With the expansive growth of charismatic elements and spiritualties in Christianity, both within Catholic circles and in the explosion of Pentecostal communities in the Global South, it’s important to take a serious look at pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) in the contemporary church.
For many years — in fact, almost a thousand — the Holy Spirit was in many ways the neglected, though co-eternal and consubstantial, Person of the Trinity. An increasing level of attention was given to Christological concerns, where the history, natures and attributes of Jesus were debated, and his suffering and death increasingly became the object of devotion. In the Middle Ages, Reformation and post-Tridentine periods, comparatively less attention was paid to the Holy Spirit in the West (if taken here as contrasted with the Eastern Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonian churches, “the West” includes both Catholics and Protestants).
Ask yourself, as feminist theologians have, how many times you’ve seen art depicting the triune God as “two men and a bird.” Surely there is more to the omnipotent and vivifying ground of existence, “the giver of life” as we name the Spirit in the creed, than an immaterial “Ghost” only warranting a pious afterthought. How can theologians talk seriously about issues like inspiration, prophecy, sanctification, sacramental worship, communion with the divine and with one another, spiritual ecumenism, and the “advocate,” “breath” and “loving bond” of God, not to mention the interwoven fabric of humanity with “our common home,” or the role of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) in the biblical accounts like Acts 2, if we give short shrift to the Spirit?
What is this reality defined by so many feminine words and images: the hen brooding over creation, the breath (rûach) that enters Ezekiel and “blows where it will,” the birth-pangs and groans described by Saint Paul as animating our spiritual selves, the wisdom (sophia) of God that transcends all human understanding and lights its followers ablaze, the “greening” of the world that Hildegard of Bingen attributed to the outpouring of the Third Person of the Trinity?
One of the most important pneumatological (from pneuma, “spirit”) thinkers of the 20th century was Yves Congar. A French Dominican theologian, Congar is widely recognized across the theological spectrum as a key architect of the Second Vatican Council. His three-volume “I Believe in the Holy Spirit” is a classic text, recognizing the relative lack of attention given to what Congar described as “the transcendent subject of tradition,” namely the Spirit who animates and perpetuates the community of the Lord’s disciples. A committed ecumenist, his church was always one broader, deeper, wider and more profound than any defined by visible denominational boundaries.
As Congar puts it: “The church is in no sense a great system in which … the individual is simply the sum of a million divided by a million. It is a communion, a fraternity of persons. This is why a personal principle and a principle of unity are united in the church. These two principles are brought into harmony by the Holy Spirit.”
For Congar there cannot be authentic Christology without pneumatology, or authentic pneumatology without Christology. The two may have been estranged in some minds over the centuries, but they can never be divorced. And, without belaboring the analogy, like any sacramental marriage, the church is the site of their union on earth. “The Spirit, then, is the principle realizing the ‘Christian mystery,’ which is the mystery of the Son of God who was made man and who enables us to be born as [children] of God…. Only God is holy, and only he can make us holy, in and through his incarnate Son and in and through his Spirit.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.