Freedom in the Spirit

By Clint Wilson

How many of us are Pentecostals? We all are! We profess at every Eucharist in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” All Christians are born anew by the Spirit of God. But how often the Spirit is seen as being in opposition to the life of the mind.

Recently I saw a picture of a car that was encircled with markings that were, at once, familiar and strange. These markings were familiar because they were lane dividers: a single continuous line, and a single dotted line. They were strange because these markings made a complete circle around the car: the inner ring closest to the car was the continuous line, with a dotted line on the outside.

Two additional factors will help make much more sense of this story: First, the car was self-driving, which relies on machine vision and computer processing. Second, someone had surrounded this self-driving car with a form of road markings called a “No Entry glyph,” which confused the car’s vision system into believing it was surrounded by no entry points, thereby entrapping it.

According to road rules, the car could enter into the circle by crossing over the dotted line, but it could never leave. And because the self-driving car was programmed to obey normal road rules, in this case, to not pass over the solid line encircling it, the car was simply unable to leave or do anything. This was despite the car being in an empty parking lot, and despite there being an entire world outside its small circle waiting to be explored.

We are often like this car. Having been programmed to give obeisance to certain cultural norms or stereotypes — our road rules — we find ourselves often unable to think outside the circle, to see the larger world, and to live into the possibility of exploring a much larger life, often without even knowing it.

One such trap is a popular misconception about the relationship between the mind and the Spirit, for which St. Paul today offers a healthy corrective. Put simply: In Romans 8, Paul affirms that the Spirit is not opposed to the mind. Quite the contrary: he asserts the Spirit enflames the mind and sets it on the path to the source of all knowledge and understanding. In other words, the true life of the mind springs from the life of the Spirit.

Paul writes: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” Paul is not here saying that one cannot live an intellectually interesting life without the Spirit, or that knowledge cannot be attained without the Spirit. But what he is saying is not less challenging, but more. He is saying, well, in his own words, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” In other words, while our culture might conceive of free thinkers as those outside the circle and those who are spiritually programmed as stuck inside the circle, Paul flips this the other way round.

There are a few points we need to tease out to understand Paul’s assertions. Again, Paul wants us to know that the Spirit, according to God’s nature and design, is not opposed to the mind. But this is not how we tend to think of the mind and the Spirit, right?

No, our cultural assumptions are often quite different from Paul’s; we live in a culture that often sees the mind and the Spirit as different spheres, or perhaps even in opposition to one another. We tend to think the Spirit is ethereal, but the mind thrives through the measurable: the Spirit is inaccessible, the mind is oriented toward the empirically verifiable; in other words, the Spirit is for wackos, the mind is for realists. But this is not a Christian belief; quite the opposite.

In Christian theology, the mind and the Spirit spring from the same source: a personal God who is at once totally spiritual and the fount of knowledge and wisdom.

This stands as a challenge to us, especially as Episcopalians. We often joke or seriously believe that our tradition is one of “sophistication,” that we are a church that appreciates the “life of the mind,” and we therefore are not given over to the charismania of the Spirit. We are ordered and aesthetically appreciative, and we certainly are not about to go off the rails by becoming one of those Holy Spirit churches. To be clear: This is a false narrative rooted in a false dichotomy foreign to Paul, to Holy Scripture, and to Christian theology. How so?

In his famous 1978 Harvard commencement speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn speaks to the historical source of this exact and false division between mind and the Spirit. He states: “The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.”

The upshot of this, he writes, is that “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.”

And don’t we see this in our churches? The satirical magazine The Onion several years ago ran an article with the headline “Pope Francis Concerned About Infection From Holy Spirit Bite.” Due to its source, we know this is a joke, but we are so often uncomfortable or simply unable to talk about “what the Spirit is doing” in and among us.

That is, after all, the province of charismatics, we think. Such talk is undignified, unsophisticated, intellectually shallow, and most importantly un-Episcopalian. But when we think this way, and feel this way, I would suggest that we are entrapped in a dangerous dead-end circle due to the programming of a secular worldview. We are stuck in a circle that is not, at its source, Christian.

