The kingdom of God is…justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” —Romans 14:17

It appears to be Spirit Week here at Near Emmaus. I appreciate Brian’s previous posting on the subject, which attempts to collect and explore a few of the most influential works of pneumatological theology. Constructive pneumatologies are few and far-between. As Molly Marshall notes in the opening pages of her book, Joining the Dance (Judson Press, 2003), Gregory of Nazianzus referred to the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos: the God about whom nobody writes (p.3). My next few posts will involve a close reading and engagement with Marshall’s wonderfully approachable and biblically astute text.

"Joining the Dance," by Molly T. MarshallChapter 1: Recovering the Spirit
            In the opening chapter of the book, Marshall recounts the question posed by a student that renewed her interest in pneumatology: “What about the Spirit?” The desire for a more sufficient theological answer to this question is the primary motivation behind Marshall’s work, as it illuminates the general avoidance of extended treatment of the Spirit by theologians and laity alike. Marshall grieves the fact that so little has been written on this particular subject, and seeks to improve the discussion by offering her own constructive pneumatology. Building upon the understanding of the Trinity popularized by Jürgen Moltmann as the self-giving perichoresis, Marshall argues from the very beginning that any serious examination of the role of the Spirit in Christian faith must be thoroughly Trinitarian in nature. “Only a Trinitarian doctrine of the Spirit can be sufficiently encompassing,” she writes, “for it integrates the creative and redemptive work of God” (p.3). Furthermore, Marshall seeks to break down the walls that compartmentalize the self-giving creative Spirit of God into separate modes—the divine “Spirit” and human “spirit”.

In service to these initial observations, Marshall lays out “six primary theological presuppositions” that affect her argument (pp. 11-14):

1. “God is inextricably related to the world.”
2. “God gives the world creative space in which to flourish.”
3. “Many agents or factors are involved in the ongoing world process.”
4. “Divine power is mediated and shared; there is openness to the future, the possibility of novelty.”
5. “God as Trinity, eternally dwelling in self-giving relationship, chooses to include all creation in the oikonomia of creation and redemption.”
6. “The Spirit is the point of contact between the life of God and the world that is yet coming to be.”

These presuppositions shape the foundation of a pneumatology deeply influenced by Process theology and Trinitarian panentheism (and with a passing nod to Open Theism several years before Greg Boyd brought it once again to the forefront of popular theology). Having determined the parameters of her theological sandbox from the outset, Marshall now faces the difficult task of delineating the work of the Spirit which is—like the orthodox doctrine of God itself—both transcendent and immanent in nature. How is the Spirit both active within us and in the ongoing cosmic process of Creation? How is it that the Spirit of God exists simultaneously in self-giving union with the First and Second Persons of the Trinity and permeates all living creatures? Or is it the divine gift only of those who have died with Christ in the ritual of baptism?

Chapter 2: Vivifying All Creation
            Relying heavily on McFague’s image of Creation as the God-body and in keeping with the same metaphor, in Chapter 2 Marshall argues that the breath of life that sustains all creation is in fact none other than the very Spirit of God. This S/spirit, alternately referred to in the biblical text as ruach, nephesh, and pneuma, permeates all creation and is the source of life of all living creatures—it is to this sustaining presence that Peter refers when he claims that in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

While Marshall does offer a few beautifully explained ethical implications of her understanding of the Spirit as the life-giving force of all creatures, she neglects the most glaring question that it raises: If the Spirit of God permeates and vivifies all living things, how do Christians reconcile this statement with our ongoing destruction of animal life and our persistent consumption of animal flesh? What does it mean for one ruach-bearer to take life from another ruach-bearer? This is an ethical sticky wicket that raises several more complex questions in turn: Does a constructive theology of the Spirit as life-force ethically necessitate Christian vegetarianism or veganism? How do we reconcile this image of the enlivening Spirit with our observations of how the animal kingdom functions—that life in the wild, as Hobbes famously declared, is “nasty, brutish, and short”? In the end, is Marshall’s theology of the Spirit not just as romanticized as the “creation spiritualists” she criticizes for the same weakness?

Secondly, I am curious as to how Marshall’s view may either be supported or undermined by the findings of human biology, particularly the discipline of neuroscience. Is this ruach or nephesh that lives and breathes through every living thing “material” or “immaterial”? Where do the basic functions of natural life (i.e. the chemically driven automatic processes of animal respiratory systems needed to sustain carbon-based life forms) end and the mechanics of this supernatural Spirit begin? Though one cannot fault the author for not utilizing texts that did not yet exist, perhaps a future updated edition of Joining the Dance might take into consideration some of Joel Green’s recent engagement with neuroscience, scripture, and Christian tradition regarding the human spirit. Furthermore, Marshall’s lack of differentiation between the spirit and what is commonly referred to as the soul may be cause for some confusion. Since the two are often used interchangeably—at least in popular/folk religion—her study would have benefited from some discussion on the subject that might enlighten the reader as to why Marshall considers them either synonymous or exclusive terms.

Chapter 3: Gathering a People
            What is the primary function of the Spirit of God according to scripture? According to the Hebrew Bible, Marshall claims, the role of the Spirit is most clearly discerned “in forging and sustaining community, a gathered people” (p.38). In Chapter 3, Marshall proceeds to observe the Spirit’s guiding force in the lives of Old Testament leaders, even (and in spite of) those who failed spectacularly at living up to YHWH’s expectations of their leadership for the well-being of the community. Beginning with such biblical figures as Samson, Saul, Joseph, Miriam, Deborah, and others, Marshall notes the somewhat anarchic character of the Holy Spirit—like wind or the breath of God, the Spirit moves where it chooses.  Observing this movement across the witness of scripture, however, Marshall argues that a discernable pattern emerges: the Spirit consistently acts in contrast to socio-political and religious boundaries that serve only to exclude and alienate. Throughout the entire Bible (and especially in the New Testament), the Spirit is revealed to be no “respecter of persons,” but rather a weaver skilled in the art of bringing together unexpectedly dissimilar strands of thread. The Spirit of God is, in its very essence, a border-crossing Spirit that seeks to draw the excluded into the perichoretic dance. The hymn “Gather Us In,” by Lutheran songwriter Marty Haugen, illustrates well the role of the Spirit in bringing together disparate individuals into community of faith which at its very foundation is “called to be light to the whole human race”:

We are the young, our lives are a mystery,

we are the old who yearn for your face;

we have been sung throughout all of history,

called to be light to the whole human race.

Gather us in, the rich and the haughty,

gather us in, the proud and the strong;

give us a heart, so meek and so lowly,

give us the courage to enter the song.