Is God Phasing Out the Holy Spirit?
No, but if we focus too much on God we'll lose touch with it.
See also Panentheism: The Universe as God's Body
The site below explores the implications, applications, and possibilities that come from believing that God’s love is uncontrolling. For more on the ideas that inspired these essays, see Thomas Jay Oord’s book,
The Uncontrolling Love of God
HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo."
God's Breathing: A Reflection inspired by Thomas Oord's book
The spoof from the Onion is very funny and uncomfortably true. The truth is not that God is going to phase out the Holy Spirit. It is that many Christians have already phased out the Spirit by focusing so much on the first person of the Trinity or perhaps the Holy Duo – God and Jesus – all the while neglecting the Spirit. Too often, in discussions of God, the Holy Spirit comes as an afterthought.
I think Thomas Jay Oord can help us change that. True, he spends most of his time discussing what Christians might call the first person of the Trinity. He proposes that this person is essentially compassionate, acting in the world of necessity through relational love rather than unilateral power. Accordingly, for Oord, there are things that happen in the world that even God cannot prevent: death, disease, violence, depression. Heal? Yes. But prevent? No. For those who struggle with the question of theodicy, Oord's perspective is especially helpful. As a process theologian, I'm on board.
The Holy Spirit as God's Breathing
But the very phrase he uses in the title of his book -- “the uncontrolling love of God” – points toward the love itself, understood as an animating power in universe and, on our planet, in plants, animals, and people. This presence is the ruach Elohim of the Bible, which we might simply call God’s Breathing. Of course, some Christians will distinguish this universal Breathing from what the New Testament calls the Holy Spirit; but I hope that, for these purposes, we might think of the Holy Spirit as a particular modality of God’s universal Breathing. Thomas Oord’s theology makes space for this Breathing, opening up the possibility of what we might call an open and relational Pentecostalism, albeit with a universal and galactic ambience.
What, then, would be the duties of God’s Breathing from an open and relational perspective? Well, there are a lot of them, and they have a lot to do with creation and salvation. I’ll start with creation.
In the larger history of the universe, God’s Breathing is the energizing and animating lure toward ever-new forms of order such that we have a “continuing creation” in the first place. In our cosmic epoch, about thirteen billion years old by most scientific accounts, God’s Breathing is that counter-entropic lure by which the universe has brought about the emergence of atoms, then molecules, then stars and galaxies, and then, on our small planet and probably on others as well, sentient life. And that’s just for starters. On our planet alone, in combination with natural selection and random mutations, the Breathing is the lure by which, to date, about 8.7 million different forms of life have emerged, the majority of which on land are insects. The Breathing is likewise the breath of life within each living being: own innermost impulse to live with satisfaction, moment by moment, relative to the situation at hand. In Whitehead’s words, it is the lure to live, and then to live will, and then to live better. In human life, the Breathing offers still a newer possibility, which Jesus calls the kingdom of God on earth. It dwells within each of us as our own innermost lure to live with wisdom, compassion, and creativity, as best we can, in communion with other people and the rest of the natural world -- helping bring about just, gentle, and sustainable communities. These “duties” of God’s Breathing pertain to creation and they also pertain to salvation, understood as abundant living for each and all, relative to time and circumstance.
Jesus, a child of Judaism from birth to death, invites us to be faithful to the Breathing and reminds us that the Breathing is faithful to us: as faithful as any covenant can be. We might even speak of the Breathing as Love with an upper-case “L,” because the Spirit perpetually seeks diverse forms of life and existence, heightened formed of sentience, rich forms of connection, and the well-being of each and all. But never is the Breathing one-sided or unilateral. Always it is the uncontrolling love of God: kenotically self-giving.
At least this how things look from the perspective of a particular kind of open and relational theology that so influences me: process theology. In a book called Christ in a Pluralistic Age my own mentor, John Cobb, speaks of this Breathing as the spirit of creative transformation in the world and identifies it with what the Gospel of John in the Bible calls the Logos. He sees Jesus as a decisive (but not exclusive) incarnation of this Logos, which is to say that Jesus is an incarnation of God’s Breathing. He not only opened himself to the Breathing, he became the Breathing for those around him. From Jesus they learned, and we learn, at least two things. We learn that the Breathing calls us toward justice and inclusion of others in humility and respect for differences; and we learn that the source of the Breathing is itself moved by all that happens, like a man on a cross.
So where does this leave us? For one thing, it opens up the possibility of a robust understanding of the Trinity for those who are so inclined. We can see how the Breather and the Breathing and the Son of the Breathing each reveal aspects of a single reality named God. But of course this makes sense primarily for those of us who identify ourselves as Christian, which is roughly thirty percent of the world’s population. What about the other seventy percent: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, Sikhs, Indigenous Peoples, and Naturalists.
It opens our minds to the possibility that the Breathing has been at work in their histories, too, guiding them into forms of wisdom, compassion, and creativity from which we have much to learn that may well be “saving” in their ways as are ours in our way. This doesn’t mean that they speak of their source as God’s Breathing. The Breathing is always more than our names for it; it forever eludes any impulse to restrict it to a particular practice or designation, including “God’s Breathing.” As Jesus recognized, it blows wherever it wishes – uncontrollable as well as uncontrolling.
If, in thinking about God, we begin, not with images of a distant sky god whose powers we debate, but rather with a gentle and loving breeze that is within us and more than us, we may find common ground with a generation of “postmodernists” who are often alienated from God-talk. At least this is the case with me and my own son. See Letter to My Postmodern Son: The Weakness of God and Why It Matters. When talking with my son about God, I don’t begin with a power in the sky but rather with a felt presence in the world. I begin with the Breathing. I am grateful to Thomas Oord for giving me the language.
-- Jay McDaniel