We are giving obeisance to a false narrative of Christianity, namely, that the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind are opposed. It should not surprise us, therefore, when our kids go to college and jettison their faith. Again, we must look to Paul, and in doing so we understand that Christians are not those who walk according to the flesh, but “according to the Spirit,” and in the Spirit is where we find “true life and peace.” For precisely, the flesh is when the mind and body is operating in opposition to the Spirit.

This life and peace that Paul mentions is the hope of verses 9-11, which demonstrate just how “this-wordly” the implications of the work of the Spirit are, chiefly in resurrection, which we understand as the rejoining of spirit and matter for eternity. The entire point of verses 9-11 is not that Christ-followers are a group of people who have stopped being human or intellectually engaged, but rather, Christians are those who have been set free by setting their minds on the Spirit to be and to become more genuinely human.

This is a group of people who can daily be raised out of the tombs of a fleshly existence where life is divorced from the Spirit, where they are trapped in the circle, where the stuff of life leads ultimately to the dead-end of decay and death. The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead “will give life to our mortal bodies,” which is not only a future promise.

Instead, those whose minds are set on the Spirit, as N.T. Wright notes, are like the Olympic gold-medalist runner Eric Liddell, who said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” Eric Liddell was not less human because of his faith, he was more — by God’s grace he had leaped out of the dead-end circle of fleshly thinking in a way that brought life to his body, his passions, and to others.

Unlike those whom Paul mentions as “in the flesh” who “cannot please God,” here was a deeply physical and mentally tough Christian who brought pleasure to God, and to all those who saw him run the race — except, perhaps, his competitors.

How might we do likewise? How are we to set our minds on the Spirit? We have to be honest; we are novices at this; we so often don’t know how to do it.

We joke about engaging the Spirit, often because we have no idea how to engage the life of the Spirit. Well, Paul gives us a clue later in Romans 12:2 when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In other words, the grace of God that Paul has spoken of throughout Romans calls forth to us to take every thought captive, to surrender to grace. Such surrender requires great intentionality of the mind; intentionality that might arise in our life simply by asking ourselves daily, “What do I find myself thinking about most often this day?”

Again, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

You see, setting our mind on the Spirit does not mean forsaking thinking about the stuff of this life. Rather, it means putting our anxieties, fears, hopes and dreams on the altar of God, and asking for his grace to be made manifest in them. In this is freedom.

Such freedom might look like inviting God’s Spirit into our daily decision-making at the office, or in the home. I recently listened to a podcast in which a leader urged people to ask “What would a great leader do in this situation?” or “What would a great parent do in this situation?” and so on.

Such intentionality can be powerful if practiced over time. But the better and the Christian thing to ask is, “What would a great leader or parent whose mind is set on the Spirit do in this situation?” To ask this question is to invite an answer from the Spirit of God, from the people he places in your life, from Holy Scripture, or from moments of prayer and solitude, or even from moments of crazy freneticism — on the road to traveling sports, or in the midst of a family meltdown, and so on.

Setting our minds on the things of the Spirit will not come naturally at first, but like any and every habit, our neural pathways and our habits of the heart will open up and harden through consistency — like all habits. Again, the Spirit and mind are not opposed; they function together. We must be like children who are tutored by the Spirit of God our Father.

A.G. Sertillanges, a great Dominican scholar, once wrote, “[T]he child in knowledge, stammering in his effort at expression, most naturally looks to find the word he wants in the glance of God” (The Intellectual Life, p.32).

How would our minds, our desires, our decisions, and our actions change if this were the case for us? When we set our minds on the Spirit, this is what we are doing! We are glancing at God, at the God who dwells in us closer to our hearts than we are to ourselves.

He will reveal to us who we are and what we truly want. Like children, we learn to follows his eyes, and hear what he says, so we might reach the right, and the just, and the wise conclusion, so that our thinking might transcend the narrow circles or dead-ends that we so often inhabit.

We have followed the road rules of the flesh too often, but we need not be trapped in that dead-end circle anymore. So do you want to be a person of the mind? Then you must become a person who has set the mind on the Spirit.

The Rev. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky.


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