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The Holy Spirit
Powerful and Everpresent, But Poorly Understood

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of all the teachings of the church, none is more widely discredited than the doctrine of the Trinity and within the Trinity, no element is more widely misunderstood than the Holy Spirit.  

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Or, to express it in more gender inclusive terms: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

Most of us have some Idea of God the Father, or Creator.

Whether one imagines a fatherly persona with beard and throne in cloud on high or a more rarified notion like Prime Mover, no matter how vague the conception may be, most of us have some mental representation of God as Creator.

And most of us have some idea about Jesus as the Christ.

Whether you picture him literally walking and preaching and healing along the shores of Galilee, or whether your impression is informed by the latest biblical criticism, no matter how incomplete the image, most of us have some mental representation of Jesus.

But pity the Holy Sprit. 

The Spirit suffers a credibility gap of fatal proportions, especially when you refer to the Spirit by that other name: the Holy Ghost. Those very words evoke the aura of a world long past, a medieval world which many believed literally to be peopled by supernatural spirits, demons, devils and, yes, the Holy Ghost.

We often think of the Holy Spirit a part of a far-off, supernatural world, a realm of being remote from our own.  But this conception misses the point. Even within the writing of medieval theologians, the Spirit is meant to be the means by which God is present within the here and now and most especially within human experience.

Without a notion of the Spirit, God the Creator remains a remote, totally transcendent being, without any relationship to the world. And even if such a God did exist, we would have no means of knowing that, because there would be no connection between our time and the Eternal.

Similarly, without a notion of the Spirit, Jesus would be little more than a figure out of literature. No matter what doctrines we might affirm about the divinity of Christ, unless the Biblical images strike home, unless Christ moves out from the pages of the Bible and becomes a real part of our lives, then Christianity has lost its life-giving Spirit, and falls back into the realm of legend. For the Spirit makes the letter and the law come alive and the Spirit endows the Biblical images and even our experiences of God with a life-giving power.

My point here is not to defend a doctrine.  My point is that the biblical concept of the Spirit is tremendously helpful as a means of illuminating experience. Further, the entire notion the Spirit has not been discussed cogently enough. In fact, it may be precisely our failure to clarify this aspect of Christian tradition that accounts for the demise of the church in our time.

And this situation is not improved by those sects and churches that claim a special knowledge of the Spirit. Whether they be the old fundamentalist churches or the new charismatic and mega-churches; these groups all too often constrain and confine the Spirit.  They conceive the Holy Spirit literally as a holy ghost, ghost spelled with a lower case "g;" an extraterrestrial being that swoops down from the heavens to endow certain individuals with special gifts and powers: the healing of cancer, prophetic utterances, speaking in tongues or sometimes lower case rewards like an unexpected check in the mail or victory for your team at the Superbowl.

Now any of these favors may in fact be fruits of the Spirit. If you have just been cured of blindness, the last thing you'd want to hear would be a theological debate about the nature of the healing. Yet if you count yourself among the far larger group who have seldom experienced such a dramatic confirmation of the Spirit, then the problem of knowing God must remain extremely difficult. And we must still be troubled by the arguments of the social scientists who insist, rightly, that such experiences can be explained as happenings of entirely human dimension.

No particular experiences can prove the presence of the Spirit, for these scientific reasons and for theological reasons. The Spirit cannot be pinned down to any particular experience because, like the wind, it blows wherever it wills.

In fact, the biblical images suggest that it moves in and through all of human experience.  From the moment of creation until the end of time, from the Alpha to the Omega, the Spirit is active. From the beginning, when the Spirit is pictured like the wind brooding and blowing over the waters of chaos, until the last days when the Spirit pours like a flood over the whole universe, until “the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

But in the time between these times, in our time, the Spirit is only partially apparent. Jesus suggested our predicament when he said in the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." The poor in spirit.  That phrase cuts two ways. Insofar as we are all creatures of our culture and environment, we are poor in spirit. In fact, this age may be characterized by a poverty of spirit, as all around we see the relics of broken Christendom.

The death of God is no longer news only because the absence of God is demonstrated even in the language of our sermons and prayers when, despite our best intentions, our broken words do not convey the power of the Spirit. Though we may not be aware of the fact, still it is in the Spirit that we live and move and have our being.

