The Breath of God: A Primer in Pacific/Asian Theology

by Belden C. Lane

Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990 pp. 833-838, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The spirit of God broods over the waters of East and West, breathing new life in both directions.

The wind was still strong as we came down from the crater rim on Haleakala shortly after sunrise. Waiting alongside others in the 4 A.M. darkness, we had watched the sun rise out of the Pacific like an orange-red ember. It was a cold morning. Standing at 10,000 feet, people huddled in blankets against the 50-mile-an-hour winds from the East. The winds in Hawaii almost always come from the East, and are strong, steady, insistent. Like the frequent "northeasters" of New England and the sirocco of the Algerians, it seems never to cease. The ancient Hawaiians called it "ha," the breath of God.

For thousands of years this wind has formed the physical and spiritual life of the peoples of the Pacific. Its consistent direction allowed early Polynesian explorers to travel thousands of miles over the ocean in simple, koa-wood canoes. The wind has also brought rain, washing the verdant mountain forests on the windward side of the islands. In Hawaiian mythology, wind heralded Lono, the god of storm and rain and hence of fertility. Like Ezekiel and Job, the Pacific peoples have known that God often speaks from the whirlwind. Theirs is a faith shaped by "aloha," a word drawn from two roots, meaning "in the presence of wind, breath or spirit." In Hawaii, to speak of God means necessarily to be open to the often disturbing and life-giving wind of the spirit.

I went to Hawaii one summer to participate in the Pacific and Asian American Ministries Conference of the United Church of Christ. People from the United States and all around the Pacific had gathered to celebrate the expression of their faith in the traditional Hawaiian practice of talk-story. This, I learned, is a rambling, open-ended kind of storytelling, given to riffs of language and twists of fancy -- not unlike the movement of the wind itself. Its roots are in the experience of 19th-century sugar-cane plantation workers, who in pidgin English told stories of common suffering and hope. I had been invited to attend as one who supposedly knew something about narrative structure and the role of storytelling in faith traditions. But never had I felt so presumptuous -- as if carrying coals to Newcastle, owls to Athens or, in this case, fish to Hanauma Bay. I quickly realized how little I had to give and how much I had to learn as a white Westerner listening to tales of faith in a Pacific/Asian context.

In Hawaii I received a new name, one that defined me in ways I did not want to accept. I came to be known as a haole (pronounced HOW-lee) a term that Hawaiians have applied to white-skinned foreigners since the arrival of the British sea captain James Cook in 1778. At first they welcomed Cook as a god and believed his ships came to the islands on the winds of Lono, but his incessant and arrogant demands for provisions soon made him appear considerably less than divine. His men took the women they wanted and shot anyone who got in their way. The following year Cook was bludgeoned to death on a beach. on the big island of Hawaii. To be haole, therefore, is to participate in a less than proud heritage of cultural arrogance, racial prejudice and sexism dating back to the early European explorers and traders, the sugar planters, even some of the missionaries, and the large businesses that would eventually join to form the Big Five. The word haole, perhaps not inappropriately, means "without breath, wind or spirit"; a colorless, paste-white absence of spirit and feeling, an inability to appreciate the. land and the dignity of its people. This name challenges the presumed superiority of white Western thinking, with its tendency. to objectify and oppress. Yet to be able to recognize oneself as haole is also to be open to repentance, and subsequently to anew wholeness. To accept a new name, especially from those whom one may have oppressed, is also to entertain a new way of being.

To recognize oneself as haole is to realize, with joy as well as a certain sense of loss, that the gospel is neither as Western nor as white as many of us have been prone to think. The Spirit of God broods over the waters of East and West, breathing new life in both directions. Known in Hebrew as ruach, in Greek as pneuma, in Latin as anima, in Sanskrit and Chinese as prima and ch’ i, or in Polynesian as mana, the sacred wind of God’s breath cannot be limited to the categories of thought most familiar to Western theology. Asian theologian C. S. Song urges theological reflection to move beyond the Greek and Latin captivity of the church. In naming those people in whose intellectual shadow we speak the truth, Mo Ti and Gautama may become as important as Aristotle and Plato (C .S. Song, Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective, Maryknoll, 1984)

