Today, I describe myself as a spirit-centered Progressive Christian. But, like many progressive Christians, for a number of years I didn’t quite know what to do with the Holy Spirit. I could not identify with the Pentecostal movement and its emphasis on speaking in tongues as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, nor could I affirm the belief that the Holy Spirit revealed itself only within the precincts of Christian faith. But, lately I have discovered the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit, and she has been a source of inspiration, creativity, and hope in my spiritual life and professional leadership.
Of course, no one can capture the Spirit. As Jesus noted, the Spirit is like the wind that comes and goes, breaking through every ecclesiastical and doctrinal attempt to confine her. Christian theology has rightly balanced the kataphatic and apophatic in its understanding of God. The kataphatic (with images) proclaims God’s nearness and revelation in all things. The reign of God is among us, or, as the Gospel of Thomas proclaims, “cleave the wood and I am there.” The apophatic (without images) warns that no word, image, or doctrine can fully describe the God all things. Still, we can catch glimpses of the Spirit in times of prayer, inspiration, mystical experience, ecstasy, and unity. The Spirit is the giver of gifts – quotidian talents that transform everyday life and mystical experiences that awaken us to infinity in a familiar face or the flashing of firefly. The Spirit is surprising and adventurous in her invitation for us to join in God’s Holy Adventure.
When I think of the Holy Spirit, four Biblical passages come to mind. In John 20, the Risen Jesus “breathes on his disciples [both women and men, I believe] and says receive the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2 more bombastically describes a mighty wind, tongues of fire, and the inspiration of God among all peoples, old and young, male and female, stranger and neighbor. Dreams, visions, and healing power accompany the emergence of God’s Spirit. Romans 8 speaks of the Spirit speaking in “sighs too deep for words,” in the depths of the unconscious giving light to everyday life; but more than that, Romans 8 describes the Spirit of God groaning in non-human as well as human experience. The Spirit reminds us of what the world could be if we followed God’s path of shalom in our personal and corporate lives. Revelation is not confined to creed, church, shaman or priest; revelation gently emerges in the laughter of a baby, the strange words of an immigrant, the cry of a baby seal, or the hymns of humpback whales.
One more passage inspires me when I ponder the Holy Spirit and that is Proverbs 8: the universe bursts forth from the playful, childlike dance of Divine Wisdom (Sophia, Hokhmah). The universe is created in delight, inspiring wonder, justice, and awe.
I have a loose pneumatology, or vision of the Holy Spirit. I know her by her presence in moments of awe, beauty, wonder, joy, unity, ecstasy, and giftedness. She is the divine wisdom of God, moving in least and the greatest, in quarks and galaxies, and inspiring the human heart.
Holistic in nature, the Spirit is embodied, and the body is inspired. As giver of gifts, she moves through each of us, inviting us to find wholeness and beauty in our lives, to be creative partners with God in the dance of life. The words of I Corinthians 12 remind us that everyone is touched by the Holy Spirit, with gifts for the common good. Acts of the Apostles reminds us that every nation, and every person, is touched by the Spirit that manifests itself in acts of hospitality, healing, worship, spiritual practice, service, and justice-seeking. The Spirit calls us to include, rather than exclude. She challenges every attempt to confine her inspiration, and invites everyone to be Spirit-filled.
As a progressive Christian, I look for the Spirit in all spiritual practices and moments of worship, Christian and non-Christian alike – in Pentecostal speaking in tongues, in Reiki healing touch, in Quaker silence, in hospitality of strangers, in dancing Sufis, and barrier-breaking acts of justice and shalom.
I can’t control the Spirit’s inspiration, but I can open to her wisdom and energy. In my spiritual life, I connect Spirit with breath, and so I awaken to God’s Spirit in every breath. In moments of spiritual dryness, stress, and conflict, I choose to breathe God’s refreshing life-giving Spirit in, and I am centered and restored. I look for her presence in the Breath of Life in all its wondrous diversity, seeking to inhale her presence in every moment, opening to her ever-present comfort, inspiration, challenge, and insight.
Bruce Epperly is a professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of an open and affirming emerging congregation in Lancaster, PA, Disciples United Community Church. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a progressive spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.