I was thinking of writing something about the Holy Spirit when I caught a few minutes of the Dick Cheney speech to the American Enterprise Institute. It gave me a frighteningly clear picture of what the antithesis of the Holy Spirit might look like in human form. I took a couple of extra-strength Tums to settle my stomach and a walk around the block to clear my head.
But the point was made. We have plenty of ways of visualizing evil, but for most Christians, the Holy Spirit has no representation except as a somewhat vague notion that preachers go on about each year around Pentecost, or as a deeply felt emotional experience of what is taken to be God’s presence. We talk about being Trinitarians, but as a practical matter the two persons of Father and Son absorb all but a fraction of our attention. The Son is revealed in the very human person of Jesus. Although the Father, apart from Michelangelo, is not to be represented visually, we fully understand the idea of father, and besides, the Hebrew Scriptures are loaded with physical images and visions representing his presence. But the Holy Spirit? I don’t think a descending dove offers much help. The Holy Spirit remains a ghostly figure. The creeds, for example, seem to have tacked on a few brief mentions of the Spirit almost as an afterthought, and even there the Eastern Church has accused the Western Church of downgrading the Holy Spirit to God second class by amending the creeds to assert that she flows from both the Father and the Son as senior to her. Perhaps the Eastern Church is right.
On Pentecost we do get the powerful image of the Spirit as wind and something that reminds those present of tongues of fire. The effect was amazing. A rather timid and fearful gathering became a courageous band of committed followers of Jesus Christ who were able to proclaim that good news in an enormous variety of languages. Acts reports that, for some period of time, those who were baptized in the name of Jesus received a palpable in-pouring of the Holy Spirit in much the same way. There are some Christians today who believe that that is still a requirement for the completion of baptism and is the only certain sign of one’s election to salvation. My tradition holds that there is indeed an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism, but that there is seldom a particular outward sign of that apart from the priest anointing the forehead with holy oil and announcing that it is so.
The point is that, apart from these moments, the Holy Spirit is mostly symbolic and lacking in any real presence in the life of most Christians. That changed for me in 1991 when Catherine Mowry LaCugna, then a professor of systematic theology at Notre Dame, wrote God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life. It had a huge impact on my understanding of the Holy Spirit as the power of God with us. That, I think, is what we have taken too much for granted. The power of God with us is not a ghostly power, but the very real power of God’s love with us. It is not necessary to feel it, or have some emotional response to it, it is only necessary to know it and trust it.
At the same time, it is a power that we can neither manipulate by magical incantation nor honest prayer, and it is a power that can easily be ignored if one chooses to do so. On the other hand, as one grows into the maturity of Christian faith, it is a power that, while never coercive, has an attractive force that cannot be ignored. It is the seductive power of God’s love. What contemporary analogy can I use? How about if the tractor beam on the starship Enterprise was powered by divine love, it would be like that? Perhaps it can be manifested in some ‘slain by the Spirit’ experience, but I don’t think that is either necessary or common. My own experience is far subtler than that.
Perhaps the hardest thing to convince a hurting and doubtful person to do is to trust in God’s power of love that is with them because there can be no promise that the effect of trusting will be what they expect or want, or that they will feel anything in particular at all. Moreover, trusting in the power of God’s love that is with us is not the same thing as giving up free will or trying to figure out what specific plan God has for our lives. It’s simply about trusting and then getting on with life as life comes. I firmly believe that maturity in Christ means to recognize and allow the power of God’s love with us, God’s Holy Spirit, to be the most significant power in our lives. I think that is what scripture means when it says that perfect love casts out fear. I think that is what Jesus was talking about when he said that we were to love one another as he loved us – in the power of God’s love with us. With that in mind, I think I’ll close this post and go say a prayer for Dick Cheney that he may come to trust in the power of God’s love that is with him.