Saturday, November 05, 2011

Holy Spirit, Holy Bullshit


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.
With the Holy Spirit, we are basically talking about people feeling as though they are instruments of God's will. The Holy Spirit is God acting in man. Christianity uses the Greek New Testament exclusively as justification for the concept. The Gospel of John figures prominently in the defense, as does the Book of Acts and Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I hope you do post your experiences with the Alpha course.

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  2. I might, but my experiences are becoming increasingly negative. At first, I thought it might be a good opportunity for dialogue, even though I have understood all along that the program goal is to prompt people into Christian belief and practice.

    Over the weeks, however, I have found the session topics to be more restrictive and less tolerant of admitting doubt/questions. For example, last week's topic was on reading the Bible. The passage for discussion was the parable of the sower in Luke. The point of the passage is that only the true believers (and true actors upon the beliefs) of the Word gain the kingdom of God. The non-believers and imperfect believers...well, fuck all them.

    It was the first time I had felt uncomfortable in the course. I don't think it will be the last. I didn't speak up last time and register my displeasure (I will not say offense). I will speak up from now on.

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  3. I wish I could join the course. We could sit snicker in the back, and raise our hands at untimely moments when someone is in the middle of some conviction filled profession of faith... and we could ask, "Why? How do you know! What if you're wrong?"

    And then sit back and wait for the onslaught of bad apologetics.

    And we could repeat this line of questioning until we got expelled for... well... attempting to make them think.

    What fun that would be!

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  4. Tristan,

    I'm sure you could join a course, if you wanted. I had a week or two of challenging the assertions people made, but I lost my taste for it when I saw that folks were looking for ways to be better believers not for ways of complicating belief.

    I expanded on these thoughts in a new post, dedicated respectfully to you.

    http://larrytanner.blogspot.com/2011/11/prepare-to-lose-for-tristan-vick.html

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