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Spiritual Transformation

An address by Fr John Slater

19 May 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I've had two cultural experiences this week which have made powerful impressions on me in respect of religious language and symbolism. One was a play at the National Theatre - The Bacchai by Euripedes - a new production by Peter Hall. I was knocked sideways by the way some of the language used reflects the vocabulary of Christianity; one scene is reminiscent of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The play is about the god Dionysus who is far from the Christian understanding of God in his vengeful pursuit of those who do not believe in him. But at the end of the play he says very powerfully Do not deny me; I am part of you.

My other experience was seeing the exhibition at the Royal Academy, The Return of the Buddha. This is a collection of Buddha figures from the sixth century, discovered recently in northern China. The exhibition catalogue quotes the inscription on an eighth century sandstone Buddha figure:

This surely goes to the heart of one of the basic challenges faced by any attempt to put into words or symbols the deep insights of the religious quest. God is unseen yet we long to describe him; his promptings are without words yet we strive to put our understanding of him into words. But the words we have are forged from our experience of this material world and so inadequate to describe the unseen reality of God.

Christianity has a rich culture of religious art and symbolism, but we have to remember two periods of Christian history when the images were rejected and smashed. This happened in the Eastern Church in the seventh century, in what is called iconoclasm. And it happened in the Western Church in the reformation of the sixteenth century when it is estimated that 90% of all English art was destroyed. The Second Commandment of the Old Testament, against the worship of images, asserted itself very powerfully in these movements. Of course, both Judaism and Islam interpret this prohibition literally so that neither of them has developed a tradition of figurative religious art. Christianity found in the doctrine of the incarnation the permission to portray the divine in human form. If God has taken human form, then surely it is right to use that form to convey religious truth. And in the Christian tradition, the visual arts have played a major role in the communication of religious knowledge and insight.

It is easy enough for religious art to portray Jesus, the one in whom God takes human form and flesh. But the Holy Spirit whom we celebrate especially today tends to be portrayed in religious art as a dove. There are obvious reasons for this. In the first chapter of Genesis we read of the Spirit brooding over the waters of chaos before the creation of the world. In the Gospels we read of the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove. But there is also that other image of the Spirit in today's reading from The Acts of the Apostles, as a rushing wind and tongues of fire - rather more dynamic and powerful than a dove! Perhaps the Church has been in danger of seeking to domesticate this powerful Spirit, the Spirit of God himself, the divine agent in creation and redemption. I love that enigmatic phrase of Jesus, I am come to cast fire upon the earth and how I am constrained until it be accomplished. In John's Gospel Jesus speaks about his going away in order that he might send to us the Spirit. But the word used at this point in John's Gospel is not Spirit but the Greek word parakletos, sometimes unhelpfully rendered in English as the Paraclete, and often as the Comforter. But that too is to domesticate the powerful Spirit of God.

Parakletos is better translated as the Advocate - not in the sense of a gentlemanly QC in the English legal system but rather as one who stands by us and fights on our side in the monumental struggle in which men and women are involved in this world. St Paul gets it right when he says that it is not against flesh and blood that we contend but against principalities and powers and the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.

If we set the goals of Christian faith and life too low, no wonder men and women fail to be thrilled by our teaching. But the challenge is not about brooding doves or anything comfortable; it isn't the hope that we might be just a little better than other people. To be a Christian is to be enlisted into the company of the Spirit of God, to contend with the Spirit for the cause of God which is the transformation of the material world so that it can achieve its spiritual potential. We are part of that material world and so part of the process of transformation which must begin within us. The Spirit has been poured out upon us in baptism and confirmation and in this Holy Eucharist. We are to be changed and Spirit-filled men and women; and we are to be instruments of the spiritual transformation of the world.
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