Pentecostal Enlightenment

Pentecostal Enlightenment May 14, 2018

It’s the season of the Spirit, a time to muse on the politics of Pentecost.

When Israel’s prophets predict the future coming of the Spirit, their next thought is almost always about the renewal of creation. According to Joel, the Spirit’s coming will turn Israel into Big Rock Candy Mountain”wine tricklin’ down the mountains, a restoration of a land of milk and honey (Joel 3:18“21). When the Spirit comes, Isaiah writes, “the wilderness becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field a forest” (Isa. 32). Ezekiel assures Israel that Yahweh’s Spirit in the heart of Israel will transform the desolate land into Eden (Ezek. 36). The Spirit who fabricates the first creation (Gen. 1:2) will return to bring “times of refreshing,” in the apostle Peter’s enchanting phrase (Acts 3).

This rebirth in the Spirit includes the renewal of the human race. It’s a commonplace that Pentecost unties the knots of Babel. At Babel, Yahweh places a divisive curse on human language; by the Pentecostal miracle of tongues, everyone hears the good news in his own language. At Babel, nations are divided; at Pentecost, peoples reunite in common confession and baptism. The account of Babel is preceded by the table of nations in Genesis 10, and Luke includes a miniature table of nations in Acts 2.

Though opposed to Babel, Pentecost simultaneously realizes Babel’s frustrated aspirations. Babel is an effort to arrest the scattering of humanity; Pentecost gathers. Babel aims to preserve the unity of human language and faith; Pentecost reunites. Babel’s builders want to link heaven and earth, precisely what the Spirit accomplishes. The Spirit’s arrival makes the Church an open “gate of God,” which is what the word “Babel” means.

For the New Testament, the renewal and reunion of humanity is an act of God. In a stunning phrase, the apostle Paul says that the Spirit baptizes all into one body, so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. As the German-American historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy observed, every human group, and each generation, breathes its own “spirit.”

In traditional societies, belief in communal spirits is quite overt, but the phenomenon exists even in societies that no longer believe in spirits. Americans are animated differently than the English or the Germans; the soul of a Korean bears a different stamp than the soul of a Chilean. Given this deep diversity, the communion of ethnicities, generations, and classes in the Church isn’t the product of human ingenuity, compassion, or virtue. We can’t just get along. A unified human race is the product of the recreating work of the creating Spirit.


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