Because I was invited, I have been attending an Alpha course with my wife, who is a Christian. The Alpha course, for those who don't know, is a Christian outreach program. It consists of weekly sessions to persuade people into becoming more devout Christians. It purports to offer a "safe" place for raising doubts and questions about Christianity, but--if my experience is typical--it's really an ongoing sermon conducted in "free" dinners, worship songs, DVD lectures, and small group discussions.
In my participation in the course, I have sought to be neither the token Jew nor the token atheist. Certainly, if anyone is under the impression that I may turn Christian, s/he is quite mistaken. After all...facts are facts, and no doctrine or dogma will make me give up on facts. And the facts are against Christianity as they are against Judaism, Islam, and all other theisms.
I may post later on my experiences in Alpha. My double background--Jewish and atheist--may add something new to other perspectives on the course that are already available. For now, though, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit. In the course, we seem to be building up to a focus on the importance of believing in it and venerating it.
My life as a medievalist and as an American has given me some access to the idea of the Holy Spirit, but now that I must face it by itself, squarely, I must ask: How is it that that we can talk about a holy spirit and not have the sense that we're just making shit up? I don't mean to be rude, but...come on! A fucking spirit? Are people serious about this?
Of course they are serious. I understand the importance placed on believing in or denying the Holy Spirit. I wish, however, that someone would attempt to justify the concept to me. More than most anything else in Christian doctrine, the Holy Spirit demonstrates that the power of religion comes from its stimulation of the individual psyche.
Let's look at a few pronouncements on the Holy Spirit, and remember also that for many faith demands belief in the Holy Spirit. Hear it again: Faith demands belief. Faith does not entail belief or lead to belief or point to belief. It demands and requires belief. Believe it or else you are not one of the faithful. If you disbelieve, you are not one of the godly and one of the church. If you disbelieve, you are an opponent of God and an enemy.
The basics of the belief are:
- The Holy Spirit is one "person" in the triune god. There's God the dad, Jesus the boy, and the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit shares the same essence as God and Jesus but is distinct: think of three separate impressions made in wax. Same substance, distinct forms.
- The Holy Spirit is not material but is rather perceived within a person as having emanated from God.
It's clear, however, that no justification for the concept of the Holy Spirit exists outside the NT and the Christian interpretive tradition. We cannot apprehend the Holy Spirit through the senses or through instruments. Yet we can get in big, big trouble for not believing in the Holy Spirit. This is the sin that will not be pardoned according to the Synoptic Gospels. And people scoff at Bertrand Russell for having said fear is the foundation of religion.
If you think religion is about intellectual or even emotional arguments, you are only partly and secondarily correct. The psyche, the motivational part of the mind, is the the endgame of religion. Religion is all about supplying motives and about motivating. The Holy Spirit is, ultimately, a metaphor for motivation: motivation against reason, motivation against intellect, motivation against interest.
I began thinking I didn't know what the Holy Spirit was, but I realize now that I get it perfectly. What's more, I get what Christianity uses it for.