Discerning What’s What: Spirituality, Spirits, and the Holy Spirit
I have long struggled to discern where precisely the Spirit of God is at work—in my own life and in the world around us.
As a practicing Christian of the Reformed Protestant family, an heir of John Calvin (who has been called a “theologian of the Holy Spirit”!), I affirm that the Spirit is the power and presence of God that binds us to Christ and to one another, and that the Spirit drives us into the world to live out the reign of God.
Yet in the day-to-day-ness of our lives, how do we see what the Spirit is up to?
How do we distinguish the Holy Spirit from all the other spirits of the world?
When I try to answer this question, I quickly find myself stuck in an internal argument of competing claims, second-guessing all my initial efforts to point to where I have experienced the Spirit’s presence.
- Like many people, I can recall profound moments of awe walking on the deserted beach at sunrise, with no sound but the soft wash of waves at my feet, the crunch of sand under my toes, and the occasional cry of a gull. These moments of wonder feel like an encounter with the Spirit—but does this mean that the Holy Spirit does not also show up in the city, among crowds of people? Am I just romantically confusing the Spirit of God with the beauty of nature?
- Many times, I have been in worship services that bring tears to my eyes because of the glory of the music, the depth of preaching, and the intense connection with others at the breaking of the bread. This feels like an encounter with the Spirit—but couldn’t this also be emotional manipulation and distraction from the true work of the Spirit on the streets?
- At other times, I have been moved in political rallies that unite people in common cause for transformation of society toward justice and peace. This too feels like it might be the Spirit—but how do we know when such gatherings become exercises in self-righteousness rather than occasions for the inbreaking of the Spirit of Christ?
My own internal argument about the Spirit has driven me to explore how a variety of writers/preachers/prophets from ages past and present have discerned the Spirit.
The good news is that recent years have seen a flourishing of writing on the Holy Spirit, so there are lots of conversation partners.
Ancient writers like Hildegard of Bingen and Cyril of Alexandria, and contemporary theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and Jurgen Moltmann are just a few of the voices who help me in this journey.
If you share my curiosity about the Spirit, you have likely found other writers who have illuminated your own questions.
One of the things I have begun to understand is that most of the time, I cannot identify the Spirit of God alone, or immediately. It takes time, and company, to discern where the Spirit is moving.
Dr. Moore-Keish has two published books: Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Ritual Approach to Reformed Eucharistic Theology and Christian Prayer for Today, and she has two forthcoming volumes: a theological commentary on the book of James and an edited volume on Karl Barth and Comparative Theologies. She served for several years on official ecumenical dialogues between Reformed and Roman Catholic churches, most recently as Reformed co-chair of the international ecumenical dialogue between the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In addition to research on liturgical and sacramental theologies, she has a long-standing interest in interreligious issues, particularly Christian-Jewish relations and religions of India. Martha and Chris have two daughters, Miriam and Fiona, three cats, and a flock of chickens.
Martha Moore-Keish, J.B. Green Professor of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary