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Checking a mousetrap a few weeks ago, I discovered the body of mouse lying on its back next to the sprung trap. There was not a mark on the wee body. It was almost as if it had simply keeled over next to the trap. As I carried the little form out of the house, I was struck by a set of questions, What is life? Where does it come from and where does it go? Why are things alive one moment and not the next? Is life some mystical property imparted by some greater power or a mere biological phenomenon? Is it a product of chance or a gift from God, or maybe living things live because they are divine themselves. How is a Christian to explain the fact that living things exist at all? The answer is easy to give, but also quite mysterious because it involves the Spirit of the Living God.
Welcome back to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
What does the Spirit of God have to do with life and living things? That’s the question for today.
What is the work of the Holy Spirit in the natural world? This is a somewhat thorny and difficult question as we shall see, subject to much misunderstanding and thus often undertreated in Christianity.
The Psalmist introduces us to the subject rather subtly in Psalm 104, speaking of the diversity of creatures of the earth…
27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath [ruach], they die and return to the dust.
30 When you send your Spirit [ruach], they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
31 May the glory of Yahweh endure forever; may Yahweh rejoice in his works—
It is a longstanding commitment of Christianity that all things have their life in and from God. The scriptures make this clear. Nothing exists except that it was made and is continually sustained by its Maker. Only God has that attribute which theologians call “aseity”—self-life. That word does not describe us. We need many things—light, air, food, love…and so too the world. But God, who possesses all illimitable life all at once, depends on nothing for the divine life to continue. God has all things necessary to be God within the divine self. That is why the Trinity conversation from the last homily matters. God cannot be lonely. God alone is complete and completely alive.
And yet, in a great impossibility, this generous and hospitable God has caused there to exist creatures who share in that magnificent reality—life. That God has made rocks and mountains and interstellar gases out of nothing is impressive enough—but they merely “exist.” How are we to explain an oak tree, a sparrow, a border collie, or you and me—creatures who not only exist, but have “Life!”
St. Paul reminded the philosophers on Mars Hill, “He is not far from each of us. For in him we live, and move, and have our being.”
Now how are such things possible? How can life exist, flourish, grow? How is it that God can share this illusive quality—life—with mere creatures. It is a mystery to be sure. But the scriptures give us help.
Did you hear it in the Psalm? “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” An image of the powerful work of God, renewing season after season the whole face of the earth—from winter to spring, summer to harvest—life goes on and is renewed. Now to whom does the Psalmist credit this great and beautiful phenomena—the Spirit of God. And in light of this the church as a long history of a particular kind of seasonal prayer, the “Veni, Creator Spiritus…” Come, Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth,” a prayer rooted both in the act of Creation as well as in the hope of Redemption
Christians have always known from the scriptures that the life giving work of God is credited to the Holy Spirit. It is why in Rublev’s great icon of the Trinity the Spirit is clothed in green. Wherever life flourishes and grows, God is there by the Spirit working, nurturing, loving, forming, filling.
It reflects something that seems basic to God’s own self, something we foresaw in the last homily in the idea of the Trinity. All through the scriptures we find the Triune God working in history by means of the three persons—Father, Son , and Holy Spirit. The Father is always represented as the one who’s will is being done, who’s agenda is being carried out, who has all authority—who sends, commands, and rules. The Son or the Word is always represented as the one who goes out from the Father to accomplish the work, bring it into being—as Paul says of this Son in Colossians 1…
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
And yet beyond this, we find another who is always credited with bringing the works of God to their perfection and completion. One who hallows, inhabits, and glorifies it. It is this Holy Spirit, which in order to express this, some have even taken to calling the “Wholesome Spirit.”
As we shall in future when we consider the role of the Spirit in the life of Jesus Christ, yes, it is the Son who offers to go on the mission of redemption to save the world—the one who will accomplish it—but who is the one who hovers over the darkness of Mary’s womb to give the Messiah his human life, nature, and form? It is the Spirit of God.
And again when that same Messiah lies dead in the grave, who is the one who restores him to life. Have we really understood the scriptures here? Listen carefully to what Paul says in Romans, when speaking of the need to have the life-giving Spirit of Christ in us, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” It is the life-giving Spirit who has the power to restore even a crucified messiah, so that God’s plan can be fulfilled.
