Church Write-Up: Ramblings on the Holy Spirit

At church last Sunday, the pastor preached about the Holy Spirit.  Here are some items:

A.  The pastor said that the Holy Spirit is a person, but that many Christians do not talk as if he is a person.  Rather, they talk as if the Holy Spirit is some impersonal force, or God’s power.

This intrigued me, since I grew up in a church movement (Armstrongism) that explicitly taught that about the Holy Spirit: that it was God’s power, not the third person of the Trinity.  Armstrongism was marginalized within Christianity on account of its denial of the Trinity.  There were other reasons, too, but its denial of the Trinity was high on the list.  It is interesting that even many mainstream Christians talk about the Holy Spirit as if it is God’s impersonal power, even though, if you were to ask them, they would probably tell you that they believe in the Trinity.

I am currently going through the Bhagavad Gita, As It Is.  Swami Prabhupada provides the commentary to the Bhagavad Gita, and he disagrees with other Hindu interpreters of the work.  An issue that continually comes up in the book is whether the god Krishna, whom Prabhupada (and perhaps the Bhagavad Gita itself) regards as the supreme being, is personal or impersonal.  To be honest, I do not entirely understand what is at stake in this disagreement, but Swami Prabhupada accuses the “impersonal” side of being materialistic and atheistic.  It seems that Swami Prabhupada believes that Krishna is personal, but that he does have an impersonal element.  Why does the Swami believe that an impersonal conception of God is atheistic or materialistic?  Perhaps he believes that such a conception makes God look like impersonal material nature and robs the universe of a personal God.

Christian theology has debates about whether God is personal or impersonal.  There, however, different issues come into play.  There are Christian theologians who believe that God is impersonal because they think that to conceive of God as a person is to reduce God to the human level, to make God a big version of us.  This is the opposite of my speculation about what the Swami is saying: that the impersonal conception of God reduces God to the material level.  And, on the other side, there are Christians spokespersons who think that people prefer an impersonal version of God because that gets them off the hook morally: the people recoil from being accountable to a personal God, who may disapprove of their behavior, so they prefer an impersonal God.  I have not found a similar view yet in my reading of the Bhagavad Gita, As It Is.  As far as I know, both sides of that debate believe in karma and reward and punishment through the reincarnation process.  But critics of “atheism” usually do like to bring morality into the discussion, as if atheism lacks a moral basis, so I will wait and see if the Swami goes the same route in criticizing the impersonal conception of God.

Anyway, what I just said is based on my reading of the Bhagavad Gita, As It Is thus far.   My conception of what it thinks and why it thinks it may change as I continue to read.  And, no, I do not want to keep revising this post in light of that!

What does this have to do with the Holy Spirit, and whether the Holy Spirit is personal or impersonal?  Not much, perhaps.  Both sides in that case agree that God the Father and God the Son are personal, so they believe in a personal God.  They differ on whether the Holy Spirit is the power of this personal God, or a personal being in his (or her) own right.  But my discussion of the Bhagavad Gita was a nice tangent.

B.  The pastor was saying that the Holy Spirit goes with Christians wherever they go.  He was saying that we can shake hands with people at church, but, when we go home, we can easily feel as if we are on our own.  He said that many in the congregation dread shaking hands with people in church!  And he said that a lot of people are too involved in their own problems to help somebody else.  But we are not alone in those situations, he said, for the Holy Spirit is with us, even when we feel on our own!

I appreciated that honest acknowledgement of reality by the pastor.  This is not to suggest that he himself dreads shaking hands with people during the greeting time!  But, so often, pastors talk as if the church is, or should be, one big happy family where everyone likes each other, and yet reality is different, at least for some (maybe more).

C.  The pastor was talking about his own Pentecostal upbringing and how the Pentecostal church of his youth tried to force emotion out of people.  If people did not show a high level of emotion—-by clapping, dancing, or speaking in tongues—-then they were judged as spiritually immature, perhaps even unsaved.  The pastor wanted to make clear that this church (the Baptist one that he pastors) does not do that.  And he said that we should not judge the quieter, more reserved worshipers.

This was an interesting discussion, since this church (the Baptist one) is one of the liveliest churches that I have attended.  People clap and rejoice in their singing.  Yet, there are quieter people in the congregation, and the church seems to respect that.  I appreciate that.  I have attended African-American churches where I have felt judged for not being enthusiastic enough, or for not displaying a high level of enthusiasm.  This African-American church (the Baptist one) is different.

I will admit something, though.  There are times when the choir is singing, and someone stands up because she feels especially moved by the song.  I may still be sitting down.  But I am moved when someone stands up!

D.  The pastor also talked about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the sin that Jesus said could not be forgiven (i.e., Matthew 12:32).  Essentially, the pastor said that this sin is when a person knows that Jesus is real, but wants absolutely nothing to do with God.  This is problematic because, outside of faith in Jesus, there is no forgiveness.

I have some problems with this definition, but I cannot offer an alternative, at least not right now.  People can easily find themselves not wanting anything to do with God for a variety of reasons: pain, suffering, disappointment, apathy.  Does that mean that God will not forgive them if they do eventually decide to come back to God?  Maybe Jesus and Hebrews were warning people of what could happen if they left God: they could become so hardened that they would not want to return to God.  This “could” happen, but that is not the same as saying it “must” happen.

There is also the question of how much a person needs to know about God, before rejection of God becomes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Just knowing that God exists is not enough, in my opinion.  I know a lot of people exist, but that does not make me accept them!  But knowing God in God’s goodness and walking away from that?  That is a bigger problem.  And that, I think, is the problem that the “warning” passages in Hebrews is addressing.

That said, I would still like to think that even a person who knows God in God’s goodness and walks away from that can still come back to God and be forgiven.  I mean, sheesh, ancient Israel in the Hebrew Bible continually walked away from God after experiencing God’s goodness, but God still encouraged her to repent and offered her forgiveness and hope.  The Prodigal Son of Jesus’ parable probably knew that his father was good before he left home and did his own thing, yet he still came back to his father, and his father forgave him.

A lot of times, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is defined as a continual rejection of God.  I have heard that in churches, and the pastor of this church may have been getting at that in his message.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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One Response to Church Write-Up: Ramblings on the Holy Spirit

  1. Heather G says:

    I tend to think of the Holy Spirit as being somewhat akin to a “carrier wave” in radio – He is the carrior wave for the Father and the Son. Except beyond JUST being a carrier wave, He is also conscious and sentient. A sentient carrier wave.
    IN other words – He is a power, a force, a…..well, shucks, a Spirit. And sentient at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

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