270 people were killed in bombings aimed at churches In Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. This statue of Jesus, symbolically, and literally, bears their blood and shares their pain.
I was brought up to be a Christian: it's in my genes. But 'Christianity is a religion made up of human ideas, initially 'invented' by Paul, and then developed over hundreds of years into what we now think of as mainstream belief. In particular, the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and Atonement take us far away from Jesus and what we can discern of his message before the later Christians got hold of it.
These have turned the idea of a 'spiritual' dimension to life, which I am happy to explore, into a set of statements or propositions to which we are required to assent, many of which make no sense in the modern world. They have turned the person of Jesus into a prize to be claimed by the few. That was never his intention as he called on those who followed him to see signs of the 'kingdom of God' in the world around us; as a dimension of this life and of ourselves. To rediscover the life-giving creativity that broods over all the Universe, not just yet another 'religion' that has lost its way, just as he said the Jews of his time had done.
Jesus 'lives on' as as a symbol of self-giving and compassion in the face of tyranny. His story helps me to show solidarity with those who suffer today. But most people in our culture have abandoned him as irrelevent. The sooner we move away from trying to tie him down to assertions of our own invention the better. If we can set him free to be a pattern for our full humanity, we will find the real depth of our being and the more his ways of goodness, justice and love can be celebrated, God or no God.
These are my thoughts on the meaning of 'the Spirit of holiness' from my book 'The Apostate's Creed':
The Pentecost story is certainly about empowerment, but by whom, how, and for what? Luke’s version of how the Spirit came is only one of the recorded ways of how the first followers of Jesus began to share what they believed about him. (See for e.g. John 20:22 and the additional ending to Mark 16). It may have been part of each individual’s resurrection experience, whenever that happened, not separated out into stages weeks apart. We are used to the regular liturgical pattern but every account of the life, death, teaching and resurrection of Jesus is a version ‘according to’ someone, or some community, not the version. They’re not all the same.
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration day: Shavuot; a 24 hour vigil 50 days after Passover, celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses. According to Luke, people from all over the known world were gathered in Jerusalem. It’s a multi-national jamboree. This is the setting in which this writer chooses to launch his story of the early church though it seems, like other NT writers, he thought that these were the ‘last days’ as well as the first.
And what is the experience he describes? Unlike Paul elsewhere, nothing to do with ecstatic utterances or semi-trance-like states, (neither of which are uniquely Christian experiences anyway), but the words of Peter heard ’in our own language’. Actual spoken languages; the equivalent of French or German today. What is Luke saying, given that he is writing for a largely Gentile audience? This Spirit is for every nation; it transcends all human boundaries and cultures. It was always meant to be so. The Jews should have realised it wasn’t just for them. He has Peter quote the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Joel 2:28)
Unfortunately Luke also seems to suggest that only the disciples actually had this reconciling experience to communicate afresh, which rather misses his own point! Everyone else just witnessed it. But in contrast to the way John also has Jesus talking about the ‘Comforter or Counsellor’ for the believers only in 14:16 and 26, this offer of the Spirit is for ‘all flesh' or in the set Psalm, ‘the whole earth’.
Presumably this includes everyone, or was all this now only for the followers of Jesus? To claim so suggests that we are in control of it, not that it is freely available to all. This particular version of the Spirit’s coming puts right what the ancient story of Babel in Genesis 11 had outlined as the problem with all humanity. We just don’t talk to, or listen to, each other. It’s a dialogue of the deaf most of the time. The Jews had forgotten they were supposed to be a ‘light to the nations’, not a self-saving sect. Jesus’ Way offers a different dimension, not just another exclusive group who think that they alone have all the answers.
Why were there so many divisions between people? Why are there still? In these stories, language acts as a symbol for why there are often great gaps between us. When you can’t understand what others are saying, and they can’t understand you, our ability to co-operate and respect each other is undermined. The coming of the Spirit in the way that Luke describes it challenges all our prejudices about seemingly unavoidable distinctions of race and nationhood, and, in modern contexts, religion, gender, sexuality, class, culture, etc. This Spirit unites; it does not divide.
