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Saturday, 16 September 2023 16:35

The Holy Spirit in Creation, Justice and Peace

Published in Faith and Ecology

One of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926), published a book in 2019 that neatly summarizes some key themes of his monumental work: The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril. His 1965 (German edition) groundbreaking book had been on Christian hope: A Theology of Hope. Then among his numerous books, at least four are devoted to the Holy Spirit and creation.

This blog post follows the two-part one on “Learning from Indigenous Creation Theology.” I’m digging deeper on the issue of God’s good creation, but my main concern is about the divine role of the Holy Spirit in creation, as well as in human society and history.

Moltmann’s 2019 The Spirit of Hope (at age 95 he released another one, Resurrected to Eternal Life: On Dying and Rising) focuses on the multiple crises facing 21-century humanity and how Christians can respond. In this work published by the World Council of Churches (WCC), his second chapter deals with creation: “The Hope of the Earth: The Ecological Future of Modern Theology.” He begins the chapter with this thought:


“Today we stand at the end of the modern age and at what has to be the beginning of the ecological future of our world, if our world is to survive. . . . The modern age was determined by the human seizure of power over nature and its forces. These conquests and usurpations of nature have now come up against their limits. All the signs suggest that the climate of the earth is changing drastically as a result of human influence. The icecaps of the poles are melting, the water level is rising, islands are disappearing, droughts are on the increase, the deserts are spreading, and so forth. We know all that, be we are not acting according to what we know” (15).


Hence, we urgently need to rethink our traditional (and modern) theology. The Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola argued in his classic 1486 text On the Dignity of the Human Being that the world is subject to a predetermined body of laws and that humankind, at its center, is free to study it and exploit its riches. The Bible’s first chapter teaches that human hegemony over nature is justified by their creation in the image of God, but Francis Bacon turned that idea on its head: “human beings rule over nature proves that they are the image of God” (18). René Descartes added that humanity’s rational capacity legitimately reduces nature to mathematical and scientific exploration. This is because in modern theology, “the human being as God’s image is God’s deputy and representative on earth” (19).

Yet, retorts Moltmann, before we humans assume any such responsibilities, we must acknowledge that it’s the earth that cares for us, and not the other way around. Think about it: “The earth can live without us, but we cannot live without the earth” (16). What is more, “God did not breathe the divine Spirit into the human being alone, but into all God’s creatures” (19). The author of Psalm 104 asserts that it was “in wisdom” that God made all his creatures. They all depend on him “to give them food as they need it” (v. 27). Their very lives – literally, their “breath” is in his hands:


“When you supply [their food], they gather it.

You open your hand to feed them,

and they are richly supplied.

But if you turn away from them, they panic.

When you take away their breath,

they die and turn again to dust.

When you give them their breath

[or, “when you send your Spirit”]

life is created,

and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:28-30).


“Spirit” in Hebrew is ruah, meaning both breath (or wind) and spirit. Both translations of that phrase in the last verse are possible. Certainly, in the many places where in the Old Testament (or “Hebrew Bible”) you find references to the divine “spirit,” Christians see the Holy Spirit, while Jews or Muslims (rouh appears 21 times in the Qur’an, and 4 times with the adjective “holy”) simply see “God’s spirit” as part of who God is. The same could be said for Genesis 2 (often referred to as the second creation narrative): “Then God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (v. 7). This is similar to the Qur’an: “Then he moulded him; He breathed from His Spirit into him” (Q. 32:9; 15:29; 38:72). Also, three times we read that God breathed his Spirit into Mary’s womb, affirming Jesus’ virgin birth: “We breathed into her from Our Spirit and made her and her son a sign for all people” (Q. 21:91; see also Q. 19:17 and 66:12).

In Psalm 51, where David confesses to God his great sin of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed, he confesses it and asks for God’s forgiveness. He goes on, “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. . . . Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:7, 11). That is from a Christian translation, the New Living Translation. But the literal Hebrew has it as “don’t take your spirit of holiness from me” – the same idea, but of course, without any Trinitarian content.

The same goes for the second verse of the Bible: “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). For Jews (and Muslims), God’s Spirit is symbolized by a wind and for all three Abrahamic traditions, and sometimes fire (think of John the Baptist: “[Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire). The next verse is fitting: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). There certainly was no Trinitarian intent by the human author (that would be an anachronism), but a Christian reading this understands “spirit” as the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and Son and indivisible from them, though distinguishable from them by his particular function.

