Where we locate Spirit: This is the great question of our times, is it not?
– Ken Wilber
God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.
– Hildegard of Bingen
Within the Christian tradition, we are accustomed to speaking about God in triune terms. In our personal or formal liturgical prayer, we often name God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;” or as “Creator,” Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”
A professor of mine once noted that the number of books written over the history of Christianity on the image of the Divine in the traditional sense of “Father” or “Creator” would fill whole rooms in a library. The number of books dedicated to the life story and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth as God’s only Son would equal or exceed that number. In contrast, the number of books written attempting to articulate our understanding of the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (also traditionally referred to as the “Holy Ghost”), would take up about half of a single shelf in the same library.
Ever since I heard my professor tell that story, I have wondered why so few theologians throughout Christian history have written on the Spirit. Perhaps the traditional images for the members of the Trinity have something to do with it. The images of God as “Father” or “Creator” both attract speculation and the need for explanation of our relationship as human children or mere creatures to this all powerful God. The life and identify of Jesus of Nazareth have evoked speculation and controversy since the day of his death. The tradition, however, has offered as images for the Spirit a hovering dove or, as in the Pentecost story, tongues of fire. Not much to go on there.
Yet, as many of us, especially Christians, attempt to name the Divine in the context of what we are coming to know in this century about our Universe, the Biblical concept of “Spirit” is one place where theologians, especially feminist theologians, have turned with renewed vigor.
Elizabeth A. Johnson (1993) is one such “eco-feminist” theologian. She has moved her thinking about the Divine into conversation with the story of the Universe. Writing in Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, she summarizes the Judeo-Christian understanding of Spirit as “God present and active in the world.”
As summarized by Johnson, this tradition of God’s presence and action in the world has a three-fold dynamic. First, the Spirit is the source of life. (“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Ezek. 37:5) In the words of the Nicene Creed, the Spirit is the “giver of life.”
The Spirit’s activity does not stop, however, with bringing us into being. The Spirit also provides for the ongoing renewal of life. Echoing the psalmist, Johnson emphasizes the understanding of Spirit as “a rejuvenating energy that renews the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). This energy of renewal drives the life of individuals, communities and institutions. It is a dynamic overlooked in our past attempt to hold a static, mechanistic worldview: the Spirit moves. As Johnson elaborates, this activity of the Spirit makes change a constant reality in an evolutionary Universe:
From the beginning of the cosmos, when the Spirit moves over the waters (Gen 1:2), to the end, when God will make all things new (Rev. 21:5), standing still is an unknown stance. The long and unfinished development known as evolution testifies to just how much novelty, just how much surprise, the universe is capable of spawning out of pre-given order or chaos. In every instance the living Spirit empowers, lures, prods, dances on ahead.
Spirit-filled individuals, communities and institutions, then, are not meant to be static in an evolutionary reality. To remain alive and vibrant, responsive to new realities and needs, they must always and forever change over time. In this process, they must listen ever so attentively for the prompting of the Spirit toward the change and renewal that will continue to bring life.
The Spirit is the source of life and the stimulus for its ongoing renewal. But the tradition gives us a third characteristic of Spirit. As noted by Johnson, it is the Spirit who creates the bonds of community within creation. “The Spirit characteristically sets up bonds of kinship among all creatures, human and non-human alike, all of whom are energized by this one Source,” writes Johnson. Community, then, is a “primordial design of existence.”
The reality of our existence in the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” is that all creation is joined together by the “indwelling, renewing, moving Creator Spirit.” All communities and institutions, no matter how small or large, are a collection of beings in relationship in the Spirit, now. Attending to the demands of relationship – both internal and external – is, therefore, a paramount spiritual concern in any family, community, or institution (pp. 41-44).
Through these reflections by the eco-feminist theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson, and others like her, we can begin to reclaim the image of God as Spirit. We can begin to speak with confidence of the One who is always present and active in our Universe, constantly calling each individual to life in and among the community of beings, and at the same time calling us all to the ongoing cycle of change and renewal that is Life.
To be ever faithful to this Spirit of Life, we humans, particularly those of us living in the noisy, fast-paced culture of the West, also must relearn how to quiet ourselves, how to be continuously attentive to the life-giving and renewing dynamics of the Spirit within ourselves, and within our communities and our institutions.
Johnson, E. A. (1993). Women, earth, and creator spirit. New York, NY: Paulist Press.