Perhaps the most accessible truth of the Christian faith to discuss intelligently is the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin with the words themselves. The words “Holy Spirit” or “Spirit of God,” or “the Spirit,” are symbols in our English language for the Hebrew ruach (breath; spirit), and the Greek word pneuma (breath, spirit). The connection between breath and spirit is still found in English words. Consider, for examples, “inspire” and “expire.” To “inspire” literally means “to breathe [life] into” someone, or to help bring the Spirit of God into another’s mind or heart. The word “expire” means both “to breath out,” and “to breath one’s last,” that is, “to give up the ghost,” to give up the spirit, to die. Where there is life, where there is breath, there is the creative Spirit of God. “The Spirit gives life,” life eternally.
What do discerning Christians mean when they speak of “the Holy Spirit?” They are not talking dogmatically, although there is the dogma of the Holy Trinity in the background, which we respect. When Christians speak of “the Holy Spirit” or “the Spirit,” they typically mean an experience of the presence of God in their soul or mind. The Spirit is the direct presence of the world-transcendent God, the One who brings all things into being. In the New Testament documents, the “Spirit” is used especially by three authors: the Apostle Paul; the evangelist Luke; and the evangelist John. (“Holy Spirit” or equivalents occur throughout the New Testament to a lesser degree.) As I have often explained, in the usage of New Testament authors, when they wish to communicate the experience of God as personal, they symbolize the experiences as “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “the Risen One,” and so on. When they write about their experiences of God as impersonal—as that which enlivens, enlightens, or cleanses, heals, teaches, guides, forgives, comforts, gives peace, and so on—they usually use the term “holy Spirit,” or equivalent. But we know from the Gospel accounts that while the LORD was embodied as Jesus, He is often credited as the source of enlightenment, healing, peace, forgiveness and so on. After Christ’s death and Resurrection appearances, the impersonal experiences of God are credited to “the holy Spirit.” So the distinction is approximate, not complete: Christ is personal—“I love you,” “I have chosen you,” and the Spirit is impersonal: “I was lifted up in the Spirit,” “it is the Spirit who gives life,” and so on. As for “the Father,” the symbol reminds the believer that there is always far more reality to the depth of divinity than anyone could ever experience, no matter how life-changing the conversion or manifestation of “the Spirit,” or of “the Risen Christ.” God remains ever beyond human grasp and comprehension. Self-enclosed experiences are gnostic, not Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit? That is the question that slipped from my lips during a discussion with one of the greatest philosophers of the past century, whom I was questioning as I worked on my doctorate on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy.” To my question “What is the Holy Spirit?,” the philosopher answered with a question that penetrated my heart: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” As a member of a doctrinal Christian church, I had been told that asking questions showed “doubt,” or “a lack of faith.” On the contrary: to ask spiritual questions, life questions, real questions, is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a human being; not to question shows a lack of faith. What a relief to hear this insight, which served to release me from doctrinal imprisonment. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, self-control, and so on; and if one encounters an open mind, someone searching for truth about God and human being, then one is meeting a foremost activity of the Holy Spirit: asking the right questions.
When young people ask us questions that are genuine questions, and not mere quibbling or game-playing, do we realize that they are moved by the Holy Spirit? Or when you say to God, “Do you love me?,” do you wonder, “Am I asking this question of God, or is God asking it of me? Or both at once?” If you ask God in prayer, “LORD, what would you have me do?,” you are motivated by the holy Spirit. If you think you have God figured out, or that the Bible or the Church has “all the answers,” and you refuse to question and to search, then you are thwarting the liberating action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Are you living by the Spirit, or by the flesh—that is, by trusting in God’s presence, or by your own fleeting desires? The Spirit ever draws one beyond the bounds of a self-contained, self-centered existence into “the freedom of the children of God,” into ever expanding horizons. Life without self-imposed boundaries is the realm of the Holy Spirit. To enter into it is to enter into “heaven,” the Kingdom of God, eternal happiness. Amen!
Is Jesus Christ present or absent? If present, in what way(s) is Christ present? If absent, where is he? Where has Christ gone? Does he live “up in the sky with the angels,” or somewhere in the abyss of space, on a strange planet? These questions are those of a child or of a fundamentalist, not of someone mature in Christ. But the question, “How is Christ present, while being absent in body?” is indeed a good and fruitful question. “Seek and you will find.”
The oldest Christian documents (the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, other NT epistles) do not ask these questions directly or as boldly. Rather, they begin with real experiences, and express their experiences of God in Christ in the symbolic language of the New Testament. There is no way to speak of non-physical, non-existent reality except in symbols; and one without experience of their truth may misunderstand the symbolic meaning or consider them to be “meaningless.” In fact, the symbolic language of spiritual experience is precise within its own kind, and is highly meaningful, as generations of the faithful will attest based on their own faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Here are some typical symbolic formulations about the murdered and living Christ: “This Jesus whom you crucified is not here [in the tomb]; He is risen.” “Jesus Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.” Or in words attributed to the Resurrected, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” The expressions of faith in Christ as risen from the dead, as God’s means of ruling over human beings (hence, called “Lord” or Ruler), and as present with his disciples are abundantly found in the earliest Christian writings, long before doctrines had been formulated and fixed, as in the Nicene Creed (321). “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”
The fundamental experience of the risen Christ is always paradoxical: for Christ is both absent and present at the same time. He is absent physically, so that one cannot see a body or hear his voice with one’s ears; but He is present in spirit in the depths of the believer, who has opened himself up to the presence of the living God. The presence of the Risen Christ is variously symbolized as the “I AM with you,” as “Christ is in you,” or in the more impersonal symbol of “the Spirit of Christ is in you.” In other words, although Jesus is not physically present, He is very much spiritually present and active in the hearts and minds of the faithful who open their hearts to the LORD’s presence. Indeed, this opening of the mind and heart to Christ is what is meant by “conversion,” by “coming to faith.” Faith is not a belief about Jesus, but fundamentally a loving surrender right now to His presence. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens the door [of the heart], I will come in and commune with him, and he with me.” The faithful also understand Christ to be sacramentally present in the proclaimed word and in the Eucharist. “Take and eat; this is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of Me.”
These are the issues at stake in the symbolization of Christ’s “Ascension:” not only is Christ risen and alive, but He is active as the presence of the living God who liberates, sanctifies, guides, heals, challenges, rules over those who obey Him. Do not look for a body floating around in space, or for the “Son of God” living on a planet somewhere. These childish beliefs serve to keep God away, to live an autonomous life without the indwelling God. Rather, listen for the “still small voice” of the One who communes, heart to heart, with a trusting and loving human being. It is really that simple. Visual arts portray Jesus as a body disappearing behind clouds, but visual arts must use the physical to disclose the spiritual. Music is less hindered by physical representation. In the music of Schütz or J. S. Bach, for example, one encounters the risen and glorified Christ directly in sound, without being masked by clouds. In their glorious compositions, they directly communicate Jesus Christ. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” And Christ most surely does enter into the mind that is still seeking, who knows it does not know, and longs for a deeper communion. The Risen Christ does indeed come to “the poor in spirit,” to those who question, seek, stay awake, are attentive, listen. Or Christ can ask, “Have I been with you for so long, and yet you do now know me?”