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways even through the broken symbols of this civilization. If we consider the biblical vision of the Omega point, the end of time, we find clues that help us locate the Spirit in these times. At the end God will be experienced as a spirit of power, said Isaiah. So in this time, the Spirit is at work within the institutions and structures of power. With all the clamor we have heard recently about “the system,” we often conceive our major institutions in machine-like terms. Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Citibank. These are seen as gargantuan monsters run by impersonal forces, practically beyond human comprehension or control.

But these corporate enterprises are human creations, peopled by human beings and within the walls of the most powerful corporation, the Spirit struggles for breathing room. The delivery of vital goods and services, of jobs and income to the public is a matter of extreme importance, and those who devote their lives maintaining and improving the economy are sustained in their efforts by the Spirit.

Whenever the interests of a corporation can be aligned with the general interest, whenever the quality of human relationships in the board room are deepened, then the Spirit has made its mark. The Holy Spirit operates at the highest reaches of corporate power, and yet institutions of finance cannot be perfect instruments of the Spirit because every institution is committed above all else to its own survival
and its actions reflect the self-interest if its individual officers.

The Spirit tries to make its way within the board rooms of Wall Street, but Wall Street does not provide an entirely friendly welcome to the Spirit. And so it turns elsewhere.

At the end, God will be experienced as a spirit of wisdom, said Isaiah. So in these times the Spirit sustains those who search for wisdom. Many of us familiar with the universities would affirm that there is a spiritual dimension in the pursuit of knowledge. It is a function of the Spirit to push back the horizons of awareness. Whenever people explore the mysteries of time and apace, they are empowered to do so by the Spirit.

When a student, laboring over one more chapter in a long series of assigned readings suddenly finds that the black and white pages of the book have come alive, that discovery is sustained by the Spirit.

Yet the Spirit is only partially manifest in the university because like all institutions, the universities have made their treaties with the potentates of this world and the results of pure research are absorbed into a world of impure motives.  And even within the ivy walls of learning the spirit of wisdom is compromised by dull bureaucracy, petty infighting and interpersonal rivalries.

The Holy Spirit tries to find its way within higher education, but the university is not a perfect dwelling place of the Spirit, and so it turns elsewhere.

At the end God will be experienced as a spirit of justice and power, said Isaiah. And so in these times the Spirit tries to find expression in politics. People have always dreamed of finding leaders who would use their power justly. The Psalmist records the dream of David about his own kingdom: "The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. When one rules justly and in the fear of God, the Spirit dawns upon them like the light of morning, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning."

Like the sun pouring its light and energy over the whole face of the earth — how the world waits for that promise to be fulfilled! Occasionally modest accomplishments do give us reason to hope in politics. The ranks of Congress are salted with men and women who work tirelessly at the dreary task of social change, the painstaking work of politics, as laws are devised to answer human need and solve human problems. The civil rights legislation of the 1960's signaled the possibility that the Spirit could be at work in politics. And yet the spirit of those days has since been dimmed by the continuing specter of racism in this country. There is always a contradiction in politics between promise and fulfillment.

The Spirit of God can speak through the voices of political leaders, but the politician, like the entrepreneur and the professor, is also caught-up in the demonic powers of this world and so the Spirit cannot find its home in politics. And it turns elsewhere.


At the end God will be experienced as a spirit of insight, said Isaiah. And so the Sprit turns to individuals of unusual insight in this day. The Spirit turns to the artists, among others. The creative arts can be a powerful vehicle of the Spirit. Often ignored by the public, the artist operates at thy frontier of consciousness. And if the artist strikes a responsive chord, she or he can sharpen human sensitivities,  can evoke the deepest longings of the heart, can reveal that which is hidden by using the subliminal language of shape, color and form.

At its most sublime, the creative process is a vehicle of tremendous spiritual power. At times the artists, when they return from the mountaintop, are able to tell what they have seen. And yet, all too often the arts become the exclusive avocation of the rich, as works of art are bartered in the marketplace, becoming slick symbols of status instead of sublime signals of the Spirit. And so the Holy Spirit cannot find a safe retreat in the arts. And it turns elsewhere.

