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Breathe on Me, Breath of God

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“The Holy Spirit is the neglected member of the Trinity.” After hearing that cliché in a sermon recently, I told my wife that it made me think of Robert Jenson’s classic essay “You Wonder Where the Spirit Went.”[1] Without missing a beat, she recited the lines: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” I must confess that the great theologian’s allusion to a 1950s toothpaste ad went over my head.[2] It was one of those references that you either get or you don’t, and Jenson wasn’t going to call attention to his little joke.

When homilists say the Spirit has gone into eclipse, I doubt very much that what they have in mind is a Jensonian call for a revisionary metaphysics, centered on the radical timefulness of the gospel’s God. It’s much simpler than that — an intuition that something vital has gone missing in the church’s life, and that we need to recover it. The missing element may be personal conversion, or the experience of the new birth. It may be seriousness about the life of holiness, or advocacy for people on the margins. Any or all of these may be taken as symptoms of the church’s amnesia concerning the Spirit. Conversely, a robust pneumatic life is offered as the sure remedy for whatever ails us.

But has the Spirit really been forgotten? When we arrive at pneumatology in my first-year theology course, students often express frustration at the standard Western  answers: the Spirit as the vinculum or bond of unity between the Father and the Son. The Spirit as Love, or Gift. These Augustinian and Thomist formulas seem to them suspiciously abstract, regarding the Spirit more as principle than as agent, a something rather than a someone. Not unlike Jenson, they are tempted to look East, casting off the filioque, and embracing what seems like the more adventuresome trinitarianism of Orthodoxy.

Reader, fear not! I am not going to try to resolve the filioque controversy in the space of a single essay. I will, however, repeat what I tell my students: that at least part of our frustrations about the Spirit can be traced back to Scripture, with its very different metaphorical fields for denominating the persons. The language of “Father” and “Son,” after all, is drawn from the realm of human social relations. Whatever apophatic adjustments we may need to make — e.g., “Father” does not mean “male,” and “begetting” does not mean “preceding in time” — we still feel we have an inkling of what the language is gesturing toward.

But the language for the Spirit is very different. It frequently trades in nature metaphors, such as “wind” and “breath.” Like the Hebrew ruach, the Greek pneuma can mean both these things. The Son’s taking on of our human flesh makes him in a certain sense “picturable,” which is why one can write an icon of Christ. The invisible Father cannot be iconized,[3] indeed does not need to be iconized, having been fully imaged in the Son: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

But how does one iconize the Spirit? As a dove, perhaps, echoing the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Or as the tongues of flame that came to rest on the apostles at Pentecost. Note that we are back to nature metaphors: bird, fire, wind, breath. In John’s Gospel, Jesus also compares the Spirit to water, flowing either out of his own belly or that of the believer.[4] At the end of the gospel, he appears to the disciples and breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[5]

None of this means the Spirit isn’t also profoundly personal. In Scripture, the Spirit speaks and is spoken to, bears witness, groans, and can even be grieved. Impersonal objects and abstract principles do not grieve. Certainly the Spirit is a person, but we must resist the temptation to assume that we know just what “person” means when applied to God.

In trinitarian theology, hypostasis is a notoriously slippery term. We’d like to pin it down, and say not just that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all persons but that they are persons in exactly the same sense. But such univocal knowledge is not given to us. Nobody quite knows what a divine hypostasis is, and if we did know, we would have turned the mystery that is the Trinity into a puzzle and then solved it. The Spirit, in particular, seems to elude our well-intended efforts at theological definition, and so Jesus says to Nicodemus: “The pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of pneuma.” An astonished Nicodemus speaks for all of us when he asks, “How can these things be?”[6]

One of the more imaginative treatments of the Spirit in recent theology is The Breath of God, written by Etienne Vetö, a Roman Catholic priest associated with the Chemin Neuf community.[7] It’s a remarkable little book, combining sophisticated technical analysis with a winsomely meditative style. Rather than trying to evade the scriptural oddity of the Holy Spirit, Vetö leans into it. The Spirit, he maintains, is intrinsically dynamic, fluid, polyvalent, and resistant to easy definition. More fundamentally than either Augustine’s Love or Gift, Breath is Scripture’s most consistent way of naming the Spirit. God actually has a Breath.[8] The Father breathes, and the Breath by which he breathes is the Holy Spirit. While such language is inevitably metaphorical, Vetö is far from saying that it is “only a metaphor.”[9] On the contrary, Scripture’s language needs to be taken at face value: God’s Breath is God being God, no less than the Father’s act of Begetting and the Son’s act of Being Begotten. The Spirit is God indeed, but God differently.

