Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and the author of twenty books, including the remarkably timely The Pope Who Quit. He is known for his ability to take complicated religious history and make it accessible and fascinating to non-specialists. He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Paraclete Press and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his family.
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The Age of the Spirit
How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church
By Phyllis Tickle, JON M. SWEENEY
Baker BooksCopyright © 2014 Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney
All rights reserved.
Beginning at the Beginning
As a rule, the best way to approach a really loaded question is to commence where the question itself commenced: at the beginning. Sometimes, though, it is even wiser to begin by reminding ourselves of exactly why it is that we are taking on the question in the first place. This is one of those times,
... because, whether we like it or not, we live in an era when our fellow citizens tend to be "more spiritual than religious" and yet, despite that surrounding emphasis, we are not quite sure of what the "Spirit" is in mainline and/or historic and/ or orthodox Christianity.
... because we face renewed charges and/or perhaps an internal concern about whether or not Christianity is truly a monotheistic religion. That concern has never been more important than it is in the present moment. The roots of Islam's early, dramatic growth in the sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era can be traced, in part, to the furor over the Trinity and all its representations and descriptive presentations. Certainly, in our own time, the charge of polytheism is the one being increasingly laid at Christianity's doorstep by contemporary Islam. Without a full and rich contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity, we Christians stand defenseless against such summations.
... because Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing expression of Christianity, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, where the demographic heft and bulk of global Christianity have now shifted. And whatever else it pivots on, Pentecostal Christianity is poised forever upon the engagement of the Spirit.
... because the early Church and our post-apostolic forebears in the faith started life with councils as their ultimate authority. As a result, they—and by extension, we—inevitably ended up with the top-down hierarchies of today, all of which are in some distress and many of which are in extremis. How, then, is religious authority to be determined today? Many—most, in all probability—would say by discernment through the Spirit, which means what?
... and because, ready or not, we find ourselves alive and Christian in a time of almost unprecedented upheaval. And this upheaval which we find ourselves in the midst of is apparently going to do nothing less than attempt to discover a fuller and more complete understanding of the Trinity during our lifetime or, barring that, most certainly within the lifetimes of our children and their children.
... and because, if that be true, what we are going through right now, which we call the Great Emergence, is indeed more cataclysmic than the Great Reformation or the Great Schism or the Great Decline and Fall ever were. It is right up there with the Great Transformation, when our Lord Himself brought the Christian movement out of Judaism and everything changed, even our way of dating and marking time.
And in view of all of that, what matters is not whether, as individual believers, we are Emergence Christians or traditional Christians. What matters is that we have arrived at the point in our conversation where we are to begin tracing the strange story of how, as a people of faith, we Christians have envisioned, engaged, and all too often even tried to engineer the Holy Spirit over the millennia. As we do so, however, at least one imperative is upon us. That is, we must remember always—and again, without regard to whether we are Emergence Christians or traditional Christians—to do our storytelling and our discerning with an eye on our own time and with the ears of our souls and of our minds ever and always attuned to the guidance that this story can lend us in this time of our upheaval.
* * *
There was, of course, a beginning for this "Holy Spirit and Us" story of ours, and it is recorded, predictably enough, even before we get to the one about Adam and Eve. Within the first two or three dozen words of Scripture, we are told: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:1–2 NKJV).
The Hebrew word used here for Spirit is ruach, which means, basically, a disturbance of the air and is, as a result, translated sometimes as breath, sometimes as wind, sometimes as Spirit. As words go, that is, this one, right from the beginning of things, enjoyed not so much a specific definition as it did a connotation of being both the agency and also the proof of the invisible made visible in its consequences. One of the great witticisms or bits of wordplay attributed to Jesus rests, in fact, on His use of this very ambiguity. In telling Nicodemus that unless one is born of water and the Spirit (pneuma in Greek), he cannot enter the kingdom of God, Jesus immediately proves His point by citing the wind (again, pneuma) as blowing where it wishes, yet none can tell where it comes from or goes to (John 3:5–8).