For Christians, trying to discern the identity and role of the Holy Spirit from the biblical texts, and much more, is the branch of theology called “pneumatology” (“pneuma” being the Greek equivalent to ruah in Hebrew). Moltmann has explored the Trinity in a number of his books, but more than any other peer, he has particularly focused on the Holy Spirit, notably in his 1991 book, The Spirit of Life, which he released in anticipation of the seventh Assembly of the WCC in Canberra, Australia, that year under the theme, “Come, Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”

In The Spirit of Hope, he offers this comment on the above quote from Psalm 104: “We can deduce from this that if the character of human beings as image of God is due to the Holy Spirit which dwells in them, then all created beings in which God’s Spirit dwells are God’s image and much be respected accordingly” (19). Then he adds, “At all events, human beings are so closely connected with nature that they share in the same distress and in their common hope for redemption. Men and women will not be redeemed from transience and death from this earth, but together with the earth” (19). He then quotes the Apostle Paul:


“But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering” (Romans 8:19-23, NLT).


In Moltmann’s words, “The Spirit who is now present is the beginning of the new creation, in which death will be no more, for it is the Spirit of Jesus’ resurrection and the comprehensive presence of the risen one.” He then makes an important nod to the Orthodox church tradition: “Orthodox theology has expressed this in the hope not only for the deification of humanity but for the deification of the cosmos too” (20).

For Moltmann, then, we should all be working together, people of all nations, Christians with people of other faiths and no faith, to mitigate the worst of climate change, but also to redress the many injustices of the past and those still being committed today. Peace only comes when justice is addressed. That said, we know that none of this will be achieved before the return of Christ when all – humanity and the whole world – will be renewed:


“The divine Spirit who indwells all things is the present bridge between creation in the beginning and the kingdom of glory. For that reason, the essential thing at present is to perceive in all things, and in all the complexes [sic] and interactions of life, the driving forces of God’s Spirit, and to sense in our own hearts the yearning of the Spirit for the eternal life of the future world” (29).


The Holy Spirit works in individuals and human society for greater justice and peace

The Indian Jesuit theologian Samuel Rayan (1920-2019) has been a dear companion to me in this book project. His 1978 book, The Holy Spirit: Heart of the Gospel and Christian Hope (sadly, out of print) is a good complement to Tinker’s book on American Indian Liberation. Commenting on the second verse in the Bible, Rayan writes, “The whole of creation took place under the presidency of the hovering Spirit of God. When God’s Spirit brooded over the waters, chaos changed into cosmos” (2-3).

What is cosmos? It is “something ordered, beautiful” and it’s what the Spirit brings: “The Spirit can likewise effect this change in human hearts. The confusion, the chaos, the lack of beauty in our hearts can be transformed into a world of order, beauty, and peace.” On the heels of the flood that overwhelmed the world, killing all the life in its path, God the Spirit renewed the earth through the animals and plants in Noah’s Ark, for the Spirit brings life. He also works through human history.

For Rayan, the Holy Spirit is involved in every new movement for the good, and supremely for the work of redemption through Jesus Christ. As he is baptized by John, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of a dove: “As he emerged from the waters, heaven was torn open before him and God accepted him; You are my Son” (7). The Spirit then sent him into the desert to be tempted and tested; “in the power of the Spirit he returned to Galilee; in the power of the Spirit he went to the synagogue at Nazareth,” where he read from the prophet Isaiah:


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

For he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1, NLT).


Rayan explains, “From the moment of the baptism the Spirit took charge of the ministry of Jesus, of his life, of his world. What Jesus spoke thereafter was what the Father revealed to him and communicated to him through and in the Spirit. The deeds he did were henceforth regulated, determined, made meaningful through the Spirit. The wonders he worked, the signs, the miracles, all were done in and through the Spirit, and it was the Spirit that revealed their divine meaning to the disciples (John 16:13)” (8). Then at Pentecost, as Jesus had promised his disciples before his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit came with great power on the first group of Christians assembled for prayer in Jerusalem. The coming of the Spirit “meant total nonconformity to everything that was opposed to the will of God and the willingness to pay for this nonconformity. . . . After Pentecost, the disciples were willing to pay the price because they were strengthened and illuminated by a new Power, the power of the Spirit” (8-9).

But notice how he widens the scope of the Spirit’s action – way beyond the confines of the church: “The Spirit is associated with all great beginnings. He is the Initiator of fresh developments and the Leader of new movements. He is alive at every turning point in the march of life on earth. He is the Creator Spirit” (9). This is not traditional theology. Even the Orthodox, who have given the Spirit the greatest role and attention, would not venture to say, like Rayan does, that sociopolitical movements that have led to liberation for the oppressed, like those led by Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, had in their sails the wind of God’s Spirit.

