We left the previous blog in the context of the Anthropocene and what it means to be human facing a Defiant Earth with the question: “is grace too optimistic”?
Pentecost (4 June), together with Easter and Christmas, is one of the three great Christian festivals. As we enter its season we are provided with a fruitful context to further puzzle over this question. Why? Because Pentecost celebrates the Spirit, whom scripture tells us is the architect of creation.
We know Pentecost gains its name from the Greek, Пεντηκοστή ήμέρά – the fiftieth day (after Easter). We also know it coincides with the festival of Shavout, the feast of Weeks, (this is why the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem), a harvest festival which celebrates the Torah. We know that Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, commonly understood as the birth of the Church.
Its account describes Pentecost as an extraordinary burst of transformative energy on dispirited disciples, who spoke of wind and fire to explain their experience. I want to go behind these well know verities to explore our, and the planet’s, relationship with Spirit. The creedal summary of the Spirit’s activity is ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’; if you like, Spirit is creation’s ‘life force’. Just as water always flows down hill and while we can build dams and even pump it uphill, we cannot abrogate this fundamental principle; so too the ‘giver of life’ will always be the giver of life regardless of the fickle nature of human choices and action. Herein lies abundant grace, beyond human capacity to deny, control, or deserve. Pentecost celebrates an extraordinary outpouring of energy, energy that empowers giftedness. However, it is one thing to say we cannot abrogate the life giving grace of the Spirit, but it is quite another to assume the wind of that Spirit will always, or automatically, or even occasionally, fill our sails. In the Anthropocene more than any other age we need it to.
We first encounter the Spirit in the second verse of the Bible: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. This is the scriptural explanation of how what we call existence came into being. Questions we might like to ask did not occur to the biblical writers. For example how the world was made, was it ex nihilo” cannot be deduced from scripture; the only thing that matters is that God is the initiator. The second time we meet the Spirit is in chapter 2:7 when breath from God makes the human a living being. Existence is one thing, life is another. The Spirit imbues life. But how does that happen, how do we experience its happening? I would like you to encounter three clues.
The late John Vincent Taylor, one time Bishop of Winchester, picks up my first clue in his brilliant book about the Spirit, the Go Between God. His argument infers that entities, be they human or nonhuman, are not primary realities. This is a gob smacking thing to say. The primary reality is the movement between them. Let’s take that in! The life of the human (you and me), is experienced (positive and negative) in a variety of relationships. Genesis 2 provides an extensive roll call of those relationships: plant life, animal life, other human beings, and the earth itself. Entities (you and I) have value in relation to something or someone else. A cool evening breeze has value for the one fortunate enough to be walking in it. The forest has value to those creatures who reside within it. Plants make love to insects through their flowers. All who have crossed my path have contributed to who I am. Our image of God has not kept pace. Our anthropomorphic mind pictures God as a glorified human entity, almost always male: while in truth we know God as spirit, the unifying, life giving force that lives and breathes in and between all things. Presumably this is what John means when he says “God is love”. (1 Jn. 4:8) Also what Paul means when, having told us of the gifts that emanate from Spirit’s energy he goes on to say “I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but have not love I am a noisy gong or a clanging bell...”. (1 Cor. 12:31-13:1)
Christians understand God as movement we call Trinity; that divine eternal dance of Father Son and Spirit, into which destiny calls us. To be at one with God is to be at one with all that belongs to God. There is a wonderful word for this: περιχορησις (perichoresis) literally meaning to dance around. As we celebrate Pentecost in the age of the Anthropocene and the rise of a ‘defiant earth’ our life will always be greater when we focus on the relationships that are primary to our existence, beginning with the earth itself. Our life will always be less if we focus upon ourselves with the right to carve out our own space regardless of the impact that carving has on everything around.
My second clue is to be found in what is called the Wisdom Literature. We are familiar with Proverbs, Psalms and Job, less familiar with material in the Apocrypha. This literature insists that Spirit and wisdom are synonymous. Indeed wisdom literature asserts that wisdom is the beginning of creation, pre-existing everything else. There is a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon I particularly love:
Wisdom is more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. She is breath and power of God a pure emanation of the glory of the almighty...although she is but one she can do all things and while remaining in herself she renews all things. In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. (Wis. 7:22-28)
In the age of the anthropocene we are deluged with data. Data is the lowest value coin in the currency of knowing. Yet data seeps out of every ubiquitous medium. Most of it passes by without contributing to useful information. Useful information, when digested and reflected upon can add to the quantum of shared knowledge. But more precious even than knowledge is wisdom, that virtue which enables a life to be well lived. No wonder spirit and wisdom are aligned, for they are mirror image agents of being truly alive. How blessed is the wise person, even more blessed it is to be in the company of wisdom. The antonym of wisdom is probably ‘folly’. Human traits that contribute to the anthropocene are folly. They are folly not simply because of their catastrophic consequences for the future; they are folly because they detract from what should be (could have been) a much more meaningful life in the present. A life in which the price of everything is calculated, but the value of nothing is known, is a life of profound folly.
My third clue is the connection between Jesus and the Spirit. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit that fell on the disciples is the same Spirit that was in Jesus. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so Jesus and the Spirit are one. Jesus proclaimed that his going would enable the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit, life, is first about relationship, second about wisdom and third about presence. The spirit enables the presence of God, the presence of Jesus. Presence is about company. Conservationists desire to keep in perpetuity what is known to have irreplaceable value. The Conservation Foundation is not a subversive Greenie conspiracy, but an old fashioned ideal that each generation should at the very least hand to the next an undiminished legacy, preferably one that is enhanced. To do that we must be aware of and value the company we keep.
Indeed I like to say, ‘we are the company we keep’ for the company we keep, the presence we honour, becomes the life we lead. Unfortunately we increasingly keep the company Kardashians - I am not even sure who they are, except I understand they represent the glitzy meaninglessness of fame and fortune.
In the Anthropocene, as in every age, vulnerability and transience is life’s experience. It does not become more secure through walls, isolation, hoarding or putting ‘America first’. Life’s grace and gift is experienced in the opposite direction. It is experienced through the multitude of relationships that define us. It is experienced in the love and embracing of wisdom. It is experienced by living fully in the company we keep.
Come Holy Spirit