Thursday, June 12, 2014


We breathe involuntarily, twenty thousand times a day. It happens without our notice, over and over. In fact, we have to pay attention to stop it. We are just designed to do it. In the beginning of creation, our tradition tells us, God breathed his spirit (literally “breath”) into us and we became alive. We can’t live without the Spirit, even though we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes, even though we don’t notice it.

This is true even in theology where Pneumatology (the study of the Spirit), where it is undertaken at all, is often prefaced with apologizing remarks that the Holy Spirit is so neglected, compared to her more cited Trinitarian relations, the Father and the Son. When’s the last time you prayed to the Spirit anyway? This could be explained by a number of things--maybe the lack of a more concrete referent (the tangible “Father” and human being Jesus of Nazareth vs the ephemeral “breath,” “wind,” “spirit”).

Pentecost, one of the Church’s principal feasts is our modest attempt to rectify our lack of attention. We remember what’s sometimes called “the Church’s birthday,” the occasion when the Holy Spirit was breathed onto the disciples, and her fire allowed them to preach the Gospel in all the tongues of the Earth, rectifying the confusion and alienation of the Tower of Babel (the story of how human arrogance caused us to be divided).

In my college chapel, we had a practice that gave some insight into what the Pentecost experience must’ve been like. We got anyone who knew a second language to that Sunday’s gospel reading at the same time. The result is an overwhelming jumble of languages. Some people probably assumed this was some sort of crazy tongues-speaking cult. If you were unchurched and visiting, you may have assumed like the original overhearers that these people are drunk. But we understand something mysterious and divine at work, sharing God’s universal good news, to all the ends of the earth.

The Creed states the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” It is the fruit of the full, eternal outpouring of love between God the Father and Jesus Christ. This very same Spirit works in the world as the mysterious agency that Jesus breathes on the Church, so she may accomplish her mission.
We breathe in the Holy Spirit without noticing (ie inspiration). It works in us, in others, and in the world. We don’t understand it, and necessarily so, but we can still be a little more cognizant and grateful. Through Georg Lucacks I learned about “reification” or “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” or we might even say less poetically “thing-ification.” We look at a chair and see only a thing. But a chair is in fact a complex relationship between people, the product of the labor of countless people, who chopped the wood, shipped the materials, assembled the chair, sold it, etc. Instead of seeing social relations, we see a thing. That’s reification.

In the same way we “reify” the spiritual life. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God at the very heart is a relationship. Creation itself is the product of a beautiful divine movement. Yet too often we fail to recognize this. We take our life for granted. We take for granted our relationships, our love. We forget that it is a gift of the divine life. It is an agency always active. St. Paul tells us with his usual blunt truthfulness that we do not pray as we ought. But the spirit is at work, interceding, communicating for us and to us something we can’t even fathom, yet is absolutely essential. 

Even the human interactions we share, we never know how the Spirit is acting. We pass the peace at mass and the Spirit is creating a new spiritual reality. We love our neighbors and the Spirit is opening up new possibilities. If you can even for a little while, quiet yourself to hear the small voice of God, the breath of the Spirit, blowing in the world. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Seek the Living God


Someone once asked George Bernard Shaw, the pop atheist of his day, what he would say to God if he found himself at the pearly gates. He is said to have replied, “not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” A lot of atheists ask for “proof” of God’s existence, as if empirical knowledge could settle the question.

The god the atheists reject tends to be a very powerful being within the world—if not in the world why would it be subject to empirical proof?—that can do powerful things (maybe help a field goal veer inside the uprights, or help your son get into MIT). That’s why the more impolite ones among them will compare theism to belief in fairies or Santa Claus.

Luckily, that’s not the God described by classical theism. What atheists are denying is what David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness,Bliss calls a “demiurge,” some sort of invisible being within the universe, perhaps the most powerful being and the first being, that on occasion will interfere with the laws of nature to do a miracle or two. Again, most theists don’t think of God in these terms, but rather talk about God as the Being of beings, the ground of Being, beyond being, the transcendent source of all, and a slew of other phrases that all amount to denying this sort of demiurge view.

In theology we call this the difference between the univocity of being (there’s only a quantitative difference in beings; God exists in the same way we do but is a really big super-powerful entity) and analogy (there is a qualitative difference between us and God).

We could put it this way: it’s not as if you could stack up the goodness of trillions of people and make something closer to God. Rather God is transcendent Goodness itself, which is the source of all our goodness while remaining wholly different. This is a fairly elementary theological point, yet one finds it readily abused in a seemingly infinite barrage of fashionable atheist polemics.

This little concept is also why God creating the world does not fall prey to the “infinite regression” (the very not-profound question: “if God created the world, who created God?”). That question would be confounding to a demiurge that was simply the first being that created the rest of stuff, but then would need its own maker. What theists posit is a God who is the source of any created matter (even whatever existence was around that could allow for the big bang). As Aquinas argues, it’s a part of the nature of all that exists to be caused, so we need an “uncaused cause” to explain the problem of existence (why is there anything at all?). Any purely naturalist account will only give another cause that needs its own cause, so materialism can never really face up to the question of why or how anything exists. This is what’s in question in the actual God debate: a transcendent reality that precedes everything that exists, not an invisible being or force that made a bunch of stuff.

I obviously haven’t tried to exhaustively prove and defend the existence of God here, I simply ask that people know what it is they are rejecting. Interesting atheists are hard to come by these days. And of course, it would be unfair to act as if bad Christian theology and witness weren’t part of the problem. As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, Christians get the atheists they deserve.

One might object that I am only talking about the God of philosophers, while the God of the Bible is just such a demiurge, an impish being meddling in people’s affairs. Some writers talk about this in an unsavory way as “Greece vs Jerusalem.” However, if you look at the apostolic preaching (not to mention Jesus’ thoughts on the issue) you will find a consistent attempt to enlarge the concept of God beyond the demiurge. When Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man, some people begin to treat them like gods. This is what they have to say:
Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the Living God, who made Heaven and the earth and the seas and all that is in them. (Acts 14:15)
Paul and Barnabas tell them to think bigger. Seek the reason there is anything at all—the Living God.

*I owe the stimulus for some of these thoughts, the title, and the pulled quote to Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God: Frontiers in the Theology of God which I hope to talk about in the upcoming posts*