Who needs the Holy Spirit, anyway?


In Marcus Borg's book The God We Never Knew, Borg distinguishes between what he believes to be two different models of God. One, he calls the monarchical model; the other, he calls the Spirit model. Borg makes a point of distinguishing between conceiving of God as Spirit, and the very specific doctrine of the Holy Spirit that is part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Borg writes that "as a root metaphor for the sacred, Spirit images God as a nonmaterial reality pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe" (p. 72). Borg here is describing panentheism. Borg goes on to write

As used in the Bible (and as used here), its meaning is broader than the specific Christian doctrine of "the Holy Spirit", which sees it as one aspect of God. But in the Bible, Spirit is used comprehensively to refer to God's presence in creation, in the history of Israel, and in the life of Jesus and the early church. Its meaning is sufficiently broad to make it a synonym for the sacred. Spirit "evokes a universal perspective and signifies divine activity in its widest reaches." Strongly associated with God's presence in and engagement with the world (God's immanence), Spirit also points to God's transcendence. It images "God's ongoing transcendent engagement with the world."
It is important to consider this question of immanence and transcendence when we consider the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which holds to a very specific conception. The Holy Spirit, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, is seen as one of the three persons of the Divine Trinity, who the resurrected Jesus promised would be bestowed upon his followers after his ascent to heaven. According to the book of Acts, Jesus told his followers "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus was then lifted "up" into heaven (the author of Acts, like others of his time, imagined a tiered universe in which heaven lay literally and physically above the earth.) The author of Acts then reports,
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Shortly thereafter, the author of Acts reports that the apostle Peter proclaimed, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

That is to say, according to this passage, the Holy Spirit is a "gift", only offered to those who have faith in Christ. So, according to this view, the Holy Spirit, far from being a manifestation of the universal immanence of God, is something that is only available to a select few.

As I see it, there are therefore three important implications of this doctrine of the Holy Spirit. First, according to this view, God's immanence (unlike God's transcendence) is conditional rather than necessary; second, it is offered to the world from the outside; and third, because it is available only to a certain set of true believers, it serves as a kind of legitimation of their doctrinal pronouncements. The theology of the Holy Spirit relies on God's transcendence as being primary, his immanence being thus secondary and dependent. God exists outside our plane of reality, according to this view, and he offers his immanent presence on a limited basis, at certain points in history to certain individuals. Further, this viewpoint suggests that God's immanence is not available to all (although, curiously, the author of Acts has Peter proclaiming the gift of the Holy Spirit as having been foretold by the prophet Joel, who said that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh.) The Holy Spirit, with its limited availability, is given credit for inspiring individuals or religious institutions to discovering certain "true" doctrines, which they then know to be true because they have the authority of the Holy Spirit to back them up.

God's spirit, as referred to in the Hebrew Bible, thus became interpreted to mean, according to many Christians, the Holy Spirit. Even though the writers of the Hebrew Bible who used the word ruach (meaning "wind" or "spirit") had no concept of the Trinity, which is clearly a specific Christian doctrine that came much later, Christians retrofitted their theology onto the words of the Old Testament. When the book of Genesis says, for example (according to the NRSV translation), that "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters", many Christians often translate the Hebrew word ruach in that passage as "spirit", and then further interpret that to mean the Holy Spirit.

If, on the other hand, if you take a panentheist view of creation, then God's spirit as an immanent presence participated in, and continues to participate in, the acts of creation taking place in the world. The spirit is not some doctrinally obscure "person" within a divine Trinity, but rather simply the expression of God's immanent presence working in the world. And because the spirit is available to all of us, doctrinal authority no longer becomes the exclusive province of a select few.

To me, as a panentheist, the divine presence is universal and necessary. I see God as both immanent and transcendent. That means that God's spirit is everywhere--it is not conditional, and it is not available only to a select few, and, it did not only penetrate the world at one or more specific times in history. I also believe that some individuals more closely relate to the immanent divine spirit than others do, that some people, through their lives, disclose what it means to be in an intimate relationship with God's spirit. I believe that Jesus was one such person. But one's relationship with the divine is not an either-or proposition; the spirit of God is available to all of us, although some of us are more adept at relating to her spirit than others are.