.

I want to concentrate on 3 passages in particular, and try to draw out some ways in which they might illuminate our topic. First of all, of course, I want to look at the intriguing story of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10, then, of course, at Romans 8, and finally at one or two passages in the farewell discourses in John's gospel.

You remember the story of Cornelius. He's a devout man, but not a Christian. God forcibly propels him and Peter together, to teach other. Peter learns that 'God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him' (Acts 10.35). Cornelius learns about Jesus. He learns that everything he has ever understood about God is made sense of through Jesus. Both have their vision of God irrevocably enlarged, and then the Holy Spirit pours down on 'all who heard the word' (v. 44). This is generally taken to mean just Cornelius and his household, but that's not what it says. It says 'all who heard the word'. So the Holy Spirit comes to seal the knowledge that both parties had received, and to bless the unity that they have now learned that they share. Now they belong together, where before they thought they had separate destinies.

In Romans 8, Paul is talking about Christian life and Christian hope in ways that are actually quite confusing, though the passage is so full of good quotes that we often forget to read the whole chapter, and just jump to the bits we like best. But it is actually a description of the painful and joyful connected yet dislocated nature of our current Christian existence. We know that we are connected to Jesus through the Spirit, so that we are filled with the eternal life and promise of God. But that means that we are cut off from our old lives, though not as completely as we would like to be. The old life still has a hold on us, and we still do not fully understand how to live the life of the Spirit, which is why the Spirit's utterance in us, his 'sighs too deep for words' (v. 26), are still beyond our comprehension and ability. The Spirit still has to do it for us, because we are still, in some sense, on an artificial respirator, rather than breathing naturally in God's air or breath.

But although part of our Christian task is to separate ourselves from the old life, part of it is to feel responsible for those who are still in it. We cannot just cut ourselves off so as to make our own moral, spirit-filled lives easier, because instantly we have lost the whole point of our redemption, which is to reconnect us with the life that breathes through the whole world. God wants us to be part of a very large family, while we still long to be only children. Our destiny is connected to the destiny of others and, apparently, of the whole of creation. Like us, creation is partly bound up in death and partly breathing the life of the Spirit. Like us, it groans incomprehensibly because it is partly aware and partly unaware of the life by which it is animated. Like us, it is still suffering from 'hardship, distress, famine, sword' and all the other things that Paul lists in v. 35, and yet must take these as labour pangs, not as signs of death. Our temptation is to see these hardships as signs of separation from Christ, but Paul is not having that lazy theology, which tries to get to unity with God, bypassing the cross. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, Paul tells us. And that is because, in Christ, God is deliberately and visibly present in what we had thought was separate from God.

That should give us reason to doubt our own judgement about where the Spirit of God is at work. Certainly, that's what John 16 seems to suggest. John's is a hard gospel for those who want to see an easy continuity between Christianity and the culture we live in. All of the New Testament writers talk of a disjunction between 'the church' and 'the world', but John's judgment of the world is particularly harsh. 'The World' is the place where darkness makes it impossible for people to discern the features of their maker and redeemer. What's more, the world's ignorance is deliberately chosen, not just an unfortunate accident. The Holy Spirit's work in the world is to make it abundantly clear that the world has rejected its creator and failed to understand the point of its existence.

So in John 16.8-10, the Holy Spirit's work in the world is to convict it of sin. The world is to be shown its stupidity, it is to be shown that all its assessments of reality are wrong. The world thought that Jesus was wrong and should be rejected by good people. The world thought that its own leaders and structures were correct and so they rejected Jesus. But they were completely and utterly muddle-headed. All their standards of judgment were wrong. The Holy Spirit comes to show the world that in being wrong about Jesus, they were wrong about everything. The world has to be shown that Jesus is the place where we see God and so see how we should be living in God's world. In simple Johannine terms, the world needs to see that Jesus and the Father are one, and to make that clear is the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

It is a work that we, the followers of Christ, are to share in. The unity of Father and Son is to be reflected in our unity. This is absolutely vital because it is how the world is to understand the nature of God. If it cannot see the unity between Father and Son, it cannot hope to see the truth of God or the truth of the purpose of its own creation. Our disunity makes the unity of Father and Son incredible to the world. As John puts it, 'I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.' (John 17.20-21). The world cannot hope to know what it is for unless they know that Jesus is, to use the Colossians phase again, 'the image of the invisible God', or in more Johannine language, that Jesus is the one through whom everything that is not God comes into being. In order to know that, the world needs to know that Jesus and the Father are one, which it can't without the witness of the Holy Spirit in the unity of the church. (Incidentally, that's why church unity and mission have to go together. We cannot preach- and I really mean cannot - are not able to, even if we think we are doing it, we are not preaching the gospel while we hate each other, but that's not really part of my brief here today, just part of my ongoing prayer.)

So what I am arguing is that the work of the Holy Spirit is to bear witness to Christ, and to constantly blur the lines for us between the world's connection to and dislocation from the life of God. The Holy Spirit constantly reminds us that we are not good judges of what is and is not connected to God. Only when we see the unity of Father and Son, through the work of the Spirit, can we begin to demonstrate what the world is for.