If you look at Church history you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite, given the splits, separations and sects that have happened over the years. But unity, if with considerable diversity, is the only way forward, in life or in the Church. Christians must surely challenge those who try to put the gaps back in again by calling for more emphasis on ourselves, our own nation or our own religion first; people like us. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ anymore. Just one common humanity, where each person is equally important.
But we have to speak in a C21st century language about all this; one that fits with what people know to be true in the rest of their lives and enables them to hear what we are saying. So not so much a gift from elsewhere, I would say, as a discovery within ourselves: an insight into what helps us to be fully human. Which brings us to a very fundamental underlying issue. Do we have to attribute this activity to a ‘God’ as the only way to bring about this renewing and creative thing among us?
It’s a big question but one that is rarely asked, just assumed. If we can’t find a vocabulary that works in the modern world no-one will take any notice. Why should they? So much of what the Church says sounds so exclusive, not inclusive. An experience for us ‘in here’; not a transformation of life ‘out there’. You have to believe what we believe to receive it. The claims are based only on what we have already decided is ‘true’ – and most people don’t share the same assumptions.
We can only ever talk about God in human terms. I believe we need to think far less of ‘a’ supernatural Being, (a bit like us only bigger) and much more, if we still use the word at all, as a dimension of ourselves. More of an adjective or adverb than a noun. The sum of all our hopes, ideals and values, not an external object or Person. ‘Godness’ is found when we encounter our deepest self, individually and together.
We may even say, as the NT writers did, that ‘God is Love’ to express the significance of that inherently human value, and leave it at that. Jesus used the term ’Father’, as we may do, but that is also a simile or metaphor, not a statement about biology or reproduction, couched in language that made sense at the time. A comparison, if a rather patriarchal one, from our own experience. ‘Like a father’, (or indeed a mother).
So what then can we still say about this ‘Holy Spirit’ that sustains us, including, but not only, those who walk in the Way of Jesus? ‘The Holy Spirit’ implies so much that is not here in this story. I prefer to use the phrase, ‘a spirit of holiness’ to describe how we can now relate to this idea of an empowering and enabling life that moves within us, as it did in Jesus. We have devised a range of images and comparisons to express this sense of creative energy; wind, fire, breath. They are there in both the Old and the New Testaments if you look for them. The ‘ruach’ (feminine in Hebrew) breathes through us but cannot be known, defined or contained.
At our best, we can find the power to be all that we seek to be. To be ‘holy’ is to be ‘human’. This quest for true fulfilment offers us hopes and dreams; it gives us visions of how things could be, not a judgemental despair at how things are. It gives us an ability to read the signs of the times and make prophetic statements that help to bring about positive change, in us and in the world.
This has nothing at all to do with being superior over others in worship or in life. That is mere self-indulgence. But wherever humanity is enhanced, good is done, prejudices overcome, relationships restored, barriers broken down; there a spirit of holiness can be found. It is as if we are in tune with the unifying heartbeat of the Universe; its breath lives in our breath. We are brought closer to the more excellent ways of love and peace. We can find both a personal and communal healing as this spirit of holiness fills the gaps and divisions between and within us. According to the Christian story, it’s all down to us now. So we had better get on with it!
Can Christianity and its central human figure still mean anything to those who are not convinced by the usual ideas of a 'God'? This website offers a range of ways to explore this question.
On this page you'll find details of how to purchase my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a link to a page that explains why I am not 'a Christian' and another which sums up my approach to the Way of Jesus. Is there another way to engage with the Jesus story that doesn't require you to take it all literally or sign up to the religion that bears his name?
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who wrote the Bible'? PLUS discussion notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered. And my own first book: humanist reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all free.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting.
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