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How Not to Speak of People (and the Holy Spirit)

As I wrote last week, with the season of Pentecost upon us, I want to get away from writing longer pieces on topics that vary from week to week, and instead write a series of short(er) installments that stick to one topic: the Holy Spirit.

So beginning today, and running through most of the summer, I want to unpack topics such as "Who is the Holy Spirit?"

Notice the pronoun in that question.

The question is, "WHO is the Holy Spirit?" -- not "what is the Holy Spirit?"

That's the first point I want to make about the Holy Spirit, and it's an important one: the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing.  

(Which brings up a problem with English not having a neutral personal pronoun: the pronouns "he" and "she" are inadequate when referring to the Holy Spirit...but at least they are better pronouns that "it." You should no more say "it" when referring to the Holy Spirit than you would say "it" when referring to your mom or dad, or child. "It" is degrading.)

Nor should we refer to the Holy Spirit only by the Holy Spirit's personality traits. Much like your personality or my personality or your children's personality comes out in certain ways, the Holy Spirit's personality comes out in certain ways.

For example, we may have a "friendly" or "serious" or "laid back" or "perfectionist" personality. But it would sell us short to say that those personality traits ARE who we are. Those personalities do not totally capture us as a person. We have a personality, or exhibit various personalities, but we are more than our personality/personalities.

Likewise, the Holy Spirit has a personality and exhibits various personalities. The Holy Spirit inspires. The Holy Spirit gives life. The Holy Spirit comforts. The Holy Spirit counsels. The Holy Spirit advocates on our behalf. The Holy Spirit is mysterious. The Holy Spirit empowers. But the Holy Spirit is not (merely) "inspiration" or "life-giver" or "comforter" or "counselor" or "advocate" or "mystery" or "power."

The reason this is so important? It's because one of the most harmful things we can do to people (and one of the most harmful tendencies in religion) is reductionism. Reductionism is our tendency to reduce people (and God) into simplistic, easy-to-get-our-head-around, but inadequate and often dead wrong categories. People are more than "liberal, or conservative," "urban, or rural," "selfish, or caring," "rich, or poor," "lazy, or productive," "gay, or straight," "believers, or skeptics," "Palestinians, or Israelis," "saved, or damned," "in shape/skinny or out-of-shape/fat," "employed or unemployed," "Latino, or Irish." So let's give all that a rest, shall we?

Likewise, God is more than (God cannot be reduced to) "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." And God is more than (God cannot be reduced to) functions such as "creator, redeemer, and sanctifier."

What we DO (and what God DOES) not capture the totality of who we ARE (and who God is).

So there you have it: the first lesson on the Holy Spirit is how not to talk about the Holy Spirit...so for the rest of the summer, we can begin talking about the Holy Spirit!

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