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Breathe on me, breath of God

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“The Holy Spirit is the neglected member of the Trinity.” After hearing that cliché in a sermon recently, I told my wife that it reminded me of Robert Jenson’s classic essay, “It Makes You Wonder Where the Ghost Went.” (1) Without missing a beat she recited the lines: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” I must confess that the great theologian’s allusion to a 1950s toothpaste ad went over my head.(2) It was one of those references that you either get or don’t get, and Jenson wasn’t about to draw attention to his joke. .

When homilists say that the Spirit has gone into eclipse, I seriously doubt that what they have in mind is a Jensonian call for a revisionary metaphysics focused on the radical contemporaneity of the God of the gospel. It is much simpler than that: an intuition that something essential has disappeared in the life of the church, and that we must restore it. The missing element may be a personal conversion, or the experience of the new birth. It can be a seriousness about living in holiness, or a plea for people on the margins. One or more of these factors can be interpreted as symptoms of the church’s amnesia regarding the Spirit. Conversely, a robust pneumatic life is offered as the sure cure for whatever ails us.

But has the Spirit really forgotten? When we arrive at pneumatology in my first-year theology course, students often express frustration with the standard Western answers: the Spirit as the vinculum or bond of unity between the Father and the Son. The Spirit as love or gift. These Augustinian and Thomistic formulas seem suspiciously abstract to them, because they regard the Spirit more as a principle than as a means, an instrument. something rather than one someone. Like Jenson, they are tempted to face east and throw the wind away filioqueand embracing what appears to be the more adventurous Trinitarianism of Orthodoxy.

Reader, have no fear! I’m not going to try to solve the problem filioque controversy in the space of a single essay. However, I will repeat what I tell my students: that at least some of our frustrations with the Spirit can be traced back to Scripture, with its very different metaphorical fields for naming the persons. After all, the language of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ is derived from the domain of human social relations. Whatever apophatic adjustments we have to make—for example, “Father” does not mean “male” and “beget” does not mean “prior in time”—we still feel like we have an idea of ​​what the language refers to.

But the language for the Spirit is very different. It often deals in nature metaphors, such as ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Like Hebrew ruachthe Greek pneuma can mean both things. The fact that the Son took on our human flesh makes him in a sense ‘imageable’, and therefore one can write an icon of Christ. The invisible Father cannot be ionized,3 and does not need to be ionized, since he is fully depicted in the Son: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

But how do you iconize the Spirit? Perhaps like a dove, echoing the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Or like the tongues of flame that fell on the apostles at Pentecost. Notice that we are back to nature metaphors: bird, fire, wind, breath. In John’s Gospel, Jesus also compares the Spirit to water, flowing from his own belly or that of the believer. (4) At the end of the Gospel, He appears to the disciples and blows on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”(5)

None of this means that the Spirit is not also deeply personal. In Scripture the Spirit speaks and is addressed, testifies, groans, and can even grieve. Impersonal objects and abstract principles do not grieve. The Spirit is certainly a person, but we must resist the temptation to assume that we know exactly what “person” means when applied to God.

In Trinitarian theology hypostasis is a notoriously slippery term. We would like to put it on record and not just say that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all persons, but that they are persons in exactly the same sense. But we have not been given such unambiguous knowledge. No one knows exactly what a divine being is hypostasis is, and if we knew it, we would have turned the mystery of the Trinity into a puzzle and then solved it. The Spirit in particular seems to elude our well-intentioned attempts at theological definition, which is why Jesus tells Nicodemus: pneuma The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born from pneuma.” A puzzled Nicodemus speaks for us all when he asks, “How can these things happen?” (6)