How does one summarize for Western Christians how the breath of God moves over the waters of a Pacific/Asian theology? Hawaiian spirituality, as a story chanted to the sound of drumbeat and ocean waves, offers a compelling way of receiving the truth that Pacific peoples have to share. In using the term "Hawaiian spirituality," I refer to that amorphous blend of Chinese, Japanese, Western Christian and indigenous traditions that have joined to form the spiritual heritage of the islands. While it may largely have gone the way of other traditional patterns of life in a technological world (even in Hawaii) , it still offers an energy and wholeness that many seek. This spirituality celebrates the slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi; the love of the land; the power of the oral tradition; the importance of family and the cry for justice. It is a story woven together from threads of the Pacific experience of the holy, an experience often very different from our own. As a result, it speaks with critical insight to the "breathless" character of Western religious experience, its tendency toward individualism and compulsive action, its Docetic rejection of the natural world and its general posture of dominance and conquest.

The themes that join to form Hawaiian spirituality draw much of their energy from Pele, the ancient goddess of volcanos. Known as She-Who-Shapes-the-Sacred-Land, Pele is gentle and loving, serene as her forests of staghorn ferns and Kukui trees. Yet her majestic presence in flowing fire and shaking rock also demands repentance, calling one back to respect for creation and reverence for life. Pele is the voice of God’s spirit, whispering in deep echoes from the earth.

In the disorientation of being renamed and identified as an outsider -- a white, male Westerner -- I found many of the assumptions underlying my worldview questioned. As told through the voice of Pacific and Asian peoples, the gospel has five interconnected pieces, each of them offering new understandings of how faith can be breathed into culture.

The first element is manawa, the slowing of time. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese discipline of moving slowly without effort, as if time had been locked in freeze-frame stillness. Americans like myself need desperately to learn this exercise. Traditional Hawaiian attitudes toward time and work are very different from the hurried drivenness of most Westerners, who seldom have time "to catch their breath." Time, for many of us, is a series of short-winded, fleeting intervals, crying out to be filled. But manawa signifies instead "the lingering, gentle ebb of water across a tranquil bay," as George Kanahele describes it in Ku Kanaka: Stand Tall, A Search for Hawaiian Values. In this way of thinking, time isn’t so much something to be used as it is a place in which one tarries. Hence, Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama speaks of a "three-mile-an-hour God," alongside of whom one walks without hurry. We can meet God in the patient, rhythmic breathing of one step following another C. S. Song talks about a "theology of the womb," by which Christians commit themselves, to the gradual emergence of a new world where justice and mercy are joined.

In Polynesian mythology, no hero is more famous than Maui, the mischievous trickster. In one tale, Maui captures the sun with ropes early one morning as the brilliant orb rises over the crater of Haleakala. After lassoing each ray of the rising sun, he tied them to a Wiliwili tree, making the sun promise to slow down in its passage across the sky. This would give his mother time to finish without haste her daily chores of drying tapa cloth and preparing food. As a result, Hawaiians have always been invited to share in the slowing down of time. Freed from the clock-ticking tyranny of chronos, they have opportunity (if they take it) to realize the kairos of each new day. According to the legend, Maui left his ropes attached to the sun to remind it of its promise, and at every sunset they can still be seen, trailing behind the orange sphere as it falls into the western sea. This portrays time as a function of spirit and breath -- something far different from the digital inflexibility many Westerners have made of it.

A second feature is aloha ‘aina the love of the land. The distinctive Pacific theology of creation deeply appreciates place. It seldom generalizes God’s presence in an abstract way, but finds it in specific places -- here in the circle of stones beside the Pandanus tree, there in the thick bamboo forest on the trail to Waimea Falls. The Kumulipo, one of the oldest and most sacred of Hawaiian myths, recounts creation not in generic fashion, as if sea life in general were called into being. Instead, the darkness of night gives birth to the coral polyp and sea cucumber, to "the barnacle and his child the pearl oyster." Creation is celebrated in its abundance and particularity. Creation virtually yells out to be noticed, as Annie Dillard observes.

