James Alison. Theology

How do we talk about the Spirit?

London Centre for Spirituality, 13 May 2007. [Transcription]

"How do we talk about the Spirit?" - was a day of ecumenical discussion and exploration, seeking deeper understanding of the many meanings underlying our use of the word ‘spirit’. Organised by Brenda Wall, Judith Smith and others from the Quaker Retreat Group, it brought participants into discussion both with each other and the speakers, James Alison and Timothy Peat Ashworth (tutor in Biblical Studies at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre). Both speakers gave a short presentation to begin the day; what follows is a transcription of James’ contribution.

I had the advantage of chatting with Tim before this, but not actually seeing the sheet [Timothy Peat Ashworth gave a handout to participants], so I already knew we were kind of on the same ground, but then having seen the sheet I see we’re even more on the same ground. So in a sense I suspect I’m simply going to be saying much the same thing as Tim has said, just in very slightly different language; and I decided that – as it were, to be slightly original, in my contribution I decided to let – one of the things, as a Catholic systematic theologian, is that I have a ‘little Ratzinger within’ [laughter] that always wants to come out, as it were – not in papal mode, but a little Ratzinger in German theologian mode. It’s now become a more decorative little Ratzinger with him having become Pope [laughter]; but even before he became Pope the little Ratzinger would come out sometimes as a Germanic systematic theologian – so that’s what I’d like to do, is just remind us of some of the, if you like, more systematic ‘points’ about the Holy Spirit.

And the first point of that, is that we’re talking about God. We’re not talking about an add-on, we’re not talking about – as Brenda [1] said, we’re not talking about something ‘tacked on’ in the wake of God – when we talk about the Holy Spirit, we are talking about God. And one of the greatest temptations for us when talking about God, which we fall into ever so easily when talking about the Holy Spirit, is talking about an ‘it’ – which is why I think sometimes, in the New Testament, and particularly in the Lucan writings, the word is not ‘the Holy Spirit’, but simply ‘Holy Spirit’. There’s no article. And it’s worth remembering how easily we are betrayed by tiny little bits of grammar; we’re not talking about an ‘it’, we’re talking about ‘I AM’ – a ‘quality’ of ‘I AM’ – and I just wanted to bring that out. When – and I noticed this, that when Tim was describing things where we would use words like Holy Spirit, use words like ‘inspired’, ‘how Jesus acted out’, ways of talking, boldness, courage and so forth, we’re talking about qualities. Now, God doesn’t have qualities – any quality of God, is God. It’s worth us remembering that – God doesn’t have qualities, any quality of God is God; there is no difference in God between the attributes. It’s just worth remembering this. In order to make this slightly more comprehensible, I ask you to think of it this way – and this is only fractionally more comprehensible – normally we think, as we speak, about God, in terms of subject, verb, and object: ‘God sends the Spirit’, for instance. How about imagining it slightly different: how about, the verb is God, and an adverb is the Holy Spirit. How does God god? God gods goddingly [laughter] as it were. The oomph [2] is oomphly – because we’re talking, again, about ‘I AM’, and the whole point of ‘I AM’ is that it’s not a ‘he’ or an ‘it’ or a ‘she’ that can be grasped, but is a coming-towards-us-out-of-nowhere, and we are the peripheral bits, if you like. We’re the object, not the subject. So, oomph is oomphing oomphingly towards us, in us, through us – we’re the periphery of this ‘acting verb’, and maybe what the, what the sea looks like when it breaks on the shore is foam, and that’s what we call Spirit, but the foam is the oomph oomphing oomphingly. Does that, does that make sense? [Tim – surprisingly, sorry! - quiet laughter]

