Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath-a great Cry-which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urglng me to do-You are demanding the impossible. But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shout- ing, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appeared-worms-making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters ! “
“We don’t want to! We can’t!”
“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
And lo! after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.
The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting-this is his new struggle-to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.” And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”
I promised to write about the Holy Spirit, yet here I’ ve quoted from the work of Nikos Kazantsakis a passage which is in many respects not Christian at all. But it is a magnificent piece of writing nonetheless and has one great virtue: it links the divine spirit with evolution. The theory of evolution is always developing and cannot be regarded as simply the truth about life on Earth, but it is supported by millions of bits of evidence, from Darwin’s Galapagos finches to more recent data on the evolution of antibiotic-immune bacteria. Any doctrine of the divine spirit which ignores its relationship to evolution is simply failing to engage with reality.
Even in modern times theologians have ducked this issue, not only because there’s nothing in the bible about it, but even more because the process of evolution seems so accidental: this or that change took place in the environment favouring the development of this mutation and the extinction of all members of the species that lacked it, not to mention events in which millions of species were exterminated by catastrophe. It doesn’t sound like the orderly creation pictured in Genesis chapter 1. But then, the present and predicted course of global warming doesn’t sound much like Genesis 1 either. Any doctrine of the spirit which has no relation to evolution will also have no relation to our current ecological crisis.
Kazantsakis’ imagination is bold enough to take on the issue of evolution. Indeed he interprets evolutionary development as the process by which the divine spirit creates a true humanity, perhaps even a super- humanity. God’s spirit ruthlessly draws humanity further and further away from the primal soup. At first sight this seems to offer nothing to Christian thinking, as it accepts the cruelties of the process as justified by its purpose and exempts the ‘cry’ itself from bearing any of the pain of its creatures. But it has clear virtues:
- It comes to terms with the processes of evolution and thereby makes links with the sciences and with the facts of life in the world. Yes, it gives a very anthropocentric theory of evolution, but at least it dares to deal with it.
- It recovers for the divine spirit something of the ruthlessness evident in the biblical picture which Christian theology has downplayed. The still small voice that speaks to Elijah does not as in the hymn bring calm but sends him off to arrange a series of assassinations.( 1 Kings 19) The spirit that animates the prophets threatens wrath and disaster. The vast vision of the book of the Revelation depicts earthly and cosmic disaster. And gentle Jesus? He’s the one who tells his disciples that they have to hate their parents, that it’s better to maim themselves than be led into sin, and that many catastrophes will precede God’s Rule and only those who endure to the end will be saved. These are not texts that were ever memorised in Sunday School. Without doubt however there is real ruthlessness about the Jesus of the Gospels, which perhaps only the sterner forms of Calvinism have preserved. “Ah but Jeannie,” said Elizabeth to her sister who was denouncing her neighbour for whistling on the Sabbath, “Even the Lord himself broke the Sabbath rules.” “He did so,” replied Jeannie, “And I dinna think the better of him for it.”
- While I disagree with Kazantsakis about nature and goal of the Spirit’s persistence, I welcome the rigour he brings to the character of the Spirit, which has been travestied by ecstatic babbling with fake cures of fake illnesses on the one hand, and the moribund sweet calm of English evensong spirituality on the other. The Early Greek Theologians insisted that the Spirit is an “eschatological gift” using a Greek word meaning “the end”. The Spirit directs human beings towards what they are meant to become at the end of God’s creation. And if the Spirit commands it also enables this development, and of course it needs the consent of the person; but it is as impatient with excuses and contemptuous of evasion as Jesus was. Forgiveness is offered for the sake of the person we shall become not the person we have been. Nothing is more obvious in Luke’s account of the first assemblies of Jesus in the book of The Acts, than the savage decisiveness of a church led by the Spirit. Those who fail to move are left behind or in the case of Ananias and Saphira, wiped out. The Spirit is not to be trifled with. As they say in my home city of a hardman, ” He disnae miss.”
I have left unanswered the question of the spirit’s true relationship to evolution. I will return to this after I have looked at the biblical language about the communion or partnership of the Spirit in my next blog on this site.