Holy Spirit and Other Spirits

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

This is an interim report on the state of the theology of the Holy Spirit in a contemporary pluralistic world.

First Words: In Search of a New Paradigm

I am approaching the task of attempting a state-of-the-art presentation of pneumatology from a specific perspective. Rather than providing a typical textbook survey of current pneumatologies (cf. my primer Holy Spirit [Westminster John Knox, 2012] or the anthology, Holy Spirit and Salvation [Westminster John Knox, 2010]), I am locating the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the midst of many spirits of the world. Doing so, I want to suggest a constructive “turn,” namely, from what I call a “unitive” paradigm in which only one Spirit (of God) is considered and other spiritual realities are dismissed, to a “plural” paradigm. The latter accounts for the Spirit of God in a highly plural cosmology with many spirits, powers, and spiritual realities. Cultural and religious plurality, the rise of postmodern philosophies, as well as transformations in the scientific paradigm contribute to this change of outlook. The term “interim report” suggests that this is a work in progress.

The traditional doctrine of the Spirit was mainly connected with topics such as the doctrine of salvation, the inspiration of Scripture, some issues of ecclesiology, as well as individual piety. The Spirit’s role in creation, cosmos, and public arenas was much underdeveloped. Although one must resist the temptation of describing the pneumatological tradition in too uniform and homogenous terms – for the simple reason that there is already in the history of pneumatology dramatic differences, divergences, and surprises – it is also the case that by and large pneumatology was limited in its orientations.

Against that background we can discern many exciting and exhilarating developments underway pointing to the transformation of Christian pneumatology. This promise lies in the robust and intentional desire to widen and make more inclusive the theological understanding of the ministry of the Spirit. In that wider and more inclusive outlook – while not leaving behind traditional topics such as the Trinity, Scripture, and salvation – the Spirit is also connected with topics such as creation, humanity, and eschatology, as well as political, social, environmental, and other “public” issues. This is a great corrective to the tradition.

Yet, much is yet to be done. By and large “mainline” pneumatology still follows strictly the unitive paradigm. Why so? What are the reasons for continuing to stick with a unitive paradigm? Among other things, it has to do with the still-continuing hegemony of Enlightenment epistemology and its reductionism. The omission of “supernatural” powers and spirits of course stands in marked contrast to the beginnings of the Christian tradition in which, in keeping with the worldview of the ancients, the world was filled with spiritual powers. Consider the cosmology of the NT, whether Jesus’ own ministry or the worldview of the Apocalypse. Until the Enlightenment, Christian tradition continued to take for granted plural cosmologies and pneumatologies. Modernity changed it all, at least when it comes to the Global North.

Now, having briefly clarified my goal and the main challenges ahead of us, let us take a closer look at some key issues and topics. In order to help manage the wide and diverse perspectives and contributions, let us organize the discussion under four interrelated layers:

  • Spirit(s) in the Cosmos
  • Spirit(s) in Creation
  • Spirit(s) in Society
  • Spirit(s) in Salvation

One word of caution and explanation before proceeding. Note that instead of naming the preferred approach as “pluralistic,” I am using the neutral “plural.” In distinction from pluralistic pneumatologies in which the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit of the Christian tradition is left behind for the sake of alleged harmony between religions or something similar, the plural approach to pneumatology allows the theologian to hold on to the canons of classical Christianity. The plural approach just locates the theological discussion in a dramatically different manner from the tradition.

The Spheres of the Spirit(s)

Spirit(s) in the Cosmos: Beginning the investigation from the role of spirits in the cosmos is to begin where the unitive paradigm – ironically – has been most persistent in post-Enlightenment pneumatologies. Whereas premodern Christians and other religionists used to exorcize demons and spirits from human persons, post-Enlightenment scholars excised from theologians’ vocabulary all talk about the spiritual realities in the cosmos. The stated reason was that for the scientifically informed person any talk about spiritual realities such as angels, demons, or evil spirits was simply impossible. One can see here a deep irony since at the same time those theologians, unless they were totally “secularized,” still continued speaking of the Spirit (God). Theologians failed to see that positing this Big Spirit violates the scientific paradigm even more than speaking of Little Spirits, as it were.

It is not that theologians have been all silent about spiritual beings and realities. It is more about selectivity and denial. A striking example is the pneumatology of Jürgen Moltmann. His profound and groundbreaking imagination of a “holistic pneumatology” is the celebrated The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress, 1992) is completely silent about anything referring to evil spirits or demons, or even angels. Even his extended treatment of suffering, ecological disasters, and socio-political injustices do not inspire thinking on spirits and powers. Yet, this all happens in the context of seeking to loosen the Spirit from pietistic, ecclesiastical, and cultural strictures. Although Karl Barth provided one of the most profound contemporary discussions of angelology in his Church Dogmatics (III/3), he also saw the topic of the demonic and powers so inconsequential to theology that it sufficed to take a “quick, sharp glance” at it (519). Paul Tillich speaks of the demonic in pneumatology as part of “Life and Its Ambiguities” (Systematic Theology [vol. 3; University of Chicago, 1976], 102-6) but it stays at a very generic level. Wolfhart Pannenberg’s world-embracing theological system knows no evil or demonic spirits, although quite interestingly he includes a short discussion of angels as seen through the pneumatological metaphor of “force field” (Systematic Theology [vol. 2; Eerdmans, 1994], 102-9). And so forth.

