"spirit" or "the holy spirit"

Back in February 2011 I scribbled some thoughts about the trend to drop the definite article - "the" - when speaking of "the church". More recently I have noticed a similar trend when speaking of "the Spirit". Phrases like "not certain where Spirit is calling" show up with increasing frequency (as that one did on a local congregation's website this week). I am not sure what to make of this apparently minor grammatical shift. I think that it is intended to signal something. But what?

Grammatically the definite article - the - indicates that the noun which follows is identifiable to the listener. The indefinite article - a/an - before a noun indicates that the noun is not identifiable to the listener. Hence, "the Spirit" indicates a particular spirit among many, one that the listener identifies and knows. It might be the spirit of love or the spirit of a riot or the Holy Spirit. When no article is placed before a noun this indicates that the noun is being used as a proper name.

So, on first glance, the trend to speak of "Spirit" without a preceding article - definite or indefinite - would suggest that those speaking in this way are using the word "Spirit" as a name for God. In the phrase "not certain where Spirit is calling" the word does, indeed, seem to stand in for the word "God" or the word "Jesus" in common Christian usage. With Pentecost and then Trinity Sunday on the horizon (on May 27 and June 3 respectively in 2012) this certainly seems to be timely and, perhaps, justified. One can imagine some argue that since God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is no difference in naming God as Spirit than in naming God as Father or Son.

Yet my intuition tells me that there is more to this shift than simply choosing the third name of the Trinity as an alternate name for God. I hunch that the main reason for this grammatical shift is a desire to connect with people who say that they are spiritual but not religious. "Spirituality" is seen by many to be more interesting and to have more authenticity than "organized religion". And as soon as the word "spirit" is preceded by the definite article it is referring to a particular spirit. In the case of Christianity "the Spirit" is the Spirit of the God met in Jesus Christ, the cruciform spirit that Paul says is foolishness to Greeks and a scandal to Jews  ( I Corinthians 1:18-25). It is the reason that the New Testament regularly refers to this Spirit as the Holy Spirit. By naming it holy the church is saying that this particular spirit is the odd, peculiar spirit of God. It is not just any spirit, not a human spirit but the Holy Spirit. Long before the trend of dropping the definite article began I noticed colleagues no longer using the adjective "holy" when speaking of the Spirit. This move away from the particular and towards the generic is, I suspect, the result of a desire to appeal to and speak with those for whom spirituality is best spoken of generically and universally rather than in the particular and peculiar way of a cultural-linguistic community like the church.

This is not a new conversation within the church. Remember the controversy surrounding the development of the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century"? While the Apostles' Creed includes the line "I believe in the Holy Spirit" the Nicene Creed proclaims "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]". Here the creed makes clear that the Holy Spirit, while one with the God who gives life, derives from God the Father. The Western church includes the clause "and the Son" (the famous "Filioque" clause) in recognition of texts such as John 15:26-16:15. This spirit is not a generic spirit of love, it is the particular spirit of the God met in Jesus Christ. It proceeds from this particular source and must always be received as one with the God met in the Law and the Prophets and in Jesus, the Word made flesh, Mary's child.

My concern is that we never forget that when the church speaks of the Spirit it is speaking of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. When, in attempting to speak the spiritual language of an officially non-religious culture, the church drops any reference to this particular definition of "spirit" it risks communicating a false gospel, a gospel detached from Jesus' cruciform spirit of dying to self, of suffering for others, of losing the life we wanted in order to receive the odd new life God intends and promises. Without definition "spirit" can too easily be understood as a spirit of self-fulfillment, a sentimental dis-embodied spirituality unrelated to the ache and pain of neighbour and stranger. Perhaps we need to find fresh language in order to proclaim the gospel in faithful, interesting ways to those for whom "Holy Spirit" sounds just too, well, holy. We might speak of "The Odd Spirit", "The Other Spirit" or "The Cruciform Spirit". Then we will always be flagging that we are speaking within a particular narrative about a peculiar Spirit. To do so we will need not only faithful, interesting adjectives but we will also need to continue to use the definite article.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't the spirit which was found in Jesus the human, the Christ spirit which is as old as God, meaning without a beginning or an end?