Ruach itself, with its multifaceted subtleties and teasing nuances, occurs almost four hundred times in Hebrew Scripture. It does everything from inspiring the art of Bezalel, the master craftsman who oversaw the furnishing and decorating of the Tabernacle of Meeting (Exod. 31:2–6), to giving Samson his strength (Judg. 14:6), to bestowing intellectual prowess and understanding (Sir. 39:6), to conveying wisdom and religious knowledge (Wis. 7:7; 9:17). It is also the ruach, the prophets say, that will rest upon the Son of David who is to come as Messiah and as Israel's hope (Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 36:26; Joel 2:28; etc.).
The ruach, or Spirit, was, in fact, the inspirer of all the great prophets of Judaism right up until the time that prophecy ceased in the land because of the disobedience of the people. There is a rabbinic tradition, however, that holds that Y-H-W-H in His mercy did not entirely withdraw from His people. Instead of speaking to them through the ruach, He spoke through the Bath Qol: that is, through "the daughter of the Voice of God."
When Messiah comes, that tradition teaches, there will be little or no more need for the Bath Qol, for the people will again have direct, and even greater, access to the Spirit. This tradition—this sadness of lost prophesying, this consolation of the daughter of the Voice of God, and this promise that when Messiah came, the Spirit would once more be among us—was well known amongst the disciples and early Jewish Christians. Thus it is that at Jesus's baptism, Mark tells us that the Spirit (pneuma) descends on him like a dove and that it is the Voice (phone in Greek), and not the daughter of the Voice, that proclaims him as the well-beloved Son in whom Y-H-W-H finds delight (Mark 1:9–12). It is the Voice, or phone, and neither the pneuma nor the daughter of the Voice, who will appear again at the Transfiguration, where it is the Voice Itself that declares, "This is my beloved Son: hear him" (Mark 9:7 KJV). The power of that distinction and the power of its implication, while usually lost to most Christians today, were certainly not lost on those first disciples and converts.
But with or without the extracanonical tradition of the Bath Qol and its suggestive effects, we still must at some point address four things if we are to pursue our story any further. The first of them is easy to accept: Judaism is deeply and wholly monotheistic.
The second thing we must recognize certainly comes out of Judaism's characterizing monotheism, but it is considerably trickier to pin down. That is, as we have seen, Judaism uses a system of multifaceted and suggestive namings when it is speaking of the Spirit that is and is not Y-H-W-H, but is of Him.
The third thing is closely tied to the second but is fairly painless. We must understand, as we begin our story of the Spirit among us, that at least two or three of those Jewish suggestive, rather than definitive, namings came bouncing into Christianity's continuation of the story right from its very beginning.
The fourth thing that impacts our tracing of the Spirit's story is more difficult to resolve. That is, we as Christians can neither think nor speak of the Spirit without thinking or speaking, either directly or by implication, of the Trinity itself. The truth of things, however, is that neither the Hebrew Bible nor our New Testament ever employs—or even mentions—the word Trinity as such at all. What that means, at a working level, is that there is no better or more available way into the heart of our adventure than to look at the Spirit's story chronologically. That is, we are best served in our study if we look first at the Spirit as Spirit, and then at Spirit as within a Trinity, and then, finally, at Spirit as one of three distinct and approachable and "personed" Great Truths within a Great Truth.
On, then, to the next stage of our exploration.
