In his book, The Future of Faith, former Harvard Professor, Harvey Cox is only the latest in a fairly long list of theologians to try to persuade us that we are living in, or waiting for, the Age of Spirit. He sees Christian history as evolving from the Age of Faith, to the Age of Belief, to the Age of Spirit. The Age of Faith was active in the first three centuries after Jesus’ death, wherein the church actively embraced and enacted the teachings of Jesus. The Age of Belief comprised the 4th century until approximately fifty years ago, when the church, aligned with the state, was more concerned with beliefs about Jesus than the faith of Jesus. This was an era of ecclesiastical control and domination. In the last fifty years, claims Cox, we have entered the Age of Spirit, the so-called “spiritual but not religious” crowd, which now has made its way into the institutional church.
I thought about Cox this past week as I was reading about a 12th century theologian who had an epiphany one day which revealed to him a similarly evolutionary perspective on faith. Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202), prophetic abbot and found of the monastery of San Giovanni in Fiore, Calabria, believed that salvation was occurring in three ages as well. He was highly critical of the institutional church of his day. His theology and critique of the church would provide the fuel which overturned the ecclesiastical feudalism in the Middle Ages. He was influential even into the 16th century reforming and revolutionary movements.
On Pentecost morning, 1190, he had his own direct experience of the Holy Spirit. “At Matins while studying the book of Revelation…suddenly the brightness of knowledge came to the eyes of my spirit. The fulfillment of the book was revealed to me and the inner harmony—concordia—which exists between the Old and New Testaments.”
It was revealed to him that the history of salvation corresponded to three ages which were themselves ages of the Trinity. The age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Spirit. Each is considered a step in the progressive self-realization and self-revelation of the divine Trinity.
The age of the Father is associated with the Old Testament, the age of the Son with the New Testament, and the age of the spirit is the consummation. I’ll quote at some length so you can get a feel for his schemata.
“The secrets of holy Scripture direct us to three systems of the universe: the first one, in which we lived under the law; the second one, in which we did under grace; and the third one, which we expect soon which even more abundant grace will be granted to us. Thus, in the first period learning prevails, in the second one partly completed wisdom, but in the third one the fullness of knowledge. The first one has the servitude of slaves, the second one the servitude of sons, the third one will bring freedom. The first one is of fear, the second one of faith, the third one of love. The first is the period of boys, the second one of men, the third one of old men.”
It is the Holy Spirit, for him, that is the force in history which brings about this progress. I would call it the evolutionary current, which is a creative impulse, that is moving the universe toward an increase in freedom, knowledge, love, etc. For Joachim it wasn’t all completed in Jesus’ day or completely through him. He interprets Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and humanity”, as representing the progress of the church…through the ages of the Father and the Son, aiming toward the age of the Holy Spirit.
Besides the clearly evolutionary intuition that salvation (the realization of G_d in the universe) happens over the course of history as the progressive self-realization of the Trinity, the truly radical dimension of Joachim’s theology is his prophecy that the age of the church was coming to an end. Yup, the pope, the bishops, the whole gang would become obsolete. The age of the Spirit surpasses even the gospel of Jesus Christ, in his thinking. These are still wrapped in symbols, images, and sacraments. When the age of the Holy Spirit dawns, we will undergo a direct revelation of the ways of G_d.
The teaching that served later revolutions was Joachim’s second one about freedom, based on Galatians 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. The Holy Spirit effected an evolution in and toward freedom so that all oppressive institutions, including church, would be surpassed. The fiery, revolutionary theologian, Thomas Munster, was inspired by Joachim to rally his troops of ordinary peasants, in the name and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to overthrow the corrupt institution. The uprising was crushed and he was executed, but you have to admire his chutzpah.
In every age, including our own, when the structures become stifling, the belief systems become bloated, and religiosity loses sight of humanity, there is a longing for Spirit to come and breathe fresh air. (Funny, that old James Brown classic, “Too Funky In Here” just popped into my mind”. It’s my nomination for your Sunday Pentecost anthem this year. Dare ya!)
Whether these ages of salvation resonate with you or not, we do go through something like these stages in our own spiritual evolution. There is a time of conventional religious belief, followed by a time of questioning and doubting, followed by a renewal of Spirit, a mystic knowing that radically alters our life.
The presence of Spirit is always iconoclastic, personally and institutionally.
We can see the effects of the presence of Spirit in each of the three readings for Pentecost Sunday. In Acts, Spirit enables a universalizing communication system, shattering ethnocentric religion and pushing it toward worldcentric inclusion. One thinks here of the global internet as a radical expression of Spirit (at least in potential). In John’s gospel, the promise is that Spirit will lead us into deeper truth about reality. (One thinks here about the scientific revolution as a movement of Spirit (stripped of its materialistic assumptions). And, of course, that classic “dry bones” text for Pentecost from Ezekiel: it speaks of Spirit’s nature which is to bring life out of death. That valley of dry bones, likely the aftermath of a violent battle, was deemed “too funky” by Spirit. You start with dry bones and end up with James Brown, blowing the music scene wide open shamelessly moving his sinews, muscles, and bones in way that had never been seen. Now that’s Spirit!
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
2:11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
2:12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
2:13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
2:15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
2:16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
2:17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
2:18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
2:19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
2:20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
2:21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.
37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
37:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’
37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.
37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
15:26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.
15:27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16:4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.
16:5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’
16:6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
16:8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:
16:9 about sin, because they do not believe in me;
16:10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer;
16:11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
16:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
16:14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
16:15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
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