I just want you know, this is not just a word game: it’s trying to get the sense of ‘I AM’ coming towards us – which I think is exactly the same point, incidentally, as I think that Tim was making when he said conversation about the Spirit was a prompt to be in the Spirit. When we’re talking about God we’re talking about the protagonism, the real protagonism, behind everything that is, and of which we are the symptoms – rather than an object within our field of vision. Does that make, you know…? Now, and again this is an old, old dogmatic point, that ad extra – and this is a straightforward dogmatic point – that ad extra all the activities of God are single. So there is no difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit acting ad extra. If we recognise the Spirit doing something, we are recognising God – who is Father, Son and Spirit – doing something. The only distinction – if we can talk about a distinction – is in the ‘inner life’ of God. Ad extra, there is only one acting out – we are monotheists, not tritheists. It’s not three persons turning up and treating us differently: it’s one Protagonism into whose inner life we are called. Does that make – just trying to remind people of basic [inaudible]… But that means that when we talk about Spirit, we’re talking about the Creator, making alive a criterion for who the Creator is – which is the role we normally associate with Jesus – when we talk about Jesus as ‘the image of the Father’, or when Jesus says, ‘I am the Way’, [inaudible] what is the image of the Creator? How could we possibly know about the Creator? Well, Jesus says, you want to know what the Creator looks like – me acting out and going to my death, is what the Creator looks like. And you won’t get it until I have gone to my death, and given you the Spirit, which will then become the living interpretative presence that makes my criteria for God available to you, and will enable you to share in my inner life. But it’s the Creator who is involving us on the inside, through a historical human being having gone to death and opened up a new way for us to live.

So just a brief recap there – one Protagonist, so that’s one oomph, and different adjectives: I AM I am I-ammingly; I AM am ammingly – [you] could even say it I AM ams but that makes it sound into a third person, and we’re talking about a first person.

The second point – given that all that was one point, really, about the Protagonist – the second point is that the Holy Spirit is given in historical circumstances. In other words, we’re not talking about something vague. There’s this line in John 7, which I like very much – “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me as the Scriptures have said, out of his heart shall flow streams of living water. Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet, the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” In other words, when we’re talking about the Spirit, we’re not talking about something vague – we’re talking about something that was given under quite specific historical circumstances: Jesus going to his death, in order to make it possible for us to inhabit being human deathlessly. So the Holy Spirit has content; and I think that part of the content – as you were describing – is the notion that because the Holy Spirit is God, the Creator, it is to do with us living deathlessly. It is made available for us by Jesus going to his death – in all the Gospel accounts it’s the same. He breathes out the Spirit on the cross, hands the Spirit back to the Father on the cross. It’s only after he has gone to his death that Holy Spirit comes upon us. For instance in John’s Gospel, where everything is done with very gentle allusion, on the day after the Resurrection he appears in the upper room with the disciples who are frightened, and then it says he breathes upon them – usually translated as breathes upon us, but the word is enephusésen: he ‘breathes into them’, he ‘insufflates’; and it’s exactly the same verb in the Septuagint with which God breathes into Adam’s nostrils, thus bringing him into life. We’re talking about ‘the new Adam’, having become a living spirit, in Paul’s terms; making it possible for the ‘new Adam’, who does not know death, to come alive. This is [end of side 1 of tape].

[Side 2] ...only in humans being made available for deathlessness, the Spirit was able to penetrate, take over, possess us. And again, we’ll look at that word ‘possess’ in just a second – because we’re talking about a word like Spirit, which by itself has no content – that’s the whole problem with it, which is why I was keen to bring out the notion of content – the only way you can give content to an apparently content-less word is via stories. So the structure of stories in the New Testament indicates something about the ‘-ingly’ of the protagonism. And part of the structure of the ‘-ingly’ of the protagonism, is that desire and imagination are quickened, in that lovely old word. “The quick and the dead” – quickened, made alive, made vivacious, exactly the sort of purification and transformation that you were talking about. And this is actually a continuation of the role of wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. The difference between wisdom and vanity in the Hebrew Scriptures was the sense of creation made alive when orchestrated and penetrated by Wisdom, who had been alive with God making all things in the beginning – even though Wisdom is a feminine form, a goddess almost, in the Hebrew Scriptures. And the opposite of that is vanity: creation which doesn’t get its own point, so appears to be a closed system which is forever running down, and things are forever drooping. You get this wonderful sense in the book of Ecclesiastes, of the difference between vanity and wisdom. Essentially it’s the same creation, but without wisdom, everything in it looks ‘urgh’; with wisdom, the oomph is oomphing oomphingly – the Protagonism is alive, it’s going somewhere, it means something, and those who look at it, their eyes are brightened. This is part of the protagonism, if you like, of the Spirit.

