The Pentecost and Pluralism


Next Sunday, churches celebrate the Day of Pentecost.

This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit is said to have been imparted to the Christian Church after Jesus departed. I admit it--I have a bit of a problem with that. I am a religious pluralist and a panentheist, and I believe that God's spirit has been continually available to all people at all times throughout history, regardless of one's religious faith--not just granted as a "gift" specifically to Christians in the last 2000 years.

Christian claims of exclusivity and privilege often play right into this theology of the Holy Spirit. Some would say that God's spirit is deeply concerned about transmitting correct dogma to believers in this supposedly one true religion. The Holy Spirit is also often said to have guided not just individual Christians, but the Church as a corporate body. This leads some Christians to invoke the Holy Spirit as a way of settling theological arguments. If one asks, for example, why we must accept the decisions of various church councils in Christian history, including decisions about the creeds, pronouncements on the nature of God, and the canonization of certain writings into immutable Holy Scripture--well, we are told, it is because the Holy Spirit somehow made sure that the ancient church ultimately made all the right decisions on these matters (after a lot of political infighting, of course, but never mind that). End of discussion. We are somehow supposed to accept this and shut up and not question these things.

But is it the role of God's spirit to guarantee that people, individually or collectively, make the right decisions about sometimes arcane matters of theological doctrine? At the very least, this seems to take free will right out of the equation. God, I would argue, offers us the best choice among those available to us, but the onus is still on us to make those choices ourselves, as free agents in the universe; and we often don't make the choices that God wants us to make. There is a tendency, I think, to grant a kind of power of mind control to God's spirit. This leaves no room for free will.

But the other point is this--do these details of theology--sometimes significant, sometimes quite unimportant--really matter in the larger scheme of things? Does it really matter if people believe that Jesus died for their sins, or that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet, or that there are Four Noble Truths? I would say no. And to claim that God is so particular about people having the "right" theology, especially given our limited ability to comprehend the Sacred Mystery anyway, is, I think, missing the point about God's active role in the world.

I am not saying that theology doesn't matter. Theologies have evolved over history to reflect altered understandings of the Divine Mystery. And that's a good thing. What I am saying is that it is presumptuous to claim Divine privilege for one's own theology, or to dismiss the relationship that people of other faiths have with the Divine.

And I am also saying that it is often the fruits of one's theology that are more important than the content. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, writes of the developing prophetic vision of Isaiah and others during the so-called "Axial Age" when the world's great religions started to blossom into ethical systems of thought that encouraged compassion as an inherent element of those faiths. She writes:

The pagan gods depended upon the ceremonies to renew their depleted energies; their prestige depended in part upon the magnificence of their temples. Now Yahweh was actually saying that these things were utterly meaningless. Like other sages and philosophers in the Oikumene, Isaiah felt that exterior observance was not enough. Israelites must discover the inner meaning of their religion. Yahweh wanted compassion rather than sacrifice...

The prophets had discovered for themselves the overriding duty of compassion, which would become the hallmark of all the major religions formed in the Axial Age. The new ideologies that were developing in the Oikumene during this period all insisted that the test of authenticity was that religious experience be integrated successfully with daily life. It was no longer sufficient to confine observance to the Temple and to the extratemporal world of myth. After enlightenment, a man or woman must return to the marketplace and practice compassion for all living beings.
If, as I believe, God's spirit speaks to everyone at all times, and if people relate to this divine spirit throughout the world according to the means at their disposal--their cultural upbringing, the conception of God that they were taught to believe, their personal dispositions--then the various religions of the world are simply paths to relating to God's spirit. If the fruits of those religions are found in compassion, then the religion must be doing something right.

This suggests to me that it isn't so much about orthodoxy as about orthopraxy. Maybe God's spirit is more involved with our everyday lives by calling out to us at every moment, by offering us the best decisions for us to make, which will enhance our lives and the lives of others, at every turn. We as free agents don't have to listen to what God tells us, of course.

From a Christian perspective, one can say Jesus was a very good listener to the unique call that God issued to him; but the rest of us may not be such good listeners as he was. We can wait on the God's spirit to guide us. We can pray and listen and hope to understand God's will. But can we ever be 100% sure that we really know God's will?

Much of my understanding of God's role comes from process thought. Bruce Epperly frequently writes lectionary commentaries for the web site Process and Faith. He has produced a beautiful and inspiring take on the Day of Pentecost. He puts it this way when he describes the active role that God plays in the world:
I believe that the theological naturalism that is at the heart of the liberal, mainstream, and progression vision of God and the world does not need to dispel cosmic mystery or deny divine transformational activity. Rather, theological naturalism awakens us to a world in which God is working in all things, inspiring, challenging, luring, and inviting. The omnipresent and omni-active God does not undermine the evolving order of nature, but calls the world to new forms of beauty, liveliness, and incarnation. This call is, for the most part, subtle, but it can be dramatic and surprising.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. To me this suggests something else--namely, that God's creative role, which Christians might assign to God the Father, is indistinguishable from God's role as the One who is constantly "challenging, luring, inviting"--a role that one might assign to the Holy Spirit. What Trinitarian Christians might call God the Creator and God the Holy Spirit, in other words, seem to me to be doing exactly the same thing--in this view, the act of creation is, for God, the act of continually calling out to the natural world. For God, Creating and speaking to us are one and the same activity.

This is one reason why I do not consider myself a Trinitarian. There is no reason that I can see for the separation of roles of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because I see both roles as essentially identical. God participates in the world by acting as a creative lure to us at all times--the creative act and the act of guiding us are one and the same. (As I alluded earlier, I see Jesus's role in this as simply that he as a historical human being listened attentively to the divine lure and acted accordingly.)

Epperly goes on to say:
Just think about the lively and transformative immanence of God, described by process theologians. God is moment by moment urging every occasion of experience toward a beauty and liveliness that fits God’s vision for its local and global companions. While the divine vision is always contextual and takes into account our own decision-making, it always pushes the world toward individual and communal solidarity, beauty, intensity, and creativity.
Here he describes a give and take between God and creation. God calls out to creation, but the specifics of each call are contextual, and they depend on the choices that we have already freely made. The world changes as a result of our decisions, and then God issues new calls based on the new state of the world after the choices were made. There is a constant give and take between God and us.

Epperly also writes:
We don’t need to invoke supernaturalism to embrace the miraculous and wonderful world of God. Rather, we need to redefine such lively and traditional theological expressions in light of a deep naturalism and an even deeper commitment to prayer, contemplation, healing, and justice. While God’s vision for our lives is always contextual in our unfolding personal and global adventure, God’s aim for each moment’s experience and for our lives as a whole calls us beyond what the rationalistic and controlling mind can imagine. God calls, inspires, and energizes us to do great things, whether this means challenging injustice, comforting the dying, or healing the sick through laying on of hands, reiki healing touch, or anointing with oil.
And to me, the central point here is that God "calls, inspires, and energizes us to do great things" regardless of who we are or what religion we belong to or what our theology happens to be. God calls out to all of us. God's spirit, which is simply another name for God's action in the world, is always with us, always has been, and always will be.