Let me see if I can clarify this a little:

  • The world only exists because God chose to share his life with what is not God. The world exists to participate in the true life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is the only kind of life that there actually is.
  • But the world has lost touch with its connection with the life of God, and does not know that it depends for its every breath on the breath, or Spirit, of God. It believes itself to be separate from God and tries to live accordingly. The more it tries to live separately from God, the more divided and dysfunctional it becomes, and the less it is capable of mirroring the Trinitarian life of God.
  • So God once more, as at creation, pours himself out into what is not God. It is very hard to talk about this, because the language I use is inevitably inadequate, and I want to make it dramatic, to try to get across the magnitude of what God does. God divides himself, and the Son becomes incarnate, living the life of separation from God that we have chosen for ourselves. He lives outside the life of God, to bring the outside back into that life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • I want to say it like this, so that we can hear it and feel it. God is torn apart from God. Particularly about the cross, that is the only kind of language that I can find to say what I am trying to say. On the cross, God endures the separation from God that is the world's. As Jesus cries, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?', he is the life of God, streaming into our separation. Because Jesus and his Father are ripped apart, nothing can now separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God is in our dislocation from God, as in our connectedness.
  • The Holy Spirit is the connecting thread. Augustine calls him 'the bond of love', the one holds the Father and the Son together, even in their chosen separation for our sake. The Spirit comes down on Jesus at his baptism, so that there can be no doubt that even as he identifies with our sin, he is the beloved Son of God, full of the life of God and so reconnecting the dying world to the only source of life.
  • The Holy Spirit is the breath by which the Father speaks the Son, the Word, into the creation. As God creates what is not God, through the Son, the Holy Spirit is the connection. So, in death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit keeps the connection between Father and Son, the life of God still flowing in the Son, even in his chosen separation, so that death cannot hold him, because God's breath is still active in him. (If you think this is a bit far-fetched and unbiblical, look at Romans 8 again, v. 11 'If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you').
  • So, through our understanding, vague and hazy as it is, of the life of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, we begin to get creatively muddled about the world and the church, about separation and connectedness. Sometimes separation is good and sometimes it is bad, and we can only tell which is which by adopting the standards that the Holy Spirit provides for us, according to John 16. For example, we only exist because God graciously and joyfully allows something that is separate from himself - namely creation - to come into being. But we only live because we are connected to the life of God. In God's own life, it is only because God is not one but three that we can know he is love. Love requires mutuality, which suggests both separation, or distinction, at least, as well as participation.
  • Creation comes into being through separation from God, but it begins to forget that it is not only separate but also connected. So God takes that separation into himself and reconnects it in the incarnation and crucifixion.
  • We who are Christians celebrate our redemption through separation and reconnection. At the eucharist, we deliberately break the bread of Christ's body and take it into all our separated bodies to demonstrate our connectedness. We are the body of Christ, broken apart but held together by the life of the Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead and witnesses to his unity with the Father.
  • We know that, for us, through the redeeming work of God, our separateness from God has become the place of meeting. God has met us in his Son and brought us home. God has gone out to find us, like the Father of the prodigal son, like the shepherd to the lost sheep, like saviour to the world.
  • That means that we know that, at least potentially, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the bond of love, dislocation from God can become the place where God finds us. And that also means that we who know we have been found by God need to view the world very cautiously, knowing that our standards of judgement are not good, knowing that we are looking for the unity of the Father and the Son, which we will only be able to see through the work of the Holy Spirit, whose job it is.

The Holy Spirit keeps the connections. The work of the Holy Spirit in the world is to keep what is not God connected to God. And it does that by demonstrating the unity of Father and Son.

In practice, that means very careful watching and discernment on the part of those of us who are beginning to live in the life of God, the Trinity, where life is interconnected but not monochrome, three and so one. Where human beings see that the people they have rejected and despised and discounted and thrown away are connected to them, there we might see the Holy Spirit beginning to show the world about the wrongness of its judgment by demonstrating the unity of Father and Son. The world judged that it did not need Jesus and discovered that he is the presence of God and the source of life. So what does the world imagine that it does not need now?

Presumably as Christians we ask ourselves this question about the work of the Holy Spirit in the world so as to know how we should react to the world. Can God address us from the world, convert us and lead us into better knowledge through the work of the Spirit in the world?

Let me say in answer to this, first of all, that our Christian disunity makes it fatally difficult for us to know the answer to that, because it affects our ability to discern the unity of Father and Son through the witness of the Spirit. That seems to me what John 16 and 17 are saying. That may be part of the reason why we find this such a difficult question to answer, because we are subverting in ourselves the means of assessment.

What we are looking for in order to discern the work of the Spirit is the unity of Father and Son. This unity is dynamic. It involves going out in order to gather in. In involves a willingess to be broken so that the fragments gathered can feed the five thousand. It involves loving what is genuinely not the same as itself, because any other kind of love is just narcissism.

Probably that sounds like a woolly acceptance of pretty well anything in the name of love. But I find it intriguing that we Christians are so much keener on judging - which we are specifically told not to do - than on loving each other, which we are specifically told we must do. Trying to hold onto each other, through the Holy Spirit, may be extremely painful and involve a loss of our own sense of identity. But do we or do we not believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ? God goes before us wherever we try to bring others home in his name. Our own home here on earth, the church, will have to change unimaginably if it is to be home for all whom God calls into his family. But in our Father's house there are many mansions. Did we really think they would all look like our front room?

We have lost a great deal over the past two thousand years through fear of finding God the Holy Spirit at work without our authorisation. If we really allow him to witness to the unity of the Father and Son in our lives, perhaps we will get better at discerning his witness to the unity of God's outpouring love in the world, too.

Leave a comment