The second element of story that I want to bring out concerning the Spirit, is the way that it’s – the word Spirit is compared, I think deliberately, with other spirits. In one sense it’s the obvious comparison. I think this is why we hear the word the Holy Spirit – it’s just to remind people that there are plenty of spirits, but only one is the Spirit of the Creator; and that there is a real difference between being possessed by a spirit, and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the difference is essentially that other spirits – sometimes referred to as “beggarly elements” and so forth, which Tim brings out in his book [3] – other spirits displace people when they move them. If you’re possessed, you become less who you are: you are ‘taken out of yourself’, you are no longer rational, free, etc etc. You find yourself acting out of the strange part as if under the control of someone else. Whereas the point of the Holy Spirit is that unlike other spirits, it moves without displacing, so that it is ‘more you’ who is doing something, if you are doing something ‘in the Spirit’. It’s actually more rational, more logical, more emotionally healthy, and you are ‘more than who you thought you were’, because you are being created, and the Creator is not in rivalry with you – other spirits are in rivalry with you. So that’s an element of story – is by comparison with the sort of stories we know about with other spirits.

Another element of comparison is the word which Jesus uses in St John’s Gospel: parakletos – the Paraclete, the defence counsel. And again, this goes back to an ancient Hebrew understanding of there being the spirit of the accuser and the spirit of the defender, or redeemer, as we would call it – parakletos, defence counsel, translates goël, and the spirit of the accuser translates satán, and originally these were the legal counsel in the gateway who were supposed to sort out strife. The counsel for the prosecution, and the counsel for the defence. Interestingly enough, the New Testament is predicated on the assumption that the satán has been overthrown – the accuser has lost all transcendence. Only the defence counsel has transcendence – the Creator, opening things up, letting people off false guilt, accusations, doubt, fear; creating boldness. Hence, I think, those qualities of shining, of openness, of boldness, which are part of the oomph oomphing oomphingly that we associate. If the Spirit is at work, one of the things we would expect is boldness – shining – the qualities you associated with the ‘speaking out’ of the early Quakers: parrhesia – ‘speaking boldly’. Because the defence counsel is not going to be shut down by people saying, ‘You can’t get away with that, no, no, no – if I were you I’d keep your cards close to your chest’ [laughter]. The oomph oomphs oomphingly in that sense as well, so the defence counsel declares – that’s the word which Jesus uses about the parakletos – declares, will declare, all things. There’s an open quality about that, which is part of the adverbially detectable way in which we, the symptom, detect the Protagonist, if that’s the word.

Penultimate, or antepenultimate point. I’m going to – and this is exactly the same as what Tim is talking about – because we are the symptoms here, we’re talking about an ‘-ingly’ that is intrapersonal, because we are intrapersonal. We are all, actually, as humans, brought into being by what is other than us. So if we are going to be recreated, or unbound from being tied down in the old creation, then of course this can only work interpersonally, which means, through that letting go which as you said was all about forgiveness. The forgiveness, the letting go, the interpersonal and intrapersonal unbinding happens at the same time; in other words, there is always an ecclesial element to this. The picture, again, we have from the Pauline letters, is of a completely non-possessive orchestration of multiplicity; an ability to keep many many different things alive and shining happily, together. Not getting on top of each other, not binding each other down. We’re talking about the Creator at work here, and it’s interesting that the word for ‘orchestration’ [harmozousa, speculatively translating the Hebrew word hamôn] is also used about Wisdom, bringing all things alive and keeping them all in being, and talking about the sense that the Creator makes all things alive and makes sense of them being what they are, rather than us being frightened that they might get in the way of other things; and doing the same with us, hence the notion that in the ekklesia, rather contrary to our day to day experience, there is no spirit of rivalry – that being St Paul’s principal grief with the churches. But the whole point of the Holy Spirit is because it’s the Creator, there’s room for everyone to be who they are. The episkope is the steward of all that openship.

