I Am Not the Holy Spirit: Reflections On The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor

I am not the Holy Spirit. An obvious statement, yes, and one that I would never deny verbally. In action, though, I often live as if I am the Holy Spirit, and I suspect I’m not alone in this behavioral blasphemy. As Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is within us, guiding us and forming us into the image of Jesus Christ. Often times, though, the Holy Spirit I claim to follow bears striking resemblance to myself. He seems to have the same personality as myself, the same desires, and the same thoughts. From my perspective, it’s not just the Holy Spirit who seems to resemble me. Even as I interact with others, I project myself onto them. I enter dialogue with another assuming he has the same values, the same basic assumptions about life, and the same worldview. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem, but maybe that, too, is a projection of myself on the rest of the world.

It’s this interaction with the Holy Spirit and with the “other” that John V Taylor addresses in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. Taylor was an Anglican bishop and theologian, doing most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He worked for sometime as a missionary in Uganda, and brings a missionary perspective to his work. The Go-Between God was first published back in 1972, and is now considered a classic theological work. (In fact, the edition of the book I read is from the SCM Classics series.)

Drawing heavily on Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Taylor’s main point of the book is that the Holy Spirit primarily works as a “go-between.” In other words, when individuals meet and converse, the Spirit is not merely “in” each of the individuals, but is His own personality working between them. If life were a drama, the Holy Spirit would be a separate character with his own personality. To use another analogy, used by Taylor, if a conversation between two people were represented by the equation 1+1, the Holy Spirit would be the “+”.

Not only do we need to see the Holy Spirit as his own character, Taylor goes on to explain that the Spirit’s function in the mission of God is to draw people together, to be the “+” in the 1+1 equation. The Spirit does this, Taylor argues, by helping people to see other individuals and entirely “other” than them. To help people to realize that the other person in the dialogue sees the world through entirely different lenses shaped by their own experiences.

Taylor draws out numerous implications for Christian mission. Among them, he writes of the importance of listening when doing evangelism or interfaith dialogue; that before the gospel can be proclaimed by one person to another, the evangelist must understand the worldview of the other. Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the pentecostal movement, and explains that the rest of the Church needs to learn from them in order to become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s personality and action. What I found most striking, though, was Taylor’s chapter on prayer in the Spirit. Taylor first explains, “To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit; and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ… to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living.” And he later continues, “…we are saying that the essential missionary activity is to live in prayer.”

This, of course, is nothing new, but the type of prayer Taylor went on to recommend I found intriguing. He called it the “prayer of stillness.” The first step is to still the mind. (For what it’s worth, Taylor suggests Yoga or Tai Chi as methods to do this.) Next, he says to focus your awareness on another object – a lit candle, a glass of water, etc. When entirely focused on the object, the next step is to begin to think of it as a symbol of Christ – the Light of the World, Living Water, etc. – and then to slowly replace the image of the object in our mind with the person of Christ himself. The value of this type of prayer, I think, is that it brings us into deeper awareness of the Hearer of our prayers. We realize that when we pray, we actually are speaking to someone else. This awareness can then move toward those for whom we’re interceding, prompting us to pray for them without projecting ourselves onto them.

The Go-Between God has been published for nearly 40 years, now. But I think it’s a much needed book for ministers and missionaries today. In my pastoral work, and my campus ministry work, I’m often struck by how eager people are to take advantage of a listening ear. On more than one occasion, strangers I’ve met for the first time have shared with me deeply painful experiences of brokenness from their past, and longings for their future. Our busy and individualized society is increasingly isolating us from one another, and it’s leaving people with the desire to be heard and to be known by others. And I suspect that in the midst of our busy-ness, the Holy Spirit too is calling out for us to listen and to know Him. The Go-Between God paints a picture of the Spirit that just begins to scratch the surface of the Spirit’s personality, and the personality of humanity, and invites us to dive deeply into further exploring the deep mysteries of the Spirit and our neighbors.

