THE year before men landed on the moon, I learned my first lesson about the Holy Spirit in a small white church sandwiched between a TV repair shop and a donut store on a busy Long Island thoroughfare.
We were a church of immigrants. One day, the local barber, Xavier Munisteri, burst out in the middle of worship in words I didn’t understand. I figured he was speaking Spanish. (He was Italian, but I thought he was Puerto Rican, since the only barbers I’d met, at Mr Haircut — a buck a cut — were Puerto Ricans, who couldn’t speak English but were skilled with talcum powder and a styptic pencil.) Turns out, he wasn’t speaking Spanish. He was speaking in tongues.
No one had prepared me for that moment. I hadn’t yet studied 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Paul discusses glossolalia (speaking in tongues) at length.
I hadn’t yet heard of the Montanists, a second-century movement of enthusiasts who championed what they called the new prophecy, and over whom an early Christian theologian, Tertullian, ran roughshod.
I’d never heard of the filioque, a belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (and not just the Father). I had no notion that, in 1054, a monumental disagreement about this teaching had contributed to the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople.
I’d missed out altogether on the powerful prayer of the renowned 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen:
Holy Spirit, making life alive,
Moving in all things, root of all creative being,
Cleansing the cosmos of every impurity,
Effacing guilt, anointing sounds.
You are lustrous and praiseworthy life,
You waken and re-awaken everything that is.
I didn’t know the simple prayer, Veni Sancte Spiritus — Come, Holy Spirit — which is thought to have been written by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1300s.
I certainly hadn’t read the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Times from 18 April 1906, with the heading, “Weird Babel of Tongues”, followed, in italics, by New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose, Wild Scene Last Night on Azusa Street, and Gurgle of Wordless Talk by a Sister. I missed it: the birth of Pentecostalism, which has spread like wildfire throughout the world for more than a century, especially in the global South and in ever-bulging pockets of the West.
That’s right. I’d missed an entire history of the Holy Spirit, populated by a throng of believers for whom the Holy Spirit held central place, though in dizzyingly different ways.
For years after Xavier burst into tongues, I knew almost nothing about the Holy Spirit. It’s surprising — astonishing, really — that a believing Christian should know so little about one of the Persons of the Trinity. Yet others confess that they, too, know almost nothing about the Holy Spirit.
So where do we start our own lessons about it? With what you’ve been doing for the last minute or two while you’ve read this column: breathing.
Spirit and breath
THE Hebrew word ruach (the ch is pronounced gutturally, as if you’re clearing your throat, and not as the dance, the cha cha) can encompass a breath, a breeze, a rush of wind, an angel, a demon, the heart and soul of a human being, the waxing and waning of life, a disposition like lust or jealousy (a spirit of jealousy, for instance), and the divine presence. The word ruach is resonant; so English speakers should remember that “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit” are like branches that grow from the thick trunk of an aged tree — ruach. At the baseline of life, ruach is breath, or better yet, spirit-breath: the pulse of life within us.
Lesson One, then, takes us to an infamous ash heap. Job, bone-weary, plunks himself down on the ash heap and protests: “As long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit” (Job 27.3). Compare Job, who has little of this spirit-breath left — he talks only as long as he has spirit-breath within him — with his young companion Elihu, who is weary, not from the stench of death, but from waiting: “For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. My heart is indeed like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst” (Job 32.17-19).
If Job’s spirit-breath ekes its way into the void of the ash heap in truthful words, spirit-breath (ruach) in Elihu rolls inexorably over his tongue to form angry words, long fermenting, which he supposes (wrongly, as it turns out) are full of wisdom.
It is tempting to tidy up this section on ruach as spirit-breath by urging you to meditate, to sense the breath within you, to slow down and breathe. This would be an apt exhortation for busy believers in a buzzing era. But to end here would also be naïve, even cowardly, because a storm brews in the distance if we acknowledge the spirit-breath of God in all people. Here is the rub: everyone, not just Christians, has God’s spirit-breath in them.
The theological issue that this observation raises is the relationship between the Spirit of creation and the Spirit of salvation. A horde of 20th-century theologians, such as Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and Karl Rahner, have addressed this issue.
Moltmann, for example, notes: "In both Protestant and Catholic theology and devotion, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of Redemption. Its place is in the Church, and it gives men and women the assurance of the eternal blessedness of their souls. This redemptive Spirit is cut off both from bodily life and from the life of nature. It makes people turn away from ‘this world’ and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit of Christ a power that is different from the divine energy of life, which according to the Old Testament ideas interpenetrates all the living” (Spirit of Life, 1992).
