by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 30-June 6, 1990, p. 565, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Though driven by the Spirit to speak and act, our expectation of the perfect freedom of the reign of God can be uttered and our praxis realized only in terms of particular metaphors, projects or cultural prejudices.
“. . . this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘And in the last days it shall be,
God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . .
the sun shall be turned into darkness
and the moon into blood . . .
And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
According to Acts, on Pentecost, after Peter was sufficiently recovered from his ecstasy of the Spirit and had found his rational tongue, he refutes the charge of drunkenness: It’s too early in the day, what do you take us for! But if not a raucous spree, what had occurred? Peter’s choice of the Joel text indicates that the ecstasy the apostles had experienced was not a mystical group rapture. They reported no loss of selfhood, no absorption into oneness. Their experience did not arise out of an ascetic, quietistic withdrawal, and it did not lead to an indifference to the world.
The descent of the Spirit signaled an unprecedented condition in which personal salvation and the imposition of the politics of the kingdom of God on the world political scene were but two sides of the same coin. The new age of the Spirit, characterized by the nondiscriminatory favor of God, had dawned as the Spirit was poured upon all flesh — male and female, old and young. When God’s reign is made manifest, calling on the name of God will entail no blind existential leap of faith but a clear acknowledgment of the glorious truth of things — that God is love and thus it is love that makes the world go round.
Yet this, was not utopianism. Indeed, Peter’s appeal to the apocalyptic tradition is an implicit rejection of utopianism. The collapse of communism in Europe demonstrates what a George Orwell or a Reinhold Niebuhr long understood: the implementation of any utopian system automatically produces an antiutopia. Every utopia is totalitarian because every utopia is born of the impulse to totalize one’s cherished but finite daydreams. From Plato to radical feminism, from More to Marx, every ideal vision is fraught with horrors to those who by nature or opinion do not share the ideal.
The new age of the Spirit is what no utopia can possibly be — the spontaneous, manifest reign of God himself — God ruling in freedom to create freedom; God redeeming the wreckage that finite freedom and creativity tragically engender. The Spirit’s descent empowers the church of the risen Christ to proclaim the end of the world, an end that is not oblivion but the world’s new creation.
The Christian life is a life lived in the new age of the Spirit but also in anticipation of the coming of the new age. Faith discerns, in the Spirit, realities as invisible as God himself. Yet the invisible God has elected to hold in abeyance his manifest rule; we can only stammer about that which words cannot utter and work to accomplish that which is finally beyond human achievement.
Herein lies the rub. Every witness we offer, each political solution we try in anticipation of the manifest reign of God, reflects our finite, all-too-human interpretations of our inspirations and visions. Thus, the very proclamation of the kingdom, especially as it claims the sanction of the one true, holy God, has the potential for being repressive, like any merely utopian scheme. Christian history’ is replete with acts of repression in the name of the Spirit.
Though driven by the Spirit to speak and act, our expectation of the perfect freedom of the reign of God can be uttered and our praxis realized only in terms of particular metaphors, projects or cultural prejudices. Pure glossolalia may not so concretize and delimit the divine, but it pays the price of being incomprehensible. The very attempt to define or concretize the freedom born of the Spirit can be read as an attempt to achieve closure on God’s truth. If the apostles learned anything, it was that there is no closure possible with the Spirit of God.
As Augustine knew long ago, to be silent is to betray the Spirit. Compelled to speak yet compelled to distort the infinite by our finite words, our Pentecost faith is hard-pressed by the task the Spirit lays upon us. No wonder Christians are tempted — despite the Spirit’s descent into the world — to try to elope with the Spirit away from the world.
It all comes down to the Pentecost miracle. Not necessarily the actual appearance of tongues of fire or the fact that people of many nations heard the apostles speaking in their own languages; such mighty works, wonders and signs, seen without the Spirit’s gift of sight, can be ignored or dismissed, or can be used to reduce Christianity to a faith in crass wonderments. We ourselves experience the power of Pentecost whenever we glimpse the liberating agenda and praxis of the Spirit that beyond finite utterance. It is a miracle when the selfsame Spirit who opened our hearts and impels us boldly to speak and act uses our blundering words and actions to open the ears of others. Praise God that the results of our witness are largely beyond our control and that what he Spirit achieves in this new age always takes us by surprise.