Now, and here’s another – again these are words which are not very useful, in one sense: they all create bad notions – but I think this is one of the things we remember when we talk about the Protagonist, we’re also talking about the Trinity. In a nutshell, the doctrine of the Trinity is this: God has a life. That’s it [laughter]. As in the phrase, ‘get a life’ [laughter] – God has a life, and that life is entirely independent of us; in one sense it has nothing to do with us at all. God’s perfectly able to carry on having a life without us being here; creation was a purely gratuitous act by someone who had a life, and needn’t have done it! But, rather than having said ‘oh well I’ve got this sort of wart on my backside now, which is creation, which I needn’t have got’, we have been invited into the inside of that life. I think this is one of the things that is most important about the doctrine of the Spirit within Christianity, something which is recognised – I’ve found it recognised by Jewish friends of mine, which is the sense of being on the inside of God. That the Holy Spirit is the first fruits of us being on the inside of the life of God, meaning that our symptomatic attempts to say “I am” are on the way to becoming part of ‘I AM’. We are not merely the object of God coming towards us; we are becoming part of the subject. When Paul says that he is no longer he but Christ, he’s referring to being swept up into finding that he is part of the inside of ‘I AM’ and therefore, for that reason, he is an heir to everything, and we will be an heir to everything, because if we are part of the ‘I AM’ of the Creator, then everything belongs to us. That’s something that’s worth remembering: this is not a vague thing, a sense of being on the inside of the life of God, of us being transformed, taken out of the “you who were no people, you are my people” – that process is part of what’s meant I think by God having a life and we being invited to come inside the life. Creation, which needn’t have happened, becomes something that God wants to rejoice in, wants it to share in God’s own rejoicing.

The last point, and this is very tentative, and we may think of this all together – one of the things which I’m aware of, and I think this is important for, more in terms of thinking about retreats, psychology, and things like that, is this. Because God is protagonist and is not part of anything that is, one of the effects of us becoming involved in the life of God, is a certain secularising quality, because what God does is let us off gods. The discovery of the Creator – the Jewish discovery of the Creator – was a massive breakthrough into what we would call secularism, by comparison with the uber-religious world populated by gods. If you compare, for instance, Genesis or Isaiah, with the contemporary Babylonian accounts of creation there is no question which is the religious one. It’s not the Jewish one. The doctrine of the incarnation secularises history for us – history and social movement – by exploding the sacrifice and the lie and enabling new forms of community to come along so that we can detect what is not of God and we start becoming freer of religious forces driving us down. Now, I wonder to what extent, now, we’re not in a position to talk about how Holy Spirit secularises us, by letting us off various forms of ‘sacred’ into which our understanding of desire has got caught. I wonder whether the fact that issues to do with desire, and sex, are not so obsessively near the centre of many Christian rows at the moment – nothing other than the ordinary working-out of the Spirit setting us free from having sacred desire, into allowing us to have holy desire instead. And holy desire, of course, will start from where we are, and will enable us not to be frightened of the truth about what makes us who we are, which means we’ll be able to learn about the human pathologies and ‘not-pathologies’ which tend to run us, and become aware of how much those work at this level, and how the Spirit is making us alive and setting us free from them. Does that make sense – the distinction from sacred desire and holy desire, the possibility of us acquiring an ‘outside’, rather than being trapped in thinking that because something is desire, it’s automatically what we’re talking about when we talk about Spirit or Holy. That’s very very tentative, but I hope that the sense of because it’s the Creator, oomphing oomphingly at us, what we would expect is things to become ordinarily clear, and brighter and more alive. Does that make sense?

Transcribed by Blair Hunwick


[1] Brenda Wall, a member of the Quaker Retreat Group and one of the organisers of the day. back

[2] See also James’ ‘Deliver us from evil’, – “God is not something that ‘is’ in any normal sense, God is the living ‘oomph’ behind the ‘isness’ of everything that is, including us, for whom God is not an object of our consciousness, nor could be an object of which we could be conscious, but is the condition of possibility of our being, and being conscious at all”. back

[3] Timothy Ashworth, Paul’s Necessary Sin: the experience of liberation, Ashgate, 2006. back