Do you see? We meet here a powerful truth of the Christian faith, a powerful truth about the natural world, a powerful truth of God’s work in us as human beings, as children of God, and as the community of faith: Wherever there is beauty, growth, richness, life…Wherever creation flourishes…Wherever the works of God are brought into stunning, rich, glorious and color-filled completion, you will find the Holy Spirit is the one who is credited with that work.
As we consider what the scriptures say about the work of the Holy Spirit in the natural world, we find that two ministries seem to dominate. First, the Spirit as one who continues the work of Creation that the Father has commanded and the Son has enacted. The psalmist tells us in Psalm 33, “By the word of Yahweh were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath-spirit of his mouth.” The Apostle John understood the Word as a glyph for the Son of God, as does Paul, and by the work of the Son the structures of the world are brought into being from nothing. But the Psalmist clarifies that the living heavenly hosts are brought into their final arrangement, the very living angelic multitudes have their derivative life, because of that breath or Spirit of God.
Wherever the works of God are brought into stunning, rich, glorious and color-filled completion, you will find the Holy Spirit is the one who is credited with that work.
Now Genesis 1 gives us the story of it. For as the curtain rises on the history of the world, we find that in the beginning God made the heavens and the earth, but as the details commence we find that these things are disordered, unformed and unfilled—and darkness is upon the face of the deep.
And the breath, spirit, or wind of God blows upon the waters, and from there “God said, let there be…” The Spirit is here depicted as the agent of Creatio continuata—the one who continues the act of creation. It is the Spirit who now completes the details of the created world, bringing life, color, and warmth to this dark world, making it habitable for Life. The agenda of the Father, begun by the Word, is now perfected and brought to completion by the Spirit of God. God is nothing if not consistent in the divine work.
But second, we find that this Spirit has an ongoing work in the created order—the work of Conservatio, that is, providence, preservation. That the world continues to be a place rich with life, diversity, and beauty because the Spirit of God has not left it run on its own, but continues to brood over it like an artist over a canvas or a mother over a growing child.
Like the silent form of Adam lying upon the ground receiving that life-giving blast of air, the presence of the Spirit in the world is a promise that creation will not fail, that God has sided with creation, and that it is being faithfully and lovingly guided toward its final end.
That young buck, Elihu in the book of Job who listens on to the tedious discussion of Job and his friends finally stands up and reminds his listeners that, “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” And in the next chapter, “If it were God’s intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” But for the ongoing providential sustaining Spirit of God in the world, moment by moment, we and all else would return to nothing. Thomas Aquinas, that great medieval theologian, images God reaching down into the nothingness and from it drawing up a whole cosmos, and then lovingly holding there in its form, so to underscore our absolute dependence upon this God for our life and existence every moment. If God wishes to destroy the world, it would not require floods or fire, but merely letting go, and all would descend back into the nothing from whence it came. That is the state of our dependence.
At the hands of this Spirit even death itself is undone. We’ve already mentioned the resurrection of Jesus, but Ezekiel saw the same thing in the valley of dry bones 1000 years earlier. “’Then you, my people, will know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I Yahweh have spoken, and I have done it,’ declares Yahweh.”
Wherever the glories of creation touch us to the core in their beauties, their diversities, their complexities, we have but one source to thank—the Living Triune God who is present, working in the world in the person of the Holy Spirit.
This helps explains why we humans love the natural world so much. Why sunsets thrill our hearts, and the whoosh of autumn leaves causes us to breathe deeply, why bright blindingly white clouds and deep blue skies and deeper green oceans cause us to shudder with delight. Why the smiles of our children enthrall us, and the antics of a dog or horse enchant us. Why the night sky aglow with infinite stars makes us feel the awe and reverence of a child before a thing it cannot fathom.
All this is so, my friends, because all these delights that fill the world near to slopping over are good gifts and marks of the Spirit’s presence and work in our midst. God has sided with creation and is at work within her—and the result is glory.
God has sided with creation and is at work within her—and the result is glory.
However, I need to be absolutely clear, because this is a source of great mischief and misunderstanding in our world. What I am saying must be distinguished from two mistakes that have arisen in the history of thought. Two alternatives that misread the data of creation and by that mistake, promote an insufficient view of the Divine Spirit who stands at the back of it. Those two misunderstandings go by the names of Pantheism and Panenthesim. Pantheism was the view of a collection of ancient nature religions, and held that nature herself is divine—that she is, not a servant, but a god in her own right and to be venerated and worshipped.