This insistence of life is most telling on the windward side of the islands. There everything bends to extravagance. Flame-red torch ginger and plumeria blooms grow wild and profuse on the road to Hana. Yet everything dies in equal exuberance. The flora molds and rots, ever making room for the new. The wooden porch from which one surveys the sea is slowly carried away by tiny ants working everywhere underfoot. Green moss waits nearby to reclaim what had once been separated from the earth. ‘Aina describes all this: "the land" is literally "that which feeds," nourishing the spirit in its prodigal display of bounteousness.

As a result, the land invites respect even from those not usually drawn to landscapes of the sacred. The Visitors’ Center at Haleakala National Park on Maui offers an intriguing study of the unexpected impact a traditional world-view can make on the modern consciousness. The center displays letters from people, not at all given to superstition, who had taken rocks from the slopes of the mountain -- only to sense later the displeasure of Pele at their having desecrated the land.

"Enclosed are five rocks that my stepson, my wife and I removed from the crater (in violation of the rules) during our trip in July," begins one such letter. "We ask that you please have them returned to, the crater. We were fascinated by these rocks and thrilled by our three-day trip in the crater, but it was not until we got home that we realized we had, in a small but not insignificant way, violated the landscape and the spirit of the Haleakala Crater. We learned a lesson." The story is common. For our own Western search for a viable land ethic, founded on a new regard for Gaia (the earth) , Hawaiian spirituality may suggest forgotten and important insights.

A third aspect of a Pacific/Asian gospel is mo’ olelo. the power of the spoken word. In Hawaii theology is always to be chanted or sung. John Charlot observes in Chanting the Universe: Hawaiian Religious Culture that sacred chants were traditionally practiced on the beach so as to reproduce the modulations of wind and waves. To "do theology" the Pacific/Asian way is to connect one’s innermost being to the presence of God in the surrounding environment, by means of breath. It is an inescapably physical, sacramental experience. This contrasts with Western theology’s bias toward the written expression of abstract thought. We lack much of the vitality found in the lively exchange of talk-story. In a Pacific/Asian context, the Word of God is first of all understood as a spoken event shared among peoples. Mo ‘olelo, which means myth or sacred story, is formed from two root words meaning "series" and "tongue." A sacred narrative offers a flow of sounds -- a riff of language -- tripping off the tongue, intimately engaging the listener by the event character of its truth. As the apostle Paul knew, it is the letter that kills, but the spirit (the breathed utterance) that gives life.

Sacred tales must be spoken. There is power in their words, a force coming from the sound "breathed" into them. Westerners may easily dismiss such ideas as rooted in magic, but Walter Ong and Werner Kelber have shown them to be intrinsically a part of our whole biblical heritage (cf. Ong’s Presence of the Word and Kelber’s The Oral and Written Gospel) Traditional Hawaiians emphasized this oral power in storytellers, those skilled in the art of apo, "catching" the spoken word so as to allow the revelatory event to be re-experienced. Martha Beckwith explains in Hawaiian Mythology that receiving the word from such tellers was an auspicious event, heard only by daylight, with listeners careful not, to move, lest they interrupt the power of the exchange.

This ancient tradition is reflected in the contemporary Pacific/Asia practice of talk-story. Unlike Western narratives that strive for a balanced, formal structure, talk-story is a rambling way of remembering the past so as to create it anew in the changing moment. In the past century, Japanese, Chinese. Filipino or Portuguese plantation workers would gather to talk in the evenings near the pineapple fields. One of them might ask in pidgin English, "Rememba wen we wuz small kid time?" and the fragmented tales of the past would be spun out in the shape of fantasy, lending a dignity to the hardships of the present. The Chinese-American novelist Maxine Hong Kingston remembers that her mother would often talk-story to her at night as she went to sleep, making it impossible to know where the stories left off and dreams began. It is the nature of talk-story to be open-ended, given to dreamlike images, intimately available to the spirit.

A fourth factor is ‘ohana, the importance of family and community. According to the Kumulipo, the universe is an immense family tree; all things in it are related. A richly Confucian sense of reciprocity and deference to others pervades traditional patterns of behavior in the islands. Taking off one’s shoes when entering a house expresses the humility and thoughtfulness that was viewed as the grandest quality, even of a chief.

