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Against a Pneumatology of the Gaps

Most of the church throughout the world has just finished the celebration of the day of Pentecost (Assuming, of course that we all did celebrate Pentecost — for those of you that observed Mother’s Day instead, please remember that your salvation is in doubt.)  In light of this celebration, and throughout my congregations’ liturgy, feast, and fellowship for this holy day, I found myself reflecting on the work of the Spirit in the economy of salvation.  Part of our gathered worship involved several people in the congregation reading stories of the Spirit’s work in the world.  Stories included tales of missionaries to aboriginal tribes, the life story of a Muslim man-turned violently persecuted Christian evangelist, and an amazing account of the lives of various people on different sides of the violent conflict in Northern Ireland who were reconciled and became sources of Christian hope and presence to one another (across Catholic-Protestant lines) in situations of extremee violence and tragedy.

What struck me throughout the liturgy and in reflection on my own life and the stories that were brought involved the shape of how we are to understand the Spirit’s work in the economy of salvation.  I found my thoughts constantly referring back to the stories of former radical IRA members and former British soldiers embracing one another and becoming networks of solidarity across lines that were once drawn in blood.  The thought that continued to play in my mind throughout the day of Pentecost was that these things are not unlikely, these things are impossible.  It simply is not possible, under the tyranny of human history that the people in these stories could have come to see themselves as siblings in the same divine family.  The reconciliation of enemies is something that is simply not possible in this world.  Jew and Gentile sitting at table together as full members of one another in the people of God was not just unlikely, it was impossible.  And yet, that is what the church became when the Spirit was poured out of the bosom of the Father.

The point of all this is to help us give praise to the Spirit in a manner that is fitting.  Too often I fear that the Spirit functions in much the same way as Bonhoeffer’s rightly critiqued God of the gaps.  The deus ex machina, the prop-god wheeled out onto the stage of Greek tragedy to give closure to the narrative will forever be the enemy of the Christian doctrine of God.  With Bonhoeffer, we must look, not to some gap, some aspect of our experience which we cannot assimilate and then posit God as the entity to fill that gap; rather we must look for God at the center, in the fullness of the reality of life.  The Spirit, however is almost always looked at as one who fills the gaps.  We only invoke or assume the Spirit’s work when we have run out of natural explanations for how something unlikely happened.  The Spirit is the final piece in an unlikely puzzle.  This mindset lands us in the perilous orbit of idolatry.

The Spirit does not complete the picture, the Spirit is not the final building block.  There can be no Spirit of the gaps any more than a God of the gaps.  For it is the work of the Spirit, not to make really, really difficult things work out, but rather the make the impossible into reality.  The work of the Spirit does not complete, integrate, or solidify any human project.  The work of the Spirit is that of disintegration and receation.  The Spirit renders the impossibilities, not as hopes or possibilities, but as realities to be experienced in Christ.  It is impossible that people bred to despise one another for hundreds of years should become brothers.  It is impossible that people should speak to foreigners in their own languages that they have never heard before.  It is impossible that the blind should be made to see.  It is impossible that a dead man should live again. 

And yet this is precisely what Pentecost proclaims: the impossible has happened!  The inconceivable has come among us!  Unassimilatable newness has shattered the tyranny of the possible in the glory of the Spirit!  For the people of the Spirit all methods of calculation, control, and manipulation are to be rejected, not because such forms of power are too powerful, but rather because they are too weak.  In the luminosity of the Spirit, in which impossibilities become glorious, mysterious realities, the machinations of power and fear are consumed.  The ardor of God’s omnipotent love, poured out into the world in the form of God’s own self, God’s own Spirit has changed everything.  For the mission of the Spirit is to actualize the reality of the resurrection in all things.  And we have confidence that the mission of the Spirit will not be in vain.  The tongues of fire testify to this.  And no less strongly does the fire of infinite love which the Spirit kindles throughout the world.  The love which seats Jews with Gentiles.  The love which makes Loyalists and Republicans into brothers and sisters.  The fire of love has indeed been kindled and they will not cease until all the world has been consumed by them.  Veni Sancte Spiritus!


  1. Hill wrote:

    This is a great post, a conclusion I had come to and decided to post about before I noticed your last sentence. So: thanks for sharing this.

    Latin Grammar warning: It’s actually Veni Sancte Spiritus. I’m still in the process of figuring out why. There are two possibilities: one is that it is a direct address and so requires the vocative case (as in “Et tu, Brute?”). However, I would think that it would be spiritus which would have that ending and not sanctus. I looked it up, however, and sanctus is actually a verb form, which made things a lot more complicated. It almost looks like “holy” is grammatically an adverb in this case, which might be the sight of a fascinating theological cadenza if someone were interested. At any rate, all I know for sure is that it’s Veni Sancte Spiritus. If someone who knows more about Latin than me could explain this I’d be very grateful.

    Monday, May 12, 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Weird, I always see it the other way. But it seems you are correct. I’m clearly no latin scholar. I just fake it.

    Monday, May 12, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    My more educated friend explained to me the technical details of the construction. It is the vocative case due to the direct address, but the reason sanctus gets the -e ending and spiritus does not is because they belong to different declensions which have different vocative endings.

    Monday, May 12, 2008 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

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