At the end, God will be experienced in an outpouring of prophecy, wrote Isaiah. So today the Spirit turns to particular protest movements, minority causes and individual champions of justice. The prophet Micah exemplified the prophetic spirit when he wrote: "I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord and with justice to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin." (Micah 3:8)

So in modern times people like Martin Luther King or Abraham Joshua Heschel have been motivated to cry out against the transgressions of this people. In their voices the Spirit revealed the radical demands of justice. But even the greatest prophets give an uncertain voice to the Spirit. Those who speak the prophetic word are typically mired in their own self-righteousness and we are continually made aware of the fact that they are, like the rest of us, quite capable of miscalculation, exaggeration, and slander. The Spirit cannot find its final expression in prophecy, and so it turns elsewhere to make itself known.

At the end, the world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, wrote Isaiah.

The church is the one community consciously programmed to promote the knowledge of God. Our creeds, prayers, sermons, art, architecture, are all designed to heighten human awareness of the Spirit. And certainly in the movement for renewal in the churches there is evidence that this institution is still a vehicle of the Spirit as people are motivated to worship, act and commune together in new ways.

But like all institutions, the church is corrupted by its own parochial interests and by its sinful choice of the petty over the holy. In fact, the Spirit can be concealed more cleverly by the church because it is tempted to claim the authority of God even when it has lost the life-giving Spirit. And so the Spirit cannot find a perfect sanctuary in the church.

The last refuge of the Spirit is the realm of individual experience. Having been disillusioned by the evils of public life, many of us turn inward to the depths of their own personal lives. If the powers of darkness rule the world, perhaps we can at least find an enclave of peace within that close circle of family and friends which surrounds each of us with their comforts and care.  And this expectation is not entirely misleading. For we do see in the relationship between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, an echo of God's own compassion and love.

The relationship between two human beings can be the most direct and powerful manifestation of the Spirit. Yet the politics of the family can be difficult even devastating as marriages and families are ground into the dust. The Spirit tries to make its home in the family, but even here it does not find a certain rest.

Finally, the Spirit turns to the deep places of the heart. Having failed to find a clear expression of the Spirit elsewhere, some turn to the depths of their own soul to find the solace of the Spirit. And this expectation is not entirely misleading, for we are creatures of God, and even in the silence of our deepest solitude, there are echoes of the Spirit when, in the dark night of the soul, our silence becomes the silence God. Yet even our own souls do not provide a certain refuge for the Spirit. It is just as dangerous to overestimate the purity of your own mind as it in to overestimate politics. For the ego is perfectly capable of masking the most suspect motives in the innocent words of a prayer. And so the Spirit cannot find a permanent place in this world.

As in primeval times, the spirit broods over the face of the deep. While it does not appear fully or completely, in any human activity, it is present nevertheless. It doss not have a place in any single endeavor, nevertheless it blows like the wind through all that we see or do.

We find the Spirit at work within the economic and social structures of society, as institutions do respond to human needs. We find the Spirit brooding and blowing in the pursuit of knowledge, in the opening of the mind to new levels of awareness, in the sudden discovery of an idea or book. We discover the Spirit in politics as corrupt governments and individuals do act with justice; and we discover the Spirit of God in the voices of those who cry cut against the injustices of this society.

We discover the Spirit in moments of ecstasy, in the creative moment, as a work of art or a wonder of nature opens the soul to that which is above and beyond all creation.  And we discover the Spirit in the church; in the old, old words of creed or prayer, words so archaic that we must turn them and tease them until the fire of their origins strikes and we are filled with a life-giving Spirit. We discover the Spirit in personal relationships, as individuals are motivated to remove the masks that divide them, to listen, to learn from each other, to love, and finally to break bread together in a community of the Spirit. And we find the Spirit in our own lives, in moments of silence as the darkness itself is swallowed up in the blinding light of the Spirit.

Prayer:  Oh God of truth and power, pour down upon us an awareness of your Spirit, that we may live and move and have our being, not in the mold of this moment alone, but in the life saving freedom of your Spirit.  Amen

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.