Panentheism, a slightly more modern adaptation, says that the spirit of the divine is bound up in creation, interpenetrating every part of it, thereby exalting creation to be a part of God, a divine emanation or expression of God, with much of the same worshipful result
The existence of these two alternatives is why the language of “personhood” and “deity” in the last homily mattered so much, because without that clarification, we would easily become idolaters of this sort—the sort Paul speaks of in Romans 1, worshiping the creature more than the creator, confusing the Spirit of Life with life itself, the Spirit that upholds all creation with creation itself.
I believe the Christian understanding is better because it can even explain why such misconceptions exist, why they can exist at all. It is because this other views have seen a bit of the truth and then misunderstood it. They see the grandeur and holiness and even divinity that is visible through creation (like light through a window) and believe that it is creation itself that possesses such things—that the created world is the thing to honored, revered, and worshipped.
And Christianity agrees to a point: Creation really is wonderful, grand, and inspiring, is even good, but not because of some inherent quality or divinity. The universe does not have aseity any more than I do. Rather it is good because God said it was, because God gave to creation the attribute of goodness, because God’s Spirit has gone forth into creation inhabiting, enlivening, and hallowing it. In short, creation is good because God is. God’s own Spirit dwells with the world God made, sustaining and caring for it, loving it, but is not to be confused or equated with it.
Remember what the Psalmist teaches us in Psalm 19—the heavens declare the glories of, who? Themselves? No, the vast cosmos in all of it impossible size, beauty, and wonder exists to declare the glory of another, that of its maker, the glory of God, who is even bigger, more amazing, and more beautiful!
And if nature could speak, she would cry out against us when we exalt her to a place she knows she does not deserve. “Do not worship me! I am but a messenger!” Indeed, the whole of the created world testifies to the God who has sided with creation, loves her, preserves her, and causes her to flourish and become herself. And she itself knows that her primary vocation is to display and announce the glories of the one who gave her life and constantly upholds her.
Nature is a window into the soul of God…not God.
Nature is a window into the soul of God…not God. Nature preaches to us that she is not an end in herself. She proclaims the good news that a Creator exists and rules in great power and glory. In short, creation exists in all of her goodness to point us beyond herself to one who is infinitely greater—The God, who, although fully distinct from the created world, is also fully present and working in her every detail… How? in the person of the Holy Spirit.
From all of this we should already begin to see our way forward into the greater work of the Spirit that is coming in future homilies—the Spirit’s work in us. For just as the Holy Spirit has gone forth giving life, constantly renewing the face of the earth, and ensuring the welfare of the world, so too this same powerful and healthful Spirit is at work in us.
And I do not mean here as a redeemer against sin, we shall say that too in coming homilies, but “nests before eggs,” one step at a time. The point here is to recognize that this holy, wholesome, hospitable Spirit is at work in us as well, drawing forth from us the glories of our own potential, causing us to live and breathe, move and thrive. A common work of the Spirit on all—redeemed, pagan, and agnostic alike. We all owe gratitude and worship to this same Spirit for our lives and the glories they produce.
It is a demand upon all humans to recognize the simple truth— God is good and desires the creatures to flourish and become themselves. And this is a desire that God carries out not merely by divine fiat from some distant and ethereal height. But here in the very warp and woof of the world, God’s Spirit is at work leading us and all creation to our intended destinies.
And what is that destiny? What is it that we exist for? What is it that the Christian embraces and skeptic rejects? The Psalmist has taught us. Just as the heavens exist to declare the glory of God…so do we. The framers of the Westminster Catechism knew it in the very first question: What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
God delights in the praise of the world, in the rich colors of nature—the greens, the blues, the vermillions. This is my Father’s world. There is rest in that thought. Shall we join the chorus of creatures who give praise to the Living God who made us and sustains by means of this wholesome, hospitable, and most Holy Spirit?
It is the saintly ass’s hope that our eyes will be opened anew to the glories around us. That we would be quick to see the hand of God’s Spirit at work in the world, to rejoice in God’s world as we are invited into all the joys that have been prepared for us out of God’s good and hospitable nature.
We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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