Excerpted from The Age of the Spirit by Phyllis Tickle, JON M. SWEENEY. Copyright © 2014 Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Baker Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Back Story 9
Part 1 Holy Ideas in Unholy Conflict
1 Beginning at the Beginning 19
2 An Ancient Conversation in Our Shifting Times 25
3 The Great Enigma 33
4 The Great Enigma and Our Grandest Heresy 43
5 Meetings of the Minds 49
6 A Confusion of Creeds 57
7 A Tintack and the Mighty Machine 65
8 The Conversation Redux 73
Part 2 Matters of the Spirit
9 Credo: A Most Dangerous Word 89
10 Breath, Bread, and Beards 93
11 An Act of Moral Fratricide 99
12 Joachim of Fiore and the Dawning of a New Age 109
13 The Agency of Change 117
14 Enter the Followers of the Prophet Muhammad 121
15 The Simmering Pot 127
16 Steam Rising 135
The Front Story 145
Appendix A Other Major Heresies 157
Appendix B The Ecumenical Councils 161
Appendix C Some Informing Differences between Western and Eastern Christian Practice 169
Appendix D A Few Words from the Greek 173
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Disputes over ecclesiastical authority and dissimilar political and doctrinal threats, along with cultural and language barriers (e.g., Latins who misunderstood Greek), drove the “western” Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches apart. Geographical isolation helped keep them apart. But globalization has torn down that barrier, and the West is now confronting eastern perspectives on all things religious, including the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Emergence Christianities continually challenge Catholic and Protestant norms, Episcopal author Phyllis Tickle suggests that Joachim of Fiore’s “Age of the Spirit” may now be upon us. Western Christians cannot continue to conveniently ignore the “Third Person” of the Trinity. What? Isn’t the Holy Spirit is a staple of Christian conversation? Being honest we’d have to admit otherwise. The average Christian doesn’t want to think about the Holy Spirit. Speaking of “discernment” or “being led by the spirit” will draw dirty looks from other church members, who dismiss such talk as only befitting a Pentecostal…you know, those weird people. Add in Jesus’ terrifying warning about blasphemy against the Spirit (Mark 3:28-29), and no one dares question the far-fetched extra-biblical diagrams our teachers present in attempt to illustrate the Trinitarian “mystery” for fear of putting their souls on the line. We don’t necessarily intend to ignore the Holy Spirit. We just don’t know how to talk about “it”…or “him.” Even the most passionate Trinitarians recognize that their views require a lot more biblical support than we are given. Being unable to “own” their opponents in debate is greatly unsettling to Christians, so it’s easier to dismiss questions with a quick “This is the way it is” and cease further discussion. It should be of no surprise then that many people are converted to some form of Christianity without ever being introduced to the “Third Person.” Its absent from many tracks, Bible correspondence courses, and after-sermon invitations (i.e., alter calls) is deafening. Individuals “raised in the church” rarely fair better, lacking a definite understanding of what the Holy Spirit is and the role it plays in their lives. Unless one belongs to a religious movement that is all about the influence and work of the Spirit, then the whole of pneumatology is unofficially declared off-limits. Some of us, however, would like to have a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit and thoroughly investigate what is usually considered a major pillar of the Christian faith. However, balanced and easy-to-read resources are often difficult to find for us lay-Christians. (By “balanced” I mean only in the sense that the author analyzes the history and arguments for variety of views, allowing a well-informed reader to draw his own conclusions.) What is clearly needed is a way of opening up the discussion and allow for questions, especially if Christians are ever going to be expected to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. That’s what’s provided by Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of Publishers Weekly’s Religion Department, with Jon M. Sweeney in The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church (Baker Books, 2014). Part history and part theology, this book examines how the Holy Spirit has been defined and redefined over the millennia and what effects those definitions have had on Christian doctrine, worship, and living. As you might have guessed, The Age of the Spirit is not an apologetic for any particular view. However, Tickle does present an argument that the filioque addition to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura effectively limited the power of the “Third Person” in the minds of western Christians. In the wake of what she says might be a major turning point in Christian history, Tickle challenges her readers to find new ways of engaging the Holy Spirit. Whether that might mean accepting an ancient “heresy,” mysticism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, or Emergence Christianity, or something else remains unsaid. What I appreciated most about The Age of the Spirit was its easy read (which I suspect was Sweeney’s contribution). Although Tickle made some unconvincing claims and odd speculations at times, I came away with a clearer understanding the ecumenical creeds, the Great Schism, and the infamous ancient heresies. The book didn’t validate my beliefs, but that wasn’t why I picked it up. It gave me a different perspective and made me rethink some of my own assumptions about the Spirit. As for the more technical details: Phyllis Tickle has a well-known presence within the “emerging church” movement, and the book, lightly peppered with their lingo, seems written for an audience more familiar with it than I. In addition, she makes reference to biblical content without necessarily including a citation, preferring a more fluid style of writing. While this is should be a minute problem for Christians well-read in Scriptures and having at their disposal every means of looking up these passages, it would likely annoy a number of readers who rely on chapter and verse. For that same reason, an index of Bible references would’ve also been nice.