What do 21st century United Methodists actually believe about the Holy Spirit? Are we in danger of lumping the trans-rational in with the irrational and dismissing anything and everything supernatural with a primitive and premodern understanding of the world? Secular critics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens delight in “proof-texting” religious history to elevate the gross abuses of religious power from history and the ignorant faith-as-magic modern aberrations as the “norm,” seeking to ignore any and all good spirituality has wrought in favor of religion’s failings. By relegating religious belief to the immature, infantile and primitive, it is simple to dismiss it wholesale. Yet, this ignores that billions upon billions of people find great hope and peace in religious belief. And beefers like Dawkins refuse to include anyone with half a brain in his definition of “religious.” But there is a bell curve in every belief system, scientific, religious or otherwise. Certainly, there are those simple folk who believe in a benevolent grandfather sitting in the clouds, waiting to grant wishes in the form of prayer to change the natural order and defy physics and biology, but they are the tail three standard deviations from the norm. They are the easy target, used to make religion seem silly and embarrassing (yet, people have the right to believe even this if they so choose…). At the other end of the curve, however, is a small segment of brilliant, progressive, insightful and creative people (scientists included) who are deeply religious and spiritual. When I traveled from college campus to college campus conducting interviews for the seeker study in the early part of the last decade, I encountered dozens of young minds turned off by the tail of the bell curve, but totally ignorant of the leading edge. I introduced many students to a whole new range of voices (including Frank Brennan, Ken Wilber, Jim Wallis, Sebastian Kappen, Leonardo Boff, Charles Hartshorn, Sri Aurobindo, Neill Hamilton) that actually resulted in some becoming Christian. I cannot count the number of people whose gratitude rests in the fact that Christianity was redeemed for “smart” people.
It is a tragic failing that we have allowed spirituality to become associated with simple-mindedness and magical thinking. A very prominent concept during the enlightenment was that of afflatus — divine inspiration, or a deeply spiritual creative impulse that allowed human beings to transcend their earthly limitations to think great thoughts, compose great music, author great literature, create glorious art, and strive toward goodness, truth and beauty. In the Christian faith, afflatus was the “breath of God” (Holy Spirit), alive and at work within the body of Christ. Do we, in our cynical and skeptical age, still believe in afflatus?
Contemporary physics, exploration of the human mind and the potential of artificial intelligence, the scope and nature of the cosmos — these and other “scientific” disciplines are raising questions much more metaphysical than physical? The ground of all being, the purpose of life, the eschatological fate of creation — these explorations occupy a lot of time and attention today. In every generation, great thinkers stand at the limit of human understanding and look into the void wondering what else is out there. In this respect, we are no different from our primitive/pre-modern ancestors.
Within organized religion, the challenge that afflatus affords is critical. Christians have become not a people of “The Book,” but a people of “books.” We do not have one authoritative Bible from which we all draw. Fewer and fewer leaders in our churches can read Hebrew, Greek or early Latin translations. The deeply flawed and heavily biased King James Version of the Bible is still widespread and beloved, but it has given ground to newer translations. Differing theological biases color and filter translations, and the more recent mania for paraphrases and contemporary vernacular renderings of English versions of earlier translations of the Latin from the Greek rephrasing the Aramaic cause reflective thinkers to ask “what is getting lost in translation here…?”. We turn to commentaries, and expository authors — choosing those who espouse most closely what we already believe. We don’t seek to learn or be challenged — but to hear “experts” confirm what we want most to believe (Wright, Spong, Wallis, Warren, Hamilton, etc., come to mind). Add to United Methodists our holy-of-holies Book of Discipline and what a fine stew we have! What possible room have we left the Holy Spirit to teach, guide, challenge or perfect?
Do we entertain the possibility of divine revelation in our day? When we hear about it in the dominant culture, it is generally framed in terms of some whack-a-doodle being told by voices to commit mayhem or worse. The idea of visions, spiritual guidance, or messages from on high belong to the realm of mental illness, delusion, or corruption (just send me $20 and I will lay hands on my computer screen and pray for you…). What would we do if an angel suddenly appeared one Sunday morning in our worship service? (Don’t worry, if angels are among us they are probably showing up where need is great and where they might do more good than listening to our announcements about the upcoming church supper.) If one of our own shared an experience of divine intervention or inspiration would we test the spirits together in a prayer for discernment, or would we simply dismiss the individual as flaky?
We in The United Methodist Church profess a trinitarian belief — God in three “persons”: creator/Father/Mother/Parent/Originator, Son/Savior/Redeemer/Word made Flesh, Holy Spirit/Sustainer/Transformer/Advocate/Counselor. But do we really believe? Do we afford a place not only of honor, but of authority to the “third person”? I am not sure we do. I think we have become too smart to believe in Spooky, the Holy Ghost. The concept has been so attacked, so ridiculed, and so ignored (even IN the church) that we do not have an authentic pneumatology to match our varied theologies and Christologies.
So, what am I calling for? I believe we should bring to bear on our faith the most rigorous thinking, scientific method (experimentation), empirical engagement (meditation, prayer, fasting) with the expectation that we will indeed have an encounter with the divine. We need to do this in community — no loose cannons spouting off what God told them individually — but working and reflecting in wise counsel what we believe God is saying to us today. We have lost credibility with the most highly educated strata of our culture. The powerful witness of a transcendent and trans-rational faith is being subsumed and destroyed by those who make no distinction between this and a primitive, premodern, mythic-magic, immature faith. When we say “come, Holy Spirit,” we need to mean it — and to understand what we mean when we ask for it.