Paul Knitter May 24, 2015
PENTECOST: FOR ME, THE MOST ‘COMFORTABLE’ FEAST IN THE LITURGICAL CALENDAR
For me, Pentecost is what I might describe as the most comfortable feast in the whole liturgical year.
- I hope my efforts today to explain what I mean by that might be helpful to many, I hope most, of you.
- For most of the Sundays, as I listen to the readings and pray the prayers, I so often experience different degrees of discomfort as I engage in an internal task of translating. I have to translate so much of our traditional language and images about God that imply that he is a transcendent being who exists somewhere, and who intervenes here but not there, who gets angry, who rewards and punishes.
- Well, many of you might comment: “Come on, Paul, if you’re going to speak about God, you don’t have any choice. You can’t avoid anthropomorphic symbols, which should not be taken literally.” Okay I know that. But if I don’t have to take these symbols for God literally, how should I take them? The job of translation can be difficult.
- Today, however, things are different. Today we use a symbol for God that needs little translation—a symbol that I can almost take literally. God as Spirit. This is a symbol that speaks to me, and I think to many people, both personally and intellectually – a symbol that can stir our hearts and satisfy our minds.
- It is also a symbol that has energized, and been energized by, my dialogue with Buddhism.
- But as Richard Rohr points out, the Spirit is a neglected Christian way of speaking about God: “The Church formally believed in ‘The Indwelling Spirit’ (e.g., Romans 5:5, John 14:17), but for most Christians no dynamic or practical theology of the Holy Spirit was ever developed. The Spirit remained the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity, and God remained external and foreign to human experience.” Rohr, May 11, 2015
SPIRIT: CHRISTIANITY’S NON-DUAL GOD
- So how does God as Spirit make God more available to human experience? Allow me to be a bit philosophical for a moment: I do believe that the attractiveness and the power of imaging God as Spirit has to do with the way it invites people to experience the non-duality between God and the world, between God and us. Non-duality means non-separability, or intimate unity.
- To feel God as Spirit is, as it was for Jesus, to feel God as part of our very being. “Spirit” signifies not a being or entity who stands in front of us, but an activity or energy that is both around us and within us. Spirit is not a being who intervenes here but not there; rather, Spirit is an always-present energy that is available if we recognize and allow it. The current is always there. It’s up to us to flick on the light.
- God as Spirit means that God is much more like a verb than a noun —or in the imagery of today’s readings, God is a wind-energy that fills our insides and animates from within, God is an inner force that inspires ordinary people, even “children and slaves, men and women” to prophesy; God is a force that groans within all creation and seeks fulfillment.
WHAT IS THE SPIRIT UP TO?
But what is the Spirit up to? How is Spirit experienced? My dialogue with Buddhism has helped me answer such questions.
- As you know, Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of God – that is, of a being that can exist unto itself, outside of this world. For Buddhists, especially for Tibetan Buddhists, the Ultimate is imaged and experienced as a vast, all-encompassing Space that both animates and interconnects everything. This Space (with a capital “S”!) is the inter-relatedness, or the energy field, that connects everything. Some Buddhists call this Spaciousness Inter-Being.
- In their dialogue with Buddhists, Christians have been exploring how the Buddhist image of the Ultimate as Inter-Being throws light on our Christian symbol of God as Spirit. If Inter-Being is the connecting energy by which we have our being in each other, by which we give life and meaning to each other, then another word for Inter-Being is Love. Indeed, one of my Buddhist teachers defines Inter-being as “Essence-Love”.
- But this is precisely what we mean by God-as-Spirit. Indeed, as far as I know, there are only two “definitions” of God in the New Testament, both of them in the writings of John: “God is Spirit” and “God is Love.”
- That’s what we’re saying when we image and feel God as Spirit. When we love someone, and when we accept love from someone, we are in the Spirit. The Spirit is in us.
- God as Spirit is the Inter-connecting energy of Love that pervades or infuses the universe, that is the Space that holds the universe. As Dante put it: this Spirit-Love is that which “moves the sun and the stars.” (L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle)
Spirit embodied in Jesus:
- And it is this Spirit that we Christians see embodied in the human being, Jesus. This is why we call him divine – because he was so at-oned with the Spirit, so transparent to the Spirit.
- And it is in Jesus that we learn something about the Spirit is up to that is not so clearly present in the way Buddha expressed the Spirit: In Jesus we see that this interconnecting energy of the Spirit calls us to work toward what Jesus, and other Jewish prophets, called the Rule of God.
- In Jesus we see that the Spirit wants to not only transform our hearts but also our society, our city, our nation.
- Buddhists and Christians, in other words, have a lot to learn from each other.
CULTIVATING THE SPIRIT
Spirit as “Advocate” –
- So especially for those Christians who are uncomfortable with the dualistic symbols of God as an outside agent, I suggest we follow the advice of Jesus in today’s Gospel: Let the Spirit take over. Let the Spirit be our Advocate. Let the Spirit be the symbol, the image, by which we feel God as energy in our daily lives – and the symbol by which we continue to connect with Jesus.
- Jesus tells us that it’s good for us that he leaves us and is no longer physically around because this allows, as it were, the Spirit to take over. The Spirit now becomes the risen Jesus-Spirit in us; the Spirit now “testifies on Jesus’ behalf,” and “guides us into all truth.”
- In other words, the Spirit now becomes our primary, our operative, way of feeling Jesus’ presence and of symbolizing the reality of God as a power in our lives.
We are all called to be mystics.
- But to relate to God as Spirit will mean, I think, that we are called – all of us — to what a more contemplative, or mystical, practice of our Christian faith.
- Yes, we can and we need to feel the energy of the Spirit in our liturgies and in the sharing of bread and wine. Yes, the Spirit is also felt in the love we share with each other and in our social action for greater justice in our city and world. These are necessary ways of feeling the Spirit within us.
- But following the example of Jesus, and of mystics in all religions, we also need to find the Spirit in regular – I dare suggest, daily — moments of withdrawal into the desert, moments when we step back into non-action and prayerful silence.
- Besides the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, besides the sacrament of service to others, we also need the sacrament of silence. Some kind of daily contemplative or meditative practice seems necessary – some way of quieting our minds and bodies – in which we simply open ourselves to, and sit in, the presence of the Spirit – and experience God as a real presence, a real energy and resource “that we can always call upon and return to without fail.” (Rohr)
- I guess what I’m saying is that to feel and know God as Spirit calls us all, in different ways, to be mystics – people who through the practice of both the mysticism of service and the mysticism of silence find God in their own experience.
- Maybe this is what my teacher Karl Rahner meant when he told us, way back in the late 60’s, that “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’, one who has experienced ‘Something’, or s/he will cease to be anything at all.”*
I invite us now to make use of our choir’s singing of “Living Spirit, Holy Fire” as a meditation. We’ll listen meditatively to this song and then take a few minutes to allow the words and feelings to sink into the silence of our hearts where the Spirit dwells.
*Karl Rahner, ‘Christian Living Formerly and Today’, Theological Investigations, volume 7, translated by David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 15.