The bottom line is that, if we take the Hebrew scriptures seriously, belief in the presence of the life-giving Spirit is biblical. To acknowledge the presence of God’s spirit-breath in all people does not mitigate the need for the resplendent presence of the Spirit as also sanctifying or saving, poured into our hearts (Romans 5.5) so that we can love God fully; but it does complicate the matter when we peer over the cusp of church borders, and acknowledge the presence of God’s spirit-breath in the lives of men and women who practise virtue and faith without naming the name of Jesus.
One and many
LESSON Two takes us to a valley of dry bones: to Ezekiel’s vision, where Spirit, wind, and breath — all the same Hebrew word, ruach — enter bleached bones, causing them to clink and clank into a fresh community, raised to new life (Ezekiel 37.1-14). The Spirit here is communal, not individual.
Now fast forward 500 years, and travel to another desert where there is a small settlement, not much larger than a football field, which left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. The community at Qumran described itself as a “house of truth in Israel”, a “holy of holies for Aaron”, and a “precious cornerstone”. It existed, its members believed, because it possessed “the holy spirit of the community” (from the Community Rule). The profundity in these passages is its communal character. The Spirit exists in community — a spiritual temple — in a way that transcends individual believers.
The apostle Paul, too, pictured the Church as a Spirit-filled temple when he railed against schisms at Corinth. His language is measured, his logic calculated: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3.16-17).
Note the legal form, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person,” which looks like an Old Testament law: “If someone leaves a pit open. . . and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution. . .” (Exodus 21.33-34a). The Corinthians have dug a pit of schism, into which they’ve fallen, and they will pay the penalty. Cliques at Corinth are not casual, but criminal.
Paul urges the Corinthians, therefore, to understand that creating spiritual provinces (we call them communions and denominations) with one sanctified subdivision reckoned superior to the others, tears the Church into shreds. For Paul, a parcelling of the Spirit is an utterly inconceivable state of affairs.
Paul returns to this point later when he pictures the Church not now as a living temple, but as a body with all sorts of different parts. He bookends a list of spiritual gifts with affirmations about the Holy Spirit: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (12.4); “For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12.13).
At the heart of the Spirit’s presence in the Church lies this realisation: unity is not homogeneity. People of different ethnicities and different social classes, as well as differently gifted people in the Church (1 Corinthians 12.4-12), drink of one Spirit.
Drinking the Spirit — an odd idea, yet the point is clear. If there is a sign of the Spirit, it is unity-through-diversity. There is no challenge in uniformity, no need for the Spirit in homogeneity. There is no greater challenge, no greater need for the Spirit, than when people who live and look fundamentally different are baptised into one body.
Ecstasy and restraint
OUR third lesson transports us to the rolling hills of Kentucky’s bucolic landscape in 1801, where the Holy Spirit, as bystanders recalled, let loose with the roar of Niagara Falls: “At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment, as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens” (from the Autobiography of Rev. James B. Finley, Methodist Book Concern, 1853). Barton Stone, who organised the Cane Ridge Revival, described jerking, dancing, barking, laughing, running, and singing (Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, Yale, 1972).
Contrast this with the decorum of an Anglican service in the rustic fens of Cambridgeshire, and you have a sense of the rift that threatens the fabric of contemporary Christianity. This rift runs geographically, too, separating the Thames from the Amazon, the Lake District from Lake Victoria, Canterbury from storefront congregations, traditionalism from Pentecostalism.
We can obliterate this rift by taking our cue again from the apostle Paul.
The Corinthians had made a mess of spiritual gifts, in part by placing speaking in tongues at the pinnacle of spiritual achievements. In short, they’d contorted the blessing of spiritual gifts into a spiritual pecking order, with religious ecstasy at the top.
Paul struggles to relativise the worth of speaking in tongues. He puts it at the bottom of two lists of spiritual gifts. He tells the Corinthians to pursue prophecy rather than glossolalia. He wedges a poem to love smack in the middle of his discussion of spiritual gifts, to demonstrate that gifts — all of them — are worthless without love.
What Paul does not do, despite Corinthian excess, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. He never tells the Corinthians to be done with glossolalia. He never once demands, given the mess they’ve made, that they give up on ecstatic gifts. Never once.
That’s our cue. Rather than lobbing critiques at various forms of Christianity that are strange to us, are we able to harness our contempt and to recognise the presence of the Spirit in the ecstatic impulse or the weight of tradition — depending upon where we stand? These may not be our chosen ways of experiencing the Holy Spirit, but they may, indeed, be God’s ways, which edify segments of the Church, and reach sectors of our world that we cannot reach ourselves.
Jack Levison is the W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and the author of several books on the Holy Spirit, including Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired life and Forty Days with the Holy Spirit.