Monday, December 21, 2009

The Spirit Blows Where It Pleases

“The spirit/wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” John 3:8 (New Jerusalem Bible)

The note on this verse from the Gospel of John in the New Jerusalem Bible reminds us that the Hebrew word for spirit and wind are the same – ruach. It also means breath and mind. When written in conjunction with the various Hebrew names for G-d, it means the spirit of G-d and usually indicates the active divine creative power.

This verse ran through my mind today as I left church this morning. I was reflecting on the column in the Richmond Examiner by the Assemblies of God layman columnist I read regularly these days. He had spent three serial columns trying to explain away the pagan aspects of Christmas, an apologia for the trite maxim “Jesus is the reason for the season” that fundamentalists love to toss around as if it were historically accurate and true beyond question.

Like my undergrads, this columnist has trouble with the notion of syncretism, a point I find myself returning to over and over in class. My students want to believe that there is a pure Christianity that has been in existence from the beginning that has over the years purified itself of all outside influences that would corrupt it. Alternatively they want to believe that the pure religion was always there, it just took awhile to fully reveal itself, a view fairly consistent with many that of many theologians historically. Either way, such visions evidence a lack of understanding of the tradition’s history and development.

I am prone to note in class that the Christian faith has historically been like a sponge, sucking up the cultural contents and ideologies of the places where it took root. A prime example of that is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Aztec goddess cum Virgin Mary of Tepeyac, Mexico. But it’s just as easily seen in the austere, left-brain, word-driven religion of the sober cultures of northern Europe. It’s precisely the values and understanding of the Enlightenment that give rise to a 20th CE Protestant West whose self-affirming designations of orthodoxy and the designations for all disaffirming others – heretics – are tossed around as if they actually mean something to anyone outside their narrow circle of the likeminded. As Durkheim observed a century ago, religions tend to be society writ large.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, which falls on the eve of the winter solstice as well as the Feast of St. Thomas (as in Doubting Thomas of John’s Gospel), this Episcopal priest celebrates the 15th anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate by attending eucharist. At the end of the day he will light the equivalent of a Yule fire in his fire pit in the back yard to welcome back the light to a darkened world. On the counter of his pass through to the kitchen, an evergreen wreath from Roman and Germanic tradition surround the candles of Advent, the church’s season of reflective watching and awaiting of the Christ child. Some might ask how these celebrations of my stated religious preference could possibly be tainted with the practices of other, older traditions. And why do these observances occur in the same season with the flickering candles of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa?

The answer was floating around in my head there in the parking lot at St. Richard’s this morning, coming straight out of John’s Gospel: The spirit blows where it will. I am prone to remind my students whose best laid plans have run afoul, usually around finals time, of the old rabbinical proverb: If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans. If you want to make G-d really laugh, tell G-d G-d’s plans. Spirit cannot be contained by human systems. Like the breath escaping our nostrils, spirit is elusive, surprising. It bubbles up in unexpected places and takes on unanticipated configurations. And it readily combines with other manifestations of spirit to offer a new vision of spirit, hence the phenomenon of syncretism that is the rule, rather than the exception, of Christian – and ultimately all religions’ - history.

As I listened to the collect for "pure minds that we might hear the truth of the Christian tradition" this morning, I found my mind wandering, wondering how to make sense of such a statement. The reality is that when it comes to spirit, human beings don’t need pure minds, they need open minds. More than that, they need eyes open to see the spirit which surrounds them all the time but rarely is recognized for what it is.

This obsession with “the truth” that belief-driven religions tend to manifest more often serves as an impediment to spirit than a conduit. On a good day, the search for truth provides the best effort human beings are capable of conceiving regarding spirit in a particular time and culture. But we humans seem to have an inevitable propensity to concretize those understandings, ascribing to them qualities of absolute and eternal where tentativeness and the recognition of their partial and evolving qualities are the best those constructions merit.

Increasingly, I have come to see notions of orthodoxy as little more than the work of human hands which, when mistaken for the ultimate to which they would point and becoming the object of worship in themselves, amount to little more than idolatry. Accusations of heresy amount to little more than charges of contempt of the accuser’s idol and contempt for the disaffirming other.

Of course, the defense of idols will always be immediate, vehement and aggressive. Constructed notions of spirit purporting to be absolute, ultimate and eternal are by definition brittle and vulnerable. They are also fairly easily seen through by those with open eyes to observe them and open minds to critically consider them.

Ironically, while the self-appointed defenders of heresy would readily quote the verse from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 6:7 “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked…” when challenged, what could be more of a mockery of a G-d who is beyond all human understandings than to be reduced to a single understanding in a given place, time and asserted by a given subset of humanity which is seen by them as somehow normative for all human beings in all times and places?

So, why is there syncretism? Simple. The spirit is too large to be contained by a single human system, particularly left-brain driven systems made of words. Spirit is too dynamic to remain static and thus absolute and eternal. It blows as it pleases. It may be comforting to believe that what we believe today is “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen (so be it!).” But, ultimately, it is but one of many human attempts to describe the ultimately indescribable and to contain with our human boxes that which is incapable of ever being captured.

That being said, human beings have historically demonstrated a need for systems of explanation to anchor them, to help them make sense of that which lies beyond total understanding. All human knowledge is socially constructed or that which would be known would remain beyond the grasp of most human beings. It is when we confuse the finger pointing toward the moon for the moon itself, to borrow from a Zen koan, that our best laid plans run afoul.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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