Rayan challenges us to listen to the Spirit as we contemplate current events, partly because God’s Good News, inevitably, has political implications:


“Coming to our own times we should ask if the Spirit is not at work in the many movements that characterize our world today. In this century how many lands that were once in the grip of colonial powers have striven for independence. The first great struggle, the struggle of India, has been followed by the collapse of practically the entire colonial system. Where is the God of Exodus and the Spirit of freedom at work?” (131).


At the same time, he is not naïve. We need discernment and reflect about the extent to which a movement reflects “the values for which Jesus lived.” Those values include “human dignity, greatness, freedom, wholeness.” But human life is always tainted by sin: “In this earthly life of ours the brightest light has a touch of darkness; our greatest holiness is somehow touched with selfishness” (133).

My interest in bringing the Holy Spirit into this project of human flourishing and global governance started in 2019 when I was struck with the outpouring of political protests, often very risky, in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, France, Chile, and elsewhere too. What drives people into the streets, sometimes at great personal cost? I did write a blog post about this, right as the pandemic shut down the world as we knew it. I explained the many different issues involved in each case, and though I didn’t mention anything about God’s Spirit, it was certainly on my mind. Any movement that strives towards greater “humanization,” as Rayan puts it, is a call to bring about justice for the downtrodden and dignity to the oppressed. It is also a cry of the heart, a prayer deep inside the human soul, perhaps even unconsciously, for the coming of a New Earth where justice, peace, and love will reign supreme in God’s presence.


Liberation theology with an evangelical flavor

Rayan’s book was published in 1978. Six years later, thirty-seven evangelical missiologists (theologians specialized in mission theology) from the Global South came together in Tlayacapan, Mexico, to sharpen their understanding of what God was doing in the world and how he was calling his people to be involved. Their conference published a Declaration at its closing, but not in English. Noted Honduran missiologist C. René Padilla contributed the last chapter to a 2016 edited book, The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World. Commenting on Latin American pneumatology in particular, Padilla notes that it seeks to uncover the practical ways the Holy Spirit guides his people in their everyday challenges, and “especially in the context of poverty and oppression” (165). Whereas Western Protestant pneumatology limits its focus on the church and personal salvation and sanctification, the perspective is much broader in Latin America. If the sphere of the Spirit’s action is confined to the church, then social issues are worldly matters Christians need not worry about. But he disagrees: “If, on the contrary, the intermediary God is present in creation and history, all issues that affect human beings, regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status in the present world, become a matter of Christian concern” (169). He then offers an English translation of a passage in the Tlayacapan Declaration:


“The Spirit’s creative work can be seen in all the spheres of life – social, political, economic, cultural, biological, and religious. It can be seen in anything that awakens sensitivity to the needs of people – a sensitivity that builds more just and peaceful communities and societies and that makes possible for people to live with more freedom to make responsible choices for the sake of a more abundant life” (169).


It goes on to explain that the mission of the church includes joining the work of the Holy Spirit who is promoting, among other things, environmental sustainability and the kind of activism we would label today “global governance”:


“It can be seen in anything that leads people to sacrifice on behalf of the common good and for the ecological wellbeing of the Earth; to opt for the poor, the ostracized, and the oppressed, by living in solidarity with them for the sake of their uplift and liberation; and to build love relationships and institutions that reflect the values of the Kingdom of God. These are ‘life sacraments’ that glorify God and are made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit (169-170).


Padilla marvels that these African, Asian, and Latin American Christian theologians mentioned “the ecological wellbeing of the Earth” at a time when evangelicals generally ignored such issues. And yet those concerns have only become more acute, to the point that “the very survival of Planet Earth is under threat” (170). First, he quotes from Pope Francis’ first encyclical (2015), Laudate Si: On Care for Our Common Home (see my blog post on it, part I and part II). Then he cites Anglican missiologist John V. Taylor who delivered the Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham in 1967. Taylor later reworked those lectures into a book, The Go-Between God. This excerpt of that book Padilla offers is a nice conclusion to this post. Taylor is reminding us that part of our collective mission is to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in caring for creation – both listening and responding to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” as Pope Francis put it:


“The Spirit of God is ever at work in nature, in history and in human living, and wherever there is a flagging or corruption or self-destruction of God’s handiwork, he is present to renew and energize and create once again. Whenever faith in the Holy Spirit is strong, creation and redemption are seen as one continuous process” (171).