We have to turn to the theologians of the Global South to get some help in imagining a cosmos with diverse spirits, spiritual powers, and spiritual realities. According to the grand old man of African theologies, John Mbiti, “The universe is composed of visible and invisible parts. It is commonly believed that, besides God and human beings, there are other beings who populate the universe. These are the spirits” (Introduction to African Religion [Heinemann, 1991], 70). That observation is of course not limited to Africa, but is also true in most Asian contexts and elsewhere in the Global South. Differently from Europe and North America, in many African and Asian contexts religion permeates all of life. The Holy Spirit’s power is often invoked as a shield against other powers. Here there is also a reason for the rapid “Pentecostalization” of Africa and the rapid advancement of Pentecostal/Charismatic spiritualities in other global contexts.

Part of the cosmic orientation of all traditional and most contemporary cultures in the Global South has to do with deep and wide interaction between religions, part of which is the discernment of spirits of religions. In this regard the Asian-American (originally Malaysian) Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong has done groundbreaking work, for example, in his Pneumatology and the Christian-Buddhist Dialogue: Does the Spirit Blow through the Middle Way? (Brill, 2012).

Spirit(s) in Creation: Although the discussion of powers is missing in much of mainline theology of the Global North, significant advancements have been made in linking the Spirit of God to creation. This has happened both as the result of the rediscovery of biblical-theological resources and a robust engagement of natural sciences. Rightly, the Roman Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson remarks that of all the activities of the Spirit, that of creative activity is crucial in the biblical teaching and spiritual sensibilities (Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit [Paulist, 1993], 42). Not that this is a new and novel insight in itself: Christian mystical traditions going back to famed Medieval saints such as Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux remind us of the rich “cosmological pneumatology” (and Christology) of tradition. What makes the current rediscovery of the Spirit’s creative agency significant is that thereby, the whole ministry, role, and work of the Spirit is put in a robust cosmic, evolutionary, and scientific context. Moltmann’s Spirit of Life has done a great service to theology in this regard. He envisions the cosmos as an interconnected web of creatures, brought to life and sustained continuously with the Divine Spirit.

The return to the biblical account of the ruach Yahweh as the life-principle, not detached from but rather energizing and supporting all life of the cosmos, helped theology to build a robust bridge with the scientific account of evolution and life. Building on these cues, Pannenberg has famously argued that the biblical notion of God as Spirit might have consonance with the current scientific view of life as the function of “spirit/energy/movement” (force-field). Although there is of course a marked difference between the contemporary science’s non-metaphysical “naturalism” and Christian theistic doctrine of the Spirit, some useful metaphorical correlations can be discerned between science and theology.

However, something is missing here. The role of spirits and powers is not considered in these creation theologies of the Global North. Yong rightly wonders if contemporary theologies, including religion-science conversations, are “open enough for proposing in the theology and science conversation a consideration of a spirit-filled cosmos” (The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination [Eerdmans, 2011], 179). Time will tell!

Spirit(s) in Society: Not for nothing, the American Benedictine pneumatologist Kilian McDonnell already decades ago lamented that both in “Protestantism and Catholicism, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, or pneumatology, has to do mostly with private, not public experience” and that therefore pneumatology has lost connection with the rest of the world and life (“The Determinative Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” Theology Today 39, no. 2 [1982]: 142). Improvements to widen and make more inclusive the sphere of the Spirit are underway. Along with the sphere of creation, contemporary theology is also seeking ways to rediscover the role of the Spirit in all areas of public life, from history to politics to economics to arts, to work, and so forth. (For recent insights and discoveries, see the essays in Interdisciplinary and Religio-Cultural Discourses on a Spirit-Filled World: Loosing the Spirits that I co-edited with Kirsteen Kim and Amos Yong [Palgrave, 2013].)

Historically, it is good to note that these attempts to widen the sphere of pneumatology were prepared by the earlier generation of theologians. Consider Tillich’s life- and culture-affirming pneumatology in the third volume of his Systematic Theology. The profound discussion of “Life in Spirit” expands and widens the Spirit’s horizon in a remarkable manner. He also considers the meaning of “The Spiritual Presence” in human spirit, religion, culture, and morality, not to ignore Christology and the church. In this work, the Lutheran Tillich could build on the legacy of the Reformed tradition from Calvin to Abraham Kuyper and others (most recently, the Dutch Hendrikus Berkhof).

