Bearing Witness to Christ and to Each Other in the Power of the Holy Spirit
Rev. Dr. K.M. George, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, India
During the long struggle for India’s liberation from the British colonial rule, a great friendship developed between Mahatma Gandhi the radical practitioner of non-violence (ahimsa) and the Rev. C.F. Andrews, an Anglican priest from England who came to India in 1904 as a missionary. Andrews was probably the only man who could call Gandhi the “Great Soul” (Mahatma) by his first name Mohan (. In spite of Gandhi’s strong criticism of the western missionaries in general he said “Andrews is like a brother to me” and he qualified their friendship as a “sacred relationship between us”.
Unconditionally practicing Christ’s exhortation “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44), Gandhi said: “As long as there is one Andrews among the British people we must, for the sake of such a one, bear no hatred to them” (2). Andrews genuinely believed that more than any Christian, Gandhi was witnessing to Christ by following the way of the cross in the long non-violent struggle that he started in South Africa and continued in India’s independence movement to restore justice, freedom and human dignity to millions of people. Reflecting on what he experienced while sitting by the side of Gandhi who was on a fast against untouchability, and gazing at “the frail, wasted, tortured, spirit bearing the sins and sorrows of his people”, Andrews wrote: “And in that hour of vision I knew more deeply, in my own personal life, the meaning of the Cross” (3). Both Gandhi and Andrews recognized the Christ figure in each other.
For us in Asia, here is a remarkable example of the West and the East bearing witness to each other. Andrews, an European Christian and Gandhi, an Indian Hindu, mutually bonded in a transparent friendship testifies to each other’s deepest spiritual convictions and the quality of those convictions in action for the sake of all human beings, particularly the poor and the powerless.
This gift of friendship and the task of bearing witness to each other are inspired by the Holy Spirit of God like in Acts 10 where the circumcised and the uncircumcised recognize and authenticate each other in the same Holy Spirit who sometimes breaks the norms and logic of our usual theological construct. In an increasingly pluralistic and globalized world this model of friendship in mutual witness and hospitality can initiate a new paradigm of just and peaceful relationship between South and North in socio-economic domain and between East and West in cultural and inter religious realms. This points essentially to the vision of the Kingdom of God where many will come from East and West, and from North and South and sit and table (Lk. 13:29).
Bearing witness to each other in friendship and hospitality is not to condone injustice or exploitation. It is not to legitimate he contradiction of hegemonic and subaltern conditions nor is it an assertion of human identity simply in terms of religious faith or racial or national belonging. At the heart of this paradigm is a constant and diligent invocation of the Holy Spirit to penetrate and transform these relationships so that humanity enters a new consciousness of sharing and caring in dignity with deep respect for the life-sustaining resources of the earth for all living beings.
In the context of Asia’s ancient religions like Buddhism for instance, friendship and hospitality do not remain limited to human beings, but is extended to all sentient beings beyond strict anthropocentric circles. There is an important similar biblical concern as in prophet Jeremiah: ‘If the land mourns and the grass of every field withers, if the animals and the birds are swept away because of the wickedness of those who live in it’, (Jer.12:4) what kind of witness God’s creation bears to us human beings “the crown of creation”, “God’s own image and likeness”.
Christianity in its great missionary enterprise and intense search for the salvation of souls, “traversing sea and land to make a single convert” (Matt. 23:15) seems to have almost completely sidelined the amazing creation of God and its Spirit-woven fabric of life. Therefore, witnessing to the life-giving gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit requires us to enter a new level of awareness, hitherto generally ignored, of the manifold gifts and energies of the Holy Spirit in the created world. This would liberate us from the false dichotomies and unwholesome fragmentation of reality created by the currently dominant western civilization and the materialistic bent of Christianity which takes delight in worldly power and prosperity.
Let me briefly mention a few recurring themes from the Orthodox patristic tradition that place emphasis on the witnessing and empowering role of the Holy Spirit that heals the divisions and dichotomies.
