Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Outside the Limits

Acts 2.4   They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the ages humankind has tried to capture God. In the Christian world, the most famous attempts to contain the divine are the creeds - patterns of words which to this day are claimed by some to reflect essential truths about God.

A central truth of Pentecost is that God cannot be a possession. Whatever walls we build, whatever boundaries we set, whatever rules we make, God is always outside our imposed limits.

Theologians and others attempt to imprison God in concepts about the "Holy Spirit". That's what the author of Acts did when he described the event which Pentecost commemorates. The history of the event is uncertain because Luke interprets what really happened in terms of theology derived from the Book of Numbers (11.24-30) and elsewhere in the Bible.

The Israelites in the Numbers tale have recently received the new Law. They are about to set out again from Mount Sinai on their journey towards the promised land. Moses complains to God, as he did very frequently, "Why have you given me the responsibility for all these people? They keep whining and asking for meat." In response, God tells him to choose seventy leaders. God then takes some of the spirit originally given to Moses and gives it to them. The account continues, "When the spirit came on them, they began to shout like prophets ..."

The spirit, Luke is saying as he interprets whatever really happened on Pentecost day, is God's gift to the new Israel. A new law of love has come through Jesus. The new people of God are venturing out towards a new city of God which will one day be founded by the risen Lord.

Meanwhile, their leaders have been selected and the ecstasy of Pentecost is the sign that God is with them - that they have received God's spirit, just as in the old times when God inspired the seventy Hebrew leaders.

The idea that specially selected humans are inspired has persisted in the Christian Church ever since. Mechanisms and ceremonies have been created by which a selected few officially receive the spirit. From that has in turn sprung a multitude of elaborate ecclesiastical structures designed to perpetuate the idea.

Some may find this way of putting the matter offensive. But perhaps that's because the situation has here been framed in contemporary terms. Perhaps it's closer to the truth than can easily be acknowledged.

Whatever the case, the word "spirit" refers not to some sort of ghost or non-material power but to that in life which cannot be captured or defined.

The Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible for spirit mean something like "wind" or "breeze". Just as the winds of our world blow on all peoples, on just and unjust alike, on rich and poor, on wise and foolish alike, so also does God move amongst us all. A breeze which is confined or a wind which is contained ceases to be a breeze or a wind. Attempt to capture God in structures or formulas or words or metaphors - and God immediately ceases to be God.

Another way of putting this is to say that the "Good News" is that life cannot be extinguished. To say this is to imply that change is normal and natural, since life requires constant change. Life cannot be frozen. If, as Paul claimed, death has been conquered, then life and change have triumphed.

The only time we can truly say that something - a person, or an idea or an organisation - is dead, is when it has ceased to change. Just as planet earth would quickly die if the weather didn't change, if the breezes and hurricanes were to stand still, so also will humanity die if we attempt to bottle up change. Life is the purpose of the universe. When change ceases, life ends and the universe dies.

So Pentecost isn't only or even primarily about miraculous happenings or speaking in tongues. It's about our Creator and the nature of the creation. The gift of the spirit conveys to us that life is in constant flux, that the universe of which we're part has heights and depths beyond anything we can imagine. Conversely, we are warned against those who claim to possess absolute truth, a final answer, a definitive way to live. God as spirit, who underlies everything in some mysterious way, will always bypass limits. Our God is outside the limits.

These are large and dramatic claims. They have equally large and dramatic consequences and implications. When they are brought down to earth, their practical effects are great beyond description. For if each one of us attempts to embrace life - and therefore to embrace change - in a constant and enduring manner, many of our priorities must also change.

Do we seek security? Only death is safe. Do we claim absolute truth? New questions will always arise to be answered. Do we hang on to power? Revolution will come. Is money our priority? We will be robbed of it. Are we pillars of society? Jesus died outside the city walls on a rubbish heap. Have we received the Holy Spirit? God comes and goes.

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