Drawing on theologians as diverse as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Herbert Mühlen, and Sarah Coakley, Vetö argues that the Spirit should be considered not so much a substantial “self” as “a capacity for God of being outside of himself and inside another.”[10] It is this complex mix of stepping aside, dwelling within, and letting flourish that marks the Spirit’s distinctive profile:

In the Scriptures Ruah and Pneuma have shown themselves to be quite different from Father and Son: they are atmospheric and fluid, they act and exist in and through and around others. The more the Spirit is active in infusing wisdom, dynamism, life, and relationship in others, the more it pulls back. It is itself by making others become themselves. These characteristics flow together to give a typical, specific “personality” of the Spirit.[11]

On the one hand, the Spirit hides behind the Father and the Son, or (to alter the metaphor) is the “space” within which encounter with them occurs. On the other hand, the Spirit hides behind the material modes of his working; this is one reason the distinction between “created” and “uncreated” grace is finally artificial. The Spirit is not a creature, certainly, but aligns himself with creaturerly realities—bodies, voices, affections, singing, sacraments, prayers, memories, and “groanings too deep for words.”[12] Among the many virtues of Vetö’s account is that for all its impressive technical sophistication, it sticks close to the primary language and imagery of Holy Scripture.

All of which suggests that we do not best honor the Spirit by engaging in a great deal of Spirit talk, or by invoking the Spirit — much less spirits and “spirituality” — as a panacea for the ills that afflict church and world.[13] Trying to make the Spirit “do more” for us is exactly the wrong way of attending to this divine person. If the Spirit is God’s Breath, we should let him breathe in and through us. If the Spirit summons us to praise the Father or confess the Son, we should obey his promptings. Where did the Spirit go? Maybe he didn’t go anywhere. Maybe the miracle of Pentecost is that the dominus vivificans is simply and graciously present with us, bestowing gifts, animating our bodies, and sending the church out on mission.


[1] Robert Jenson, “You Wonder Where the Spirit Went,” Pro Ecclesia, Winter 1993. I should say here that while I am in general a great admirer of Jenson’s theology, I find that in this essay he is working too hard to fit the Spirit into a particular conceptual mold.

[2] My wife knew this only because her grandmother, Helen Richardson Miller, won a contest for best answer to the question “Where did the yellow go?” For the record, her successful entry was: “It mingled with the blues, sirs, of other toothpaste users, And turned them green with envy of my winning Pepsodent smile!”

[3] I realize that there are many exceptions, especially in Western art, but even in Orthodox iconography under Western influence.

[4] The Greek syntax is confusing and allows of both meanings. The ambiguity is probably intentional.

[5] John 20:22.

[6] John 3:8-9.

[7] Etienne Vetö, The Breath of God: An Essay on the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, foreword by Ephraim Radner (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).

[8] Vetö argues that the Spirit is the Father’s Breath, his personal act of “respiration,” even in the immanent Trinity. Exploring this would take us well beyond the bounds of the present essay.

[9] One of Vetö’s primary sources for the theology of metaphor is Janet Martin Soskice, for whom metaphor is precisely a vehicle for making reality claims.

[10] Vetö, The Breath of God, 17.

[11] Vetö, The Breath of God, 27-28.

[12] Romans 8:26.

[13] See Ephraim Radner’s A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and its Anti-Modern Redemption (Baylor, 2019), which impressively documents the ways in which pneumatology has been used to address an array of concerns about theodicy.

1 COMMENT

  1. “Where did the Spirit go? Maybe he didn’t go anywhere. ”
    I think we need to open the eyes of our heart and see the Kingdom of God.
    Thank you.

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