First, the theme of Theosis or Divinisation. Theosis literally means ‘becoming God’. The Fathers of the Church said it was “daring language” and still used it daringly to express the essence of human destiny. This is the patristic elaboration of the divine grace granted to us “to become partakes of divine nature” (II Pet 1:4). Divinization (Theosis) was the ultimate stage in a three-fold movement towards salvation in the life of a Christian, namely purification, illumination and divinization. In this process of theosis the Holy Spirit is the guiding Spirit who inspires, connects and transfigures God’s creation.
Created human beings are invited to use their God-given freedom to participate fully in the divine nature of the creator. This is not to annihilate the fundamental distinction between the creator and the created like in any absolute union (henosis) as in Hellenistic philosophy or the absolute monism of Advaita ( “not-two”) philosophy in India. Yet there is a fruitful common ground between the Eastern Christian understanding of divinization as the destiny of humanity and the ultimate merging of creation with the creator in various Asian religious philosophies. In the doctrinal controversy around the Person of the Holy Spirit in the 4th century St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) who articulated the classical Christian Trinitarian theology clearly affirmed that the Holy Spirit was a Person (Hypostasis) in the one Godhead like the Father and the Son and that the Spirit was God. “If the Spirit was not God he could not divinize me”(4) was the patristic argument.
All Spirit-inspired movement is open ended, and so the destiny of human beings is also open ended given the infinity and ineffability of the creator God in Orthodox Christian theology. As St. John the Evangelist says: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be….” (I Jn. 3:2).
This promise of theosis or infinite becoming in God’s love, glory and freedom is extended to all creation through human beings who carry God’s image and likeness. “We ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies” together with “the whole creation groaning in travail..” (Rom. 8:22-23).
All that the Church does, celebrates, prays and stands for in the world is within this Spirit – inspired birth-movement for the new creation. Salvation is not the individual liberation of the soul from this world, but it is a shared destiny with God’s creation which is “to be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). In this inward groaning inspired by the Spirit both humanity and the rest of creation bear witness to each other and to our common destiny in Christ.
Human body has a key role to play in this process since it is through the physical body that our self relates to the material world, as Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Zizioulas) rightly explains in line with the authentic Orthodox Tradition. The transfigured body of Christ that became luminous as it appeared to the three chosen disciples (Matt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36; II Pet. 1:17-18 ) gives us another glimpse of the destiny of all matter and the material universe that is symbolized by the human body, the “microcosmos” in Patristic understanding.
Gregory of Nazianzus, referring to this gospel narrative, says that the transfiguration of Christ “initiates us into the mystery of future”. The all pervasive presence of the Creator Spirit permeates every trace of matter deep down to the level where matter is pure energy. Without falling into any sweepingly pantheistic idea one can say that the human body and the universe are pneumatodynamic, that is, powered and moved by the Spirit, and so sacramental and holy. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (I Cor. 6:19).We need simply to extend the metaphor of the temple to the whole created reality.
The theology of light developed in the Orthodox Tradition is underscored by the transfiguration experience of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18). This, however, is not an unbridled mystical elan. The contradictions and ambiguities of our existence are also to be carried in our bodies. While “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:1) can shine in our hearts, we also “carry in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (II Cor. 4:10). The Church as the Body of Christ is called to fully participate in the human struggle for life carrying the body of pain, suffering and death.
Secondly, we have the theme of the Perfecting Work of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient Syriac Eucharistic liturgy of St. James, at the elevation of the Holy Elements, it is said: “With us is the one Holy Spirit who perfects all that has been and all that is to be”.
The perfecting work of the Spirit touches all ages and all space. The Spirit who is the first impulse of creation continues to indwell and guide it. It is the same Holy Spirit of God who was at the initial impulse of the incarnation of Christ and guided him until the earthly fulfillment of the economy of incarnation, and then continues to lead us to all the truth, as promised by Christ. The Holy Spirit of God who was at the beginning of creation and the incarnation continues to work to recreate and renew the creation.
Perfection as the work of the Holy Spirit has no definition since it cannot be exhausted by any conceptual frame. Negatively it simply says that nothing is complete in creation. Incompleteness or imperfection here is not necessarily in the sense of any moral defect or imperfection, but suggests the openness to the humanity’s infinite possibility of growing in the Good and eliminating all evil in our life down here.
