Monday, March 31, 2014

‘The Age of the Spirit’ (Book Review)

Disputes over ecclesiastical authority and dissimilar political and doctrinal threats, along with cultural and language barriers (e.g., Latins who misunderstood Greek), drove the “western” Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches apart. Geographical isolation helped keep them apart. But globalization has torn down that barrier, and the West is now confronting eastern perspectives on all things religious, including the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Emergence Christianities continually challenge Catholic and Protestant norms, Episcopal author Phyllis Tickle suggests that Joachim of Fiore’s “Age of the Spirit” may now be upon us. Western Christians cannot continue to conveniently ignore the “Third Person” of the Trinity.

What? Isn’t the Holy Spirit is a staple of Christian conversation? Being honest we’d have to admit otherwise. The average Christian doesn’t want to think about the Holy Spirit. Speaking of “discernment” or “being led by the spirit” will draw dirty looks from other church members, who dismiss such talk as only befitting a Pentecostal…you know, those weird people. Add in Jesus’ terrifying warning about blasphemy against the Spirit (Mark 3:28-29), and no one dares question the far-fetched extra-biblical diagrams our teachers present in attempt to illustrate the Trinitarian “mystery” for fear of putting their souls on the line.

We don’t necessarily intend to ignore the Holy Spirit. We just don’t know how to talk about “it”…or “him.” Even the most passionate Trinitarians recognize that their views require a lot more biblical support than we are given. Being unable to “own” their opponents in debate is greatly unsettling to Christians, so it’s easier to dismiss questions with a quick “This is the way it is” and cease further discussion.

It should be of no surprise then that many people are converted to some form of Christianity without ever being introduced to the “Third Person.” Its absent from many tracks, Bible correspondence courses, and after-sermon invitations (i.e., alter calls) is deafening. Individuals “raised in the church” rarely fair better, lacking a definite understanding of what the Holy Spirit is and the role it plays in their lives. Unless one belongs to a religious movement that is all about the influence and work of the Spirit, then the whole of pneumatology is unofficially declared off-limits.

Some of us, however, would like to have a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit and thoroughly investigate what is usually considered a major pillar of the Christian faith. However, balanced and easy-to-read resources are often difficult to find for us lay-Christians. (By “balanced” I mean only in the sense that the author analyzes the history and arguments for variety of views, allowing a well-informed reader to draw his own conclusions.)

What is clearly needed is a way of opening up the discussion and allow for questions, especially if Christians are ever going to be expected to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. That’s what’s provided by Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of Publishers Weekly’s Religion Department, with Jon M. Sweeney in The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church (Baker Books, 2014). Part history and part theology, this book examines how the Holy Spirit has been defined and redefined over the millennia and what effects those definitions have had on Christian doctrine, worship, and living.

As you might have guessed, The Age of the Spirit is not an apologetic for any particular view. However, Tickle does present an argument that the filioque addition to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura effectively limited the power of the “Third Person” in the minds of western Christians. In the wake of what she says might be a major turning point in Christian history, Tickle challenges her readers to find new ways of engaging the Holy Spirit. Whether that might mean accepting an ancient “heresy,” mysticism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, or Emergence Christianity, or something else remains unsaid.

What I appreciated most about The Age of the Spirit was its easy read (which I suspect was Sweeney’s contribution). Although Tickle made some unconvincing claims and odd speculations at times, I came away with a clearer understanding the ecumenical creeds, the Great Schism, and the infamous ancient heresies. The book didn’t validate my beliefs, but that wasn’t why I picked it up. It gave me a different perspective and made me rethink some of my own assumptions about the Spirit.

As for the more technical details: Phyllis Tickle has a well-known presence within the “emerging church” movement, and the book, lightly peppered with their lingo, seems written for an audience more familiar with it than I. In addition, she makes reference to biblical content without necessarily including a citation, preferring a more fluid style of writing. While this is should be a minute problem for Christians well-read in Scriptures and having at their disposal every means of looking up these passages, it would likely annoy a number of readers who rely on chapter and verse. For that same reason, an index of Bible references would’ve also been nice.