Some Thoughts on NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope

If you spent time in Christian circles as a teenager, you’ve probably been in this scenario: It’s the final night of the youth retreat. You’re tired from non-stop, sleepless antics with your friends. You’ve heard a speaker talk about how God loves you and about how you suck. You may have even heard about Jesus by this point. You enter the room, and the worship band is leading everyone in singing the latest top 40 song (You know, to show that they’re ‘relevant’). Then they sing some upbeat worship songs. Then some slower worship songs, to set the right mood. The final song ends. The worship leader whispers a prayer into the microphone that, if it were written out, would make no grammatical sense. He then whispers “Amen. You can have a seat.” Then comes the talk. The invitation to follow Jesus that 9 times out of 10 includes some variation of the question, “If you were to die on the way home from here, do you know where you’d be going?”

If you’ve ever been the victim of this kind of “ministry,” or if you still think the above is a legitimate, biblical evangelism model, I highly recommend you read NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. NT Wright is, for a few more weeks, at least, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He’s one of the most prolific Christian writers today, and also one of the most respected. In fact, his work has gained such attention that he was invited to promote Surprised by Hope on the Colbert Report, which you can still view here. The interview actually provides a good, and humorous, introduction to the book.

Wright begins the book by calling into question the theology underlying most Christians’ view of the afterlife, and the gospel. The assumption of the evangelist in the scenario I described above, and the assumption of many Christians today, is that the gospel is all about getting to go to heaven when we die. Christian is “fire insurance,” if you will. Wright cites examples from classic literature, popular culture, hymns, and Christian books of era to show how widespread this belief is. The consequence of this theology is that many Christians today look at the problems of the earth – the war, the poverty, the injustice – with an escapist mentality. The world is going to hell, but if we’re Christians we’ll get to leave it. Death is then something not to despise, but to embrace as a “portal” to our true home.

Wright emphatically explains that this view of the afterlife is not the view of the Bible or the early Church. God’s ultimate plan is not to pull all Christians into heaven and let everything else burn. God’s plan is for resurrection. As Wright explains it, when we die, we do go to heaven, but life-after-death is not the final chapter. There is, in Wright’s words, “life after life after death.” Heaven is not the final home for the Christian, the new earth and new heavens are the final destination for the Christians. We will be raised. And this final act has begun already in the resurrection of Christ, and continues in Christians who have received the same Holy Spirit who has raised Christ from the dead.

In the final section of the book, Wright discusses the implications of this reality. Because they have received the Holy Spirit, and because the Holy Spirit is the one who will bring about the new creation, the Church is now called to be working to bring about that new creation. Doing an act of justice such as feeding the poor, creating something beautiful like a work of art, or proclaiming the gospel to someone else are all, in Wright’s words, “signposts of the kingdom.” In other words, when the Kingdom of God is fully consummated, when the new creation is here, we will look back and see how our acts of justice, evangelism and creativity actually moved the world forward to new creation.

Recently, I met a young man who told me that he could no longer be a Christian because he can’t love a God who would let his father die. I responded with sympathy and compassion as best I could. If I could replay that conversation, though, in light of Wright’s book, I would ask the young man, “What makes you think God wanted your father to die?” The message of the gospel Wright articulates is that God doesn’t want this man’s father, or anyone else, to be dead. Death is God’s enemy. God’s desire, and promise, is that this young man and his father will be raised together. And that resurrected life together will be greater than either of the could imagine.

Surprised by Hope is a gift to the Church. It articulates the gospel in a way that makes it not only good news, but better news than what most of us have heard.

And… I’m back!

After a long hiatus from blogging, I”m going to try to begin posting again regularly. Since I’m taking time off from both of my jobs for the next two weeks, I should have some time to “jump start” writing some new material, so check back soon.

In the meantime, I”ve updated the page of book recommendations, adding NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope and John V Taylor’s The Go-Between God. I also plan on posting fuller reviews and reflections on both books in the next few days.