This is all good and significant, but the question arises, What about the powers and spirits? Again, theologians, whether “mainline” or “contextual,” do not have much to offer. Walter Wink’s program of “powers” is a delightful exception to this rule. His trilogy of “powers” (the summary statement of which is The Powers That Be [Harmony, 1999]) argues that the powers are both the “withinness” and outer expression of institutions, ideologies, financial agencies, political forces, and similar. Although Wink definitely refuses to identify these with traditional concepts of angels and demons, they are still real for him; they are just not the “spiritual” metaphysical beings of the tradition.

Wink’s bold effort should be acknowledged. He is onto something important, although he also fails to redeem the theological promise. What bothers me most is Wink’s totally nonmetaphysical interpretation of powers. The American Open Theist Gregory Boyd (Satan and the Problem of Evil [InterVarsity, 2001]) rightly critiques Wink for his unwillingness to hold on to both traditional “spiritual” and contemporary immanentist conceptions of powers. In the plural pneumatology, both dimensions of powers could – and should – be acknowledged.

Spirit(s) in Salvation: In traditional theology, ordo salutis, the “order of salvation,” is the part of pneumatology that discusses in detail the interrelated aspects of the reception by men and women of the salvific benefits wrought by the Triune God. Christology represents the “objective,” whereas pneumatology the “subjective” work of salvation. As a corrective, in Moltmann’s revisionist pneumatology (Spirit of Life, part 2), the Spirit’s role in ordo salutis is holistic, ever-present, cosmic, and “earthly.” There is no place for dualism between earthly/spiritual, sacred/secular, individual/communal, and so forth. The Spirit of God supports life and resists life-destroying acts and attitudes. Everywhere the Spirit of Life facilitates liberation and inclusion. It does not suffice to speak of “new birth” as a personal experience alone; it also has to do with the hope for the “rebirth” and renewal of the whole cosmos. Justification is as much about walking justly in the renewed mindset than about the forgiveness of sins. Sanctification is not merely about abstaining from sin but also about sanctity and honoring of life. In this important revisioning of the salvific work of the Spirit, Moltmann is joined by Liberationists such as Jon Sobrino, whose Spirituality of Liberation has the fitting subtitle, Toward Political Holiness (Orbis, 1988). Where Moltmann and Liberationists have homework to do is to integrate into the discussion of holistic salvation the importance of personal sin and personal forgiveness. Structures and creation’s processes do not repent; only humans do!

For such a renewed, healed, and empowered life belong integrally charismatic gifts, empowerment, and gifting for ministry. Here the contribution of Pentecostal and Charismatic spiritualities is of great help, although they themselves are in need of widening; oftentimes, the Pentecostal view of the Spirit’s charismatic work can be too individualistic. The rediscovery of the Spirit-Christology, stemming from the NT, might be of great help (see my Christ and Reconciliation [A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, vol. 1; Eerdmans, 2013], ch. 8).

Pentecostal-Charismatics, as well as Christians from the Global South, also remind us of the Spirit’s power to tackle the forces of the evil and the demonic – not only in the socio-political sphere of Wink’s analysis but also in personal and ecclesiastical life. Although much humbug is sold under the title “spiritual warfare,” the topic itself is of great importance rightly conceived.

In Lieu of Conclusions: Tasks for the Future

In order for the mainline Global North–driven pneumatological discourse to overcome its limitations and omissions, a robust interdisciplinary and intercultural collaboration is needed. To that matrix belongs also a sustained dialogue with scholars in various sciences. Among scientists and philosophers there is a new paradigm of understanding the nature of “matter”; that process may have some important implications to theology and religions. Theology should not naively assume, however, that this more elusive and less concrete way of envisioning what the world is made of would necessarily be an asset to religion, let alone to Christian theology. Yet, the move away from the modernist, somewhat static and fixed conception of reality towards a more becoming-oriented, complex, and “spirited” worldview at least makes room for diversity of interpretations.

Contemporary pneumatology is also badly in need of consultation with theologians of the Global South. The interaction between theologians from North and South would also help compare notes regarding the many promising advances regarding the loosing of the Divine Spirit, particularly with regard to the created reality and various segments of society. A continuing robust dialogue with other living faiths, their pneumatologies and cosmologies, may further fund Christian attempts to revise its theological canons (I attempt that in Spirit and Salvation, the fourth in my constructive theology series, which will appear in 2015).

Theologians have to exercise the gift of the discernment of spirits as the explorations into plural pneumatologies continue. Although there is a lot of enthusiasm concerning the shift to plural pneumatologies, there are also instances in which the move itself is celebrated to the point that the contours of a distinctively Christian theological understanding of the Divine Spirit are blurred. A truly plural pneumatological paradigm allows for distinctive identities and confessions rather than an artificial or forced consensus. After all, spiritus ubi vult spirat (John 3:8).

Posted Mar 26, 2014