Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Idolatry of Our Age - Part VI: Love is Like the Wind

I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age.  This post is a continuation on this theme - if you have not done so already, you might want to read the beginning of the series:
  • Part I explores the idea that God is not like an idol which can be manipulated to fulfill our desires
  • Part II explores how our limitations prevent us from understanding infinite reality
  • Part III explores how the Bible is worshiped over the person of Christ
  • Part IV explores the hero's journey
  • Part V explores how the resurrection applies to our present life

Love Is Like the Wind

In today’s world, it is hard to imagine what Spirit means any more.  We have pushed out the world of Spirit from most areas of thought.  At best, Spirit is “out there”.  But this is not how the writers of the Bible thought of things.  In Greek, the word used for Spirit was “pnuema” - which we get “pneumatic” (as in pneumatic tire) from.  Yup, you guessed it - the word has a double meaning.  It was not only used to speak about “Spirit”, but also “breath” and “air”.

What’s interesting about this is that when you think about how an ancient culture would know about the existence of air, you realize that they couldn’t know this by observing the air itself.  The only way they could know about the existence of air would be by observing the effect it has on other objects.  It is the same way with Spirit - we cannot know what Spirit is by observing it directly, only by observing the effects it has on other entities.

In the ancient world, they thought of the world as being charged with Spirit.  One of the most greatly misunderstood passages of the New Testament is I Corinthians 15:35-49, where Paul speaks of “spiritual bodies”.  But the original Greek word - pneumatikos - didn’t carry the sense that the body was made out of spiritual matter, but rather, the suffix ikos had to do with what animated the body - what powered it.  The goal of the Christian life in a certain sense is to become animated by “Spirit”.  And Paul contrasts this
pneumatikos body with a psychikos body - a body animated by psyche.  This passage carries the sense that we will be trading our ego-driven lives for a Spirit-driven life.

Many of the ancient cultures had a metaphor for describing certain holy places such as temples - the navel of the earth.  The belief of the ancient Jews and Christians was that this world was surrounded by and nourished by the world of the Spirit, much as a baby is surrounded by and nourished by her mother.  And there were these places on earth where the separation between this material reality and the spiritual reality was thin - the navel of the earth.

This image of the "navel of the earth" is reinforced by the feminine imagery of God in the Bible.  For example, Deuteronomy 32:11 says that "[God cared for them] like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft."  Deuteronomy 32:18 says "you forgot the God who gave you birth."  In Isaiah 49:15 God says that just as a mother will not forget her child, neither will He (might "She" be appropriate here?) forget the reader.  In Isaiah 66:12-13, God says "you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem."  And in Matthew 23:37, Jesus speaks prophetically of how God wishes to gather the children of Jerusalem as a mother hen who gathers her children under her wings

The Jews believed that the "navel of the earth" was located at the temple in Jerusalem.  But with Jesus, the idea of temples as the only place to connect to Spirit was done away with.  Anyone could have access to Spirit, anywhere.  Paul says in I Corinthians 3:16 that we are God’s temple and His Spirit dwells in our midst.  This “dwelling in our midst” can be called immanence, and it presents a great paradox as Spirit is also transcendent.  Spirit is immanently transcendent.

Jesus had a way of talking about the immanent transcendence - the kingdom of God.  In Luke 17:21 Jesus says that the kingdom cannot be observed through normal human means, but that it is within you.  I personally love the way the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas puts it:
If those who lead you say, “See, the Kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you.

The Kingdom is within
But what is this mysterious Spirit?

I think the writer of I John gives us a major clue when he writes (in I John 4:8 and later in verse 16) that God is love.

The Greeks had three different words for love - one spoke of a fondness or brotherly love, and another spoke of romantic love.  But the word used for the love that Jesus taught about was agape - a perfect, unconditional love.  And I believe that when we learn how to live a life grounded in this kind of love, we can experience the presence of God.  This presence has been described as a peace that transcends all understanding in Philippians 4:7.

Humans have a way of becoming easily bored.  What we once found compelling fades and ceases to amaze.  But when you experience an unconditional love for someone, it has a way of changing your perspective.  I remember that when my first son was born, the world took on a new sense of wonder.  And I can remember finding wonder in mundane things because my son found wonder in them.  He loved bubbles - that was actually his first word.  We actually bought a machine that blew bubbles all over the living room, and we would sit and watch as he excitedly chased them around.  We found wonder in the mundane because of our love for our son.

Love has a way of filling the world with meaning.  Often when a person feels unloved, there seems to be nothing in the world that can excite them - the world seems empty and meaningless to them.  But a person who is in love cannot help but experience everything as deeply meaningful - smells are more poignant, colors seem to be more radiant, and music has a profound effect on them.  Love fills the world with beauty and meaning in a way that is completely irrational and impossible to explain.

And love is such a wispy concept - we cannot seem to objectify and define it.  You can't see love, but you can see its effect on someone.  And love causes others to stand out as special.  It is the humblest of things, not calling any attention upon its own beauty but rather calling attention to the beauty of the beloved while filling the world around with beauty as well.  Love does not seek its own pleasure, but finds pleasure in the fulfillment of the beloved.  Love has no meaning of its own but gives meaning to all things

I close with this thought: I believe that the Spirit of God - the very Spirit of perfect Love itself - is like the wind.  The ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (also known as Chuang Tzu) wrote this poem:
When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds
Which, noiseless in themselves,
Awaken voices from other beings,
Blowing on them.
From every opening
Loud voices sound. Have you not heard
This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood
On the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks
Like snouts, maw, and ears,
Like beam-sockets, like goblets,
Grooves in the wood. hollows full of water:
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,
Shouts of command, grumblings,
Deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly,
Strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings
Empty out their last sound.
Have you not observes how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu relied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.
What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.
What is this power?
This poem does not end with a definition of God, and I believe this is absolutely appropriate.  Because infinite cannot be contained in finite words or concepts.  Rather, the poem simply leaves the open question.  And while we can dare to speak of the infinite being of God, we should always leave the question open, as no words can do infinite justice.


  1. Geoff. Thank you for this. It jives with me so well. I've tried to put this into words before but the elusiveness of the subject makes talking about it so difficult. So thank you for doing it justice.

    My one and only tattoo is on my rib cage. It's the Hebrew word ruach. Which I'm sure you know is the equivalent to pneuma. I've loved that imagery of God because it also reminds me of the connectedness and interpendence of humanity and the earth. The air or "ruach" I breath has been converted by plants and before that exhaled by another human being. We need each other.

    1. Yes! I love that imagery of how every breath we breath is made up of molecules that have passed through countless life-forms before us!

      Thanks for reading!