Monday, February 04, 2013

NuDunker Pneumatology


Our next NuDunker conversation is happening this Friday, 2/8 at 11am Eastern. We're talking pneumatology, and you're invited to join in the Google Hangout, which will also be streamed live to YouTube and available for later streaming. The event website is already up, hereSeveral of us are posting blogs with preliminary pneumatological thoughts, (Josh Brockway) (Brian Gumm) and I'll add links to those as they appear. In the meantime, try working the word "pneumatological" into as many casual conversations as possible. It's fun to say. 




Traditional Christology talks about the “work” and the “person” of Jesus Christ, categories that always befuddled my Brethren mindset. In orthodox traditions, the “work” of Jesus refers particularly to the salvific work of Jesus – i.e., saving souls through death on the cross. The “person” of Jesus refers to everything else he did during his 30-odd years on earth. Formed by a tradition rooted in service and action, that distinction never made sense to me. Why didn’t anything other than dying count as “work”? Why did “personhood” exclude death? Somebody was doing some serious theoretical acrobatics to make their point.

But when I try to think about the Holy Spirit, I find myself wishing that someone had, centuries ago, dreamed up some categories with which to work – even if they were as ridiculous as the Christological ones. I love the Spirit; it makes intuitive sense to me. But there is no good way to confine Holy Spirit into orderly theological categories. The Spirit, you know, blows where it will, including beyond the boundaries of rational thought. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

In search of resources to guide my pneumatological thinking, I scanned back through some seminary journals. I found this reflection from a 2005 systematic theology class with Don Saliers (a professor who, being a magical, mystical guru of worship and music, made systematic theology decidedly UNsystematic. In fact, he offered up what he deemed a “systemic” theology, instead. Delightful.):

My search for academic argument to match up with my spiritual practices has led me into a very narrow place that I am currently struggling hard to widen.  I think that an exploration of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit is a good place to start.  Ben [the TA] said in class yesterday that Karl Barth has a “withered pneumatology.”  I, too, have neglected the power of the Spirit, in theology and practice and relationship. 

Dr. Saliers says that we humans are uniquely paradoxically material things enlivened by the Spirit.  If it is true that it is the Spirit that gives us life – that is present in our creation and works constantly to sustain us – then God is present here with us and in us all the time, everywhere.  Discerning the spirits is, of course, always necessary.  But the thought that everyone I encounter is enlivened by God, that I am encountering in each person this mystical paradox of spirited material makes widening my narrow theological corridor a little easier. 

I think that’s what I hope for with a strong pneumatology: the eternal confounding of categories and an insistence upon being open to encountering the Spirit in each and every situation, each and every person. The Holy Spirit refuses to be categorized, confined, condensed, understood. Unlike Jesus, whose personhood we can conceive and deconstruct, and unlike God, whose inscrutable character we are endlessly attempting to define and circumscribe, the Spirit slips our grasp. We’re forever feeling it, chasing after it, forced to pay close attention to the world around us in order to catch a glimpse.

I think we’d do well to let go of our vise grip on Father and Son for a while and spend a little time with Spirit. I’m not saying we ignore God or forget Jesus, I’m just saying that the Spirit might have something rather timely to offer. We’ve spent a whole lot of time trying to agree about who Jesus is or what God is like, and we have not done so well. What if we didn’t need to agree? What if we needed only to try – together – to notice the Spirit’s movement at work in the world; to notice and attempt to join in? What would happen to our life together?

If we were busy paying attention and following the trail of a mysterious Sustaining Spirit, that Comforter in whom we all live and move and have our being, it seems to me that we wouldn’t have time left to waste arguing over morality or hierarchy. If we really committed to discerning and following the Spirit’s wily ways together, I suspect we’d find ourselves much too consumed by that process to bother with the boring dynamics of power plays, politics and narrow theological corridors.

But who knows. Maybe we’d just end up with pneumatologies of person and pneumatologies of work, splitting the Spirit up into manageable categories with which to bash each other’s heads in. It’s been done before.

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