By Andy Whitman
In 1054, the Christian churches of the east and west formally split. There were several reasons for what came to be known as The Great Schism, but prominent among them was the so-called “Filioque” clause. At stake was whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.
It was the first of what would eventually become a tsunami of contentious dissolutions, a long history of insistence on doctrinal purity or interpretational freedom that has now led to fine ecclesiastical establishments such as The Entire Bible Church and Liquid (note: not a rave club).
I have no great desire to sort it all out, although I respect the inclinations of those who do. Typically these folks are called “theologians,” and they not only teach at seminaries and write learned treatises, but fill the pulpits and pews of many churches.
God bless them. For me, it’s simply a matter of survival. Having spent several years of my life learning to parse Greek and Hebrew, Apologetics and Hermeneutics and Church Polity, all the while maintaining an unhealthy drug habit, the disconnect eventually became too great. I didn’t need to feed my head. I needed a heart transplant.
And while I recognize that the two realms are not mutually exclusive, or even necessarily incompatible, for me it came down to a stark choice: trust God with a simple, childlike faith, or certainly lose my family, and possibly end up dead at any early age.
It turned out that it wasn’t all that difficult to understand “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.” It was just extremely difficult to do. And I needed help.
In whatever manner the Holy Spirit proceeded, I needed some evidence that the proceedings made a difference.
That was a while back, but the basic approach hasn’t changed radically since then. My wife persuaded me to toss my old seminary textbooks a couple months ago, part of the process of simplifying our lives and preparing to downsize now that our kids are grown and on their own.
Those books had been down in the basement for about thirty years, doing little more than gathering dust. But stubborn pack rat that I am, I had a hard time letting go of them. “You never know when I’ll want to look up something in the original Koine Greek,” I told her.
“You never know when hell will freeze over, either,” she told me right back.
So out they went to the curb, a big, boxed-up, duct-taped version of several years of my life, a part of my past that now seemed inconceivable. I had spent thousands of hours with those books at one time, trying to wrap my brain around the arcane details of whether the apostle Paul was writing to north or south Galatia, trying to understand the subtleties of the pluperfect and Aorist Greek tenses.
I was an addict with a 4.0 GPA and three college degrees, a self-absorbed, God-haunted asshole with a “high bottom,” as my NA sponsor would later tell me. It was easier to plant a foot into people with high bottoms, he assured me, and usually that was part of the cure.
Theology didn’t help me, although it really wasn’t theology’s fault. I belong to a church, and that church has a theological tradition, as all churches inevitably do. I have no desire to deny any of it. But I also have no desire to dispute any of it, to wrestle with it, to examine the warp and the weft of the tightly woven threads of a belief system. I have enough trouble not wanting to rip the entire, intolerable garment from my body:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
That’s T.S. Eliot, writing about the Holy Spirit. As a good Anglo-Catholic he was probably a Filioque man himself, a double procession, Father and Son adherent to the extent he thought about it at all. I don’t know if he ever did.
But he surely thought about burning and purification, the little, painful deaths that comprise a life devoted to God.
I know this much: I’m fairly certain that the Holy Spirit proceeds, and that in that procession human beings are led forth from sin and error. I’m watching that unfold in my own life. The process is slow, terrifying, mysterious, and deeply painful, costing not less than everything.
Nobody explained this to me when I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. I thought it was simply a matter of believing the right things, checking the right theological boxes. Nobody told me that even though the old man was dead, I would still drag his sorry carcass around with me wherever I went. Nobody told me that even though Jesus was on the throne, I would try to stage a coup d’etat pretty much every Saturday night.
In the meantime, I pray simple prayers: Help me, O God. Save me from myself, and for Your glory. Help me not to be an asshole.
These are the small surrenders, moment by moment, that make up the ongoing abdication from the infinitesimally tiny Kingdom of Me.