Attempts to define the ‘uncontrollable’ Holy Spirit

Published May 1, 2002

PENTECOST, that cataclysmic event which overwhelmed the followers of Jesus (Acts 2) and which “amazed and perplexed” observers, has always fascinated analysts. In western Christianity, attempts to get a handle on God the Holy Spirit, to fit this person of the Holy Trinity into a neat theological package, have proven frustrating. Eastern Christianity, not encumbered with the West’s juridical obsessions, understands the person and work of the Holy Spirit quite differently and with the addition in the west of the Filioque clause (Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son) to the Nicene Creed the theological foundation was laid for the split between western and eastern Christianity in 1054 C.E. “The maddening thing about the Holy Spirit is that it is uncontrollable,” writes Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, in the lead essay in Engaging The Spirit edited by Robert Boak Slocum. A collection of 18 essays originally published as the Summer 2001 issue of the Anglican Theological Review aims to satisfy, “the renewal of interest in engaging the Spirit’s presence and understanding the Spirit’s activity.” [pullquote]The essays cover a broad spectrum of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit from the Spirit’s working in and through the church to an individual’s awakening to the reality of God, from the Spirit’s role in sacramental life to personal spiritual development and growth, and, of course, there is a reasoned and adequate discussion of the Filioque to help one understand the ramifications of this troublesome divider between east and west. Paul F.M. Zahl writes as an "Anglican theologian of the Cross, who understands the atonement, or God for us, as prior in theology to the incarnation, or God with us," and raises important questions: "Is the Spirit solely relational?" "Is the Spirit quantifiable?" Other essayists include well known Anglicans: Travis Du Priest, Louis Weil, Ruth A Meyers, J. Robert Wright, Reginald H. Fuller and Charles P. Price in whose memory the collection is dedicated. Each brings insights from scholarly disciplines. Alexander Golitzin provides “a voice of the Christian east,” and introduces a different way of thinking about the Holy Trinity. After reading the book I can only conclude that Alan Jones is right. The Holy Spirit is uncontrollable and unpredictable and we need to recognize that reality in our own lives and in respect for the experiences of others. The North American baby boomers have had a profound effect on our culture and institutions and the question is always there, “What happens next?” According to Peter C. Emberley in Divine Hunger, Canadians On A Spiritual Walkabout, there is a renewed interest in the sacred. However, this is not a return to traditional religion. “Few baby boomers admit they are ‘religious’ – they say they are ‘spiritual,’ a term whose vagueness is one of the main reasons for its popularity.” According to Mr. Emberley its use, “is also a signal they are distancing themselves from the authority of creed, dogmatic theology, and clergy, in favour of an unmediated and unpatented God.” This is a book that delves beyond statistics. The author has interviewed and spoken to hundreds of Canadians embarked on a spiritual quest here at home and overseas. Through it all there emerges a longing for answers, a willingness to experiment with multiple faiths and a basic intuition about “the interconnectedness of all things.” But it appears to me that whether one settles for traditional certainties from before modernity or the open road of an indeterminate spiritual journey the basic boomer credo is still apparent – me. Reality must be mine to possess in my individual way. As the author says, “Freed from the world, these baby boomers approach religion and faith expecting to behave like bricoleurs playing with paradigms and reconstructing reality.” In an interview Peter Emberley reported some surprises as he pursued his research. “I was surprised by the nearly limitless trust in spiritual directors. The authority residing in institutions and creeds meant nothing to baby boomers, but finding the last “good man” and abandoning nearly all caution and doubt by investing total authority in his or her directions, was the most general pattern I observed.” And, of greater concern to the churches, “I was stunned by the widespread hostility to Christianity, and by an accompanying ignorance of its history or the diversity it harbours.”


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