It is not just utopia. In a discussion on the uses of utopia in the ecumenical movement Konrad Raiser refers to the German writer Stefan Andres’s novel We are Utopia. One of the characters in the novel, an old mystic, says to his spiritual son, a former monk who was imprisoned during the Spanish civil war in the same room of the monastery that he had left years ago: “God does not go to Utopia! (5) But he comes into this world, wet with tears – again and again..God loves this world because it is imperfect – We are God’s utopia, but in the process of becoming”5.
Even the perfect incarnation of Christ is not completed, but continues in the sense that Christ, towards the end of his earthly life, promised to send the Holy Spirit who would guide us into all the truth. The humanity Christ assumed is not shed off but continues in all eternity in its inseparable and unconfused union with the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity.
Third, we have the patristic notion of the Eighth Day. St Basil of Caesarea and others called Sunday the day of the resurrection of Christ as the eighth day. The cycle of the week represented the created order and the cycle of our history, a cycle that repeats itself. The old creation is so trapped in this vicious, monotonous, boring and tiring cycle of the week that we all look forward to the weekend as liberation. Yes, the 8th day is a sort of great and final weekend! Sunday is both the first day of the week and the 8th day that breaks the logic of history and goes beyond it; it is the beginning of creation and the beginning of the new creation. It does not eliminate the week, this world and its history, but transfigures it in the freshness of a new consciousness and celebration of the risen life in Christ through the Spirit. Time and eternity bear witness to each other.
Our linear sense of history, taken for granted and woven into Christian theological construction as a divine order, will have to be seriously reviewed in the light of the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may not always operate in any linear historic logic of a pointed beginning, a progressive arrow and a final end of time European concept of history is sometimes wrongly identified as the Christian concept of history that is least sensitive to the incredible spiritual resources and psychological insights in Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism and other religions.
The many continuing histories of cultures and peoples across the ages will have to be taken into account before we pronounce the last word on perfection. We know that it is a certain concept of history that is arrogantly progressist, triumphalist and monocultural that has created serious ecological crisis and the menacing global terrorism in our world.
If Christian mission and evangelism still continues to assume that this understanding of history is biblical, divine and superior to others, Christianity will be a fatal disservice to humanity. (The notion of “sum over histories” as proposed by Richard Feynman in modern physics may provide a better analogy for the Spirit’s working with the innumerable and simultaneous histories of our world).
We usually speak of the eschaton or telos of the created world as the end-goal. It is, however, not the end, but a qualitatively enriched and radical unfolding of the infinite possibilities of the created world. There is no steady state or stationary point in the Spirit’s movement, which we can call the end.
The modern ecumenical movement, as especially exemplified in the World Council of Churches, has made a sincere attempt to bring the witness of the gospel of Christ to the public sphere by addressing all major issues confronting church and society. It has gradually evolved from a mono-cultural, imperialistic notion of church unity (Christendom) originating in a colonial context to the broader unity of all humanity in all its diverse colours and to the still broader unity and networking of all God’s creation(6).
This is a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need to trust and continue to call upon the Holy Spirit as we explore the broader and deeper dimensions of the movement in the light of the Reign of God and in view of a pneumatodynamic universe. It is essentially a pilgrimage that we undertake, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, in deep humility, ongoing conversation, patient listening, true friendship with the stranger , genuine hospitality and the readiness for transforming flashes of insight anytime on the way.
- Horace Alexander, in the introduction to C.F. Andrews, Gandhi’s Ideas , Punjab University Press, 1929, quoted in Terrene J. Rynne, Gandhi and Jesus, the Saving Power of Non Violence, ATC, Bangalore, 2008, p.85
- Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, Delhi, 1958-94, 16:315
- C.F. Andrews, Gandhi’s Ideas, 312-13, quoted in T.Y. Rynne, op.cit., p.94
- Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Oration 31:4. “If he has the same rank as myself how can he possibly divinize me?” See also John Mc Gackin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, SVS Press, 2011, New York,.
- Konrad Raiser, To be the Church, WCC,1997, Geneva,.p.83.
- See Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope (eds.), The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, WCC Publications, 2007, Geneva.