One of the most imaginative treatments of the Spirit in recent theology is The breath of God, written by Etienne Vetö, a Roman Catholic priest associated with the Chemin Neuf community.(7) It is a remarkable book, combining sophisticated technical analysis with an engaging meditative style. Rather than trying to avoid the Holy Spirit’s scriptural oddity, Vetö leans toward it. Mind, he claims, is intrinsically dynamic, fluid, polyvalent, and resistant to easy definition. More fundamental than Augustine’s Love or Gift, Breath is the most consistent way in the Bible to name the Spirit. God actually has a breath. (8) The Father breathes, and the breath with which he breathes is the Holy Spirit. While such language is inevitably metaphorical, Vetö is far from saying that it is “merely a metaphor.”(9) On the contrary, the language of Scripture must be taken at face value: God’s breath is that God is God, no less than that from the Father. the act of begetting and the act of begetting the Son. The Spirit is indeed God, but God is different.

Drawing on theologians as diverse as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Herbert Mühlen, and Sarah Coakley, Vetö argues that the Spirit should be viewed less as a substantial “self” than as “a capacity for God to act outside of himself and within to be. another.”(10) It is this complex mix of stepping aside, dwelling within yourself and allowing yourself to flourish that characterizes the distinctive profile of Spirit:

In the scriptures Rua And Pneuma have shown themselves to be very different from Father and Son: they are atmospheric and fluid, they act and exist in and through and around others. The more the Spirit is active in infusing wisdom, dynamism, life and relationships into others, the more it withdraws. It is letting others become themselves. These characteristics flow together to give a typical, specific ‘personality’ of the Spirit.(11)

On the one hand, the Spirit hides behind the Father and the Son, or (to change the metaphor) is the ‘space’ within which the encounter with them takes place. On the other hand, the Spirit hides behind the material ways of working; this is one reason why the distinction between “created” and “uncreated” grace is ultimately artificial. The Spirit is certainly not a creature, but joins the reality of the creature: bodies, voices, affections, songs, sacraments, prayers, memories and ‘sighs too deep for words’. that for all its impressive technical sophistication it remains close to the primary language and imagery of Sacred Scripture.

All of this suggests that we do not best honor the Spirit by talking a lot about the Spirit, or by invoking the Spirit—much less ghosts and “spirituality”—as a panacea for the ills that plague the church and the world.13 Trying to make the Spirit “do more for us” is precisely the wrong way to pay attention to this divine person. If the Spirit is God’s breath, we must allow Him to breathe in and through us. When the Spirit calls us to praise the Father or confess the Son, we must obey His promptings. Where has the Spirit gone? Maybe he didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps the miracle of Pentecost is that the dominus vivificans is simply and graciously present to us, bestowing gifts, animating our bodies, and sending the church on mission.


(1) Robert Jenson, ‘You wonder where the ghost went’, Pro EcclesiaWinter 1993. I must say here that while I am generally a great admirer of Jenson’s theology, I think that in this essay he works too hard to fit the Spirit into a particular conceptual mold.

(2) My wife only knew this because her grandmother, Helen Richardson Miller, won a contest for the best answer to the question, “Where did the yellow go?” For the record, her successful entry was: “It mixed with the bluesgentlemen, from other toothpaste users, and turned them over vegetable with envy of my winning Pepsodent smile!”

(3) I realize that there are many exceptions, especially in Western art, but even in Orthodox iconography under Western influence.

(4) The Greek syntax is confusing and admits both meanings. The ambiguity is probably intentional.

(5) John 20:22.

(6) John 3:8-9.

(7) Etienne Veto, The Breath of God: An Essay on the Holy Spirit in the Trinityforeword by Ephraim Radner (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).

(8) Vetö argues that the Spirit is the breath of the Father, his personal act of “breathing,” even in the immanent Trinity. To explore this would take us far beyond the limits of this essay.

(9) One of Vetö’s most important sources for the theology of metaphor is Janet Martin Soskice, for whom metaphor is precisely a means to make claims about reality.

(10) Veto, The breath of God17.

(11) Veto, The breath of God27-28.

(12) Romans 8:26.

(13) See that of Ephraim Radner A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Antimodern Redemption (Baylor, 2019), which impressively documents the ways in which pneumatology has been used to address a range of concerns about theodicy.

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