Pentecost: "Spiritual but not Religious"

From a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on Pentecost 2008

There is a growing literature about “the spiritual”, appealing not only to the conventionally religious, but to a wider audience perhaps unconvinced about religion, but convinced that there is something more to their existence than the purely material. There are corporate gurus now interested in “spiritual capital”, placed alongside the obvious material sort, and other kinds like “social capital”, as a means of developing more capable and reflective employees and organizations. There is now talk among educators of “spiritual intelligence” as a distinct form of knowing alongside the traditional IQ and other recent ideas like “emotional intelligence”.

The real competition for the Churches and for religion generally may not be atheism so much as that quite different possibility, of being “spiritual but not religious” – an intriguing and increasingly common self-description. Presumably God would say as much – although this need not mean it can apply equally to others! Perhaps despite the scepticism of our time we, the religious and irreligious alike, still tend to agree that there an inescapably spiritual dimension to life, something within and around us that is greater than ourselves and which demands attention and response.

The Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit – of the presence of God through all of creation and life itself – may be a point of engagement for the Church with the sensibilities of our contemporaries. Christians, too, believe that there is a universal spiritual presence, which is far more than the distant creator over whom we can allow Dawkins to argue with fundamentalists. The Christian God is not merely a hypothesis invoked to explain the ultimate origins of the Universe, but also and far more so, the reality we experience as the present meaning and purpose of our lives.

This possibility of Christians thinking about the “spiritual” as a universal present reality depends on our remembering or learning that the Holy Spirit is not a sort of ecclesiastical peculiarity. There is a temptation for us to think that the gifts of the Spirit we recognize in ministry and sacraments are the main focus of the Holy Spirit’s reality, or that Pentecost is the first appearance of the Holy Spirit in history.

In fact the story in which the Spirit first appears comes rather earlier in scripture:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1).

The same Hebrew words can be translated “Spirit of God” or “mighty wind”, and we have no means – or need – to resolve that ambiguity. It would certainly be wrong to exclude the sense that these opening words of the Bible refer to the gift of the Spirit as given with and to creation itself. The great fourth-century theologian St Basil of Caesarea refers approvingly to a traditional understanding that in creation the Spirit “cherished the nature of the waters as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and impart to them a force of life from her own warmth…that is, prepared the nature of [the deep] to produce living beings” (Hexameron, 2.6).

The Psalms likewise acknowledge this divine creative presence in all life:

[all creatures] look to you
to give them their food in due season…
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth (Ps 104).

The biblical picture is that the Spirit is God’s active engagement with creation, continually moulding, enervating, loving, spurring it and us to our ultimate form. And this says something about creation too quite different from mechanistic creationism – that God’s work in it and us is not complete, but continual.

So if the Spirit is always active in creation, at all times, what is the Church saying about Pentecost and its own history when we celebrate the story retold today from the Acts of the Apostles? What the Spirit does in the Church is what the Spirit has always done in creation – making and remaking, giving life and giving new life. So the Spirit is not new or confined to the Church; the Church is new, and a sort of sacrament of the Spirit in the world. The Church exists to be a sign of God’s transforming creative love and power, but does not contain or exhaust that love and power.

We must admit that this witness by the Church over its history has been mixed at best; in particular we have fallen into the trap of treating the Spirit of God as justification for static institutional entrenchment, rather than as the source of creative power and new life. Our failures as Church, more than any inherent scientific implausibility about faith, are the greatest challenge to Christian credibility.

But that same Spirit has wrestled us into whatever creativity and community we have and we are as Church. The Spirit acts on our formlessness and inertia, like that of the primeval chaos, infusing us with life, love and creativity. In us the Spirit has acted for justice and compassion; by means of us the story of Jesus has been told and retold to many eager listeners; through us the Spirit has caused these stones to spring to life in the imposing statement of this very building.

And there is something in this call to be Church, to be people of the Spirit, which goes far beyond what being “spiritual but not religious” assumes or asserts. The Spirit works in the Church as a human community, just as in creation – not coercively, and not without ambiguity, but cherishing, imparting the force of life. It is not at our disposal – it changes us.

For there is no “spiritual capital” without justice, and no “spiritual intelligence” without love. Faith in the Holy Spirit is a willingness to discern and to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in Church and world, to put ourselves in creative relationship with the God who has made and is making the world, brooding over us, giving us life. The existence of the Church is a sign that the ultimate reality to which God calls us is not determined by us as purely autonomous individuals, harnessing ‘spirituality’ into the service of whatever goals we have set for ourselves independently of the Spirit’s creative, generative influence.


  1. Anonymous11:37 am

    Andrew- This is very encouraging and timely.


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