‘Ohana describes the family connectedness valued so highly in Hawaiian experience. Derived from the word oha, referring to the tiny, interconnecting roots of the taro plant, it is an appropriate image for the closely knit community where relationships serve as an anchor of identity. In Hawaii I had experienced hospitality and graciousness like nowhere else.

The traditional Hawaiian family carefully preserved its own proverbs and chants, its occasions for house blessings and the naming of children, its rites of inhaling the first light of day and the conferring of creative powers by exhaling. As in similar Native American traditions, "all these symbolic images and gestures are associated with the wind and with the breathing of the universe -- the visible motion of the power that invests everything in existence" (Jamake Highwater in Ritual of the Wind) To exist in family is to experience an insistent Chinook wind, blowing warm in winter and cool in summer, lending a direction and center to all that one does.

Finally, Hawaiian spirituality includes -‘eha ‘eha -- the cry for justice. This emerges out of the dislocation and pain that many along the Pacific Rim have suffered. This region has given rise to the Minjung theology of the politically oppressed in Korea. The cry of Asian people for justice has risen up from indigenous Hawaiians and Filipino plantation workers, as well as from Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps in 1942. The Pacific holds the restless memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the plight of Vietnamese boat people on the China Sea. What Jerusalem was in 587 B.C.E -- a symbol of anguish and loss -- Tokyo stood for in 1945 and Saigon in 1972, as Kosuke Koyama explains in Waterbuffalo Theology.

In Theology of the Pain of God, Kazoh Kitamori suggests that the heart of the gospel is found in God’s own excruciating pain witnessed most powerfully in the cross of Jesus Christ. This pain grew out of God’s deepest longing for justice and love. The Hawaiian word for such agony is ‘eha ‘eha. Referring to the physical effort of "hard-breathing" or "panting," this is a heart-rending, lung-bursting experience of brokenness, not unlike a woman’s experience of childbirth. But out of it comes a divine cry for justice that refuses to be silenced. It arises even from the land as expressed in those protesting the U.S. Navy’s bombing of Kaho’olawe near the island of Molo’kai.

God’s liberating power for justice may be difficult to discern in a multicultural setting like Hawaii. The islands are marked by a holo-holo mix of Polynesian, Buddhist, Confucian and Shinto traditions, overlaid by the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West. What form can a united, liberating vision take in the midst of such incredible diversity? Again, the metaphor of breathing offers a common link. Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells a rabbinic story about the disclosure of God’s name to Moses at the time of the Exodus. As an afterthought, having revealed the holy name of Yahweh, God also gives to Moses a "nickname" to use with those people who may not recognize Hebrew. What is the name of God that everyone will know? "Yaaaaah" (the sound of breathing) , Moses is told. That is enough. That name will be spoken in the slave huts of Egypt. and uttered in pain by the oppressed. To that call God responds with hope and deliverance from bondage.

These themes speak to Western theology with a deep, prophetic simplicity. They invite us to the humble posture of the malihini, the "beginner" who always perceives the truth as surprise. Here it is that a haole like myself must always begin if he or she is to be surprised by grace.

On the big island of Hawaii last summer I learned of an early missionary who had arrived there in the spring of 1832. His name was David Belden Lyman: I’d never known of this family connection, even though my own roots go back to the same Connecticut landscape that produced this early volunteer for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Suddenly the experience of being haole took on a depth of meaning I had never expected. I was bound by ties of blood to those white-skinned missionaries who had first brought Christianity to Hawaii, broken vessels of God’s providence as they were. In generations past, I had been the bearer of a gospel that was being offered back to me, passed through the filter of an experience that made it Whole and new. I was now receiver, even. as my ancestors in Hawaii had once been carriers of a truth they never fully grasped. C. S. Lewis was exactly right when he spoke of "surprise as the signature of grace."

I’m told that the Maoris of New Zealand sing a hymn known as haha as they invoke the divine breath or wind on those being initiated into tribal mysteries. It is a holy laughter that falls like a spring breeze on people made newly open to the truth. Given the enormous unpredictability of grace, it seems also to be a gift made available even to haoles. Reflecting on theology in a Pacific/Asian context requires learning a new story, chanting to the universe, imitating the winds. It comes to us, finally, as a freeing movement of God’s Spirit across deep, blue sea waters.