Third thing

Third thing

June 26, 2012

The most fascinating form of the yearning for the Holy Spirit was formulated by a pious abbot in southern Italy in the twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1130–1202). Joachim was deeply conscious of the deficiencies of the Church in his time: the hatred that separated Jews and Christians, the old and the new people of God, from one another; the hostility between the Church of the East and the Church of the West; the jealousy between clergy and laity; the high-handedness and greed for power displayed by the Church’s men. This led him to the conviction that this could not yet be the definitive form of the Church of God on earth and that before the return of Christ at the end of the world, God must take a new step on  t h i s earth, in this history. He longed for a Church that would be truly in accordance with the New Testament and the promises of the prophets and, indeed, with the deepest yearnings of man’s heart, a Church in which Jews and Gentiles, East and West, clergy and laity would live in the spirit of truth and love, without precepts and laws, so that the will of God for his creature man would be genuinely fulfilled. Out of this grew his new vision, in which he attempted to interpret the rhythm of history on the basis of the trinitarian image of God. After the kingdom of the Father in the Old Testament and the kingdom of the Son in the hierarchical Church that had existed up to then, a third kingdom, a kingdom of the Holy Spirit, would come from around 1260 onward. This would be a kingdom of freedom and of universal peace.

For Joachim, such ideas were more than mere speculations about the future, a consolation in view of the inadequacy of the present day. In his eyes, they had a very practical character, since he believed he had discovered that the individual periods did not follow in a cleanly separated sequence. He saw overlappings, in which the dawning of the new already penetrated the old. He saw the New Covenant dawning in the midst of the Old Covenant, in the faith and piety of the prophets; and in the monks’ form of life, the coming Church already penetrated the Church of the present. This meant that one had to go to meet the future, one had to take up one’s position in the movement of history, as it were, on the escalator that leads to the future. He himself attempted to do so by founding a new monastic community that would lead the way and open the door into the new age. This also shows how he envisaged the future. The “eternal gospel” of which he spoke (with an allusion to Revelation 14:6) was ultimately nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the working of the Holy Spirit and of his gospel would mean that now at last the first gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, would be observed fully. The gospel, taken literally, would be the wholly spiritual Christianity — this is his vision.

Since then, the hope that Joachim expressed by appealing to the definitive coming of the Holy Spirit has never left men in peace. First came the Franciscans, who saw the new Church beginning in their movement. In the struggles that this claim unleashed between the various wings of the order, however, the hope lost its spiritual luster. It became harsher and more combative, and now those who spread this hope in Italy were groups who sought a political renewal. We need not follow the details of the subsequent history of this idea here; but it is noteworthy that the slogans “Third Reich” and “Führer/Duce” of Hitler and Mussolini go back by various routes to Joachim’s heritage. Via Hegel, Marxism, too, adopted something of his vision: the idea of a history that marches forward in triumph, infallibly reaching its goal, and hence the idea of the definitive realization of salvation within history.

It is worth speaking in such detail about Joachim, because he makes particularly clear both the potential and the risks of speaking about the Holy Spirit. There is something path-breaking in Joachim’s willingness to begin here and now with a truly “spiritual” Christianity and to see this spiritual Christianity, not beyond the Word, but in the innermost depths of the Word itself. There was thus some truth in the early Franciscans’ view of Joachim’s doctrine as a prophetic premonition of the figure of Saint Francis, for Francis gave the most beautiful answer to Joachim. Indeed, this was the only correct response, for Francis’ life was a winnowing fork that separated the spiritual and the demonic in Joachim’s work (something that the saint’s successors could not do). His motto was: “sine glossa” (without a commentary). He sought to live Sacred Scripture, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, without making fine distinctions and without evasions. He wanted the Word to take him at his word. Something that is distorted by all kinds of speculations in Joachim became perfectly unambiguous in Francis, and this is why he has been such a radiant figure down through the centuries: the Christianity of the Spirit is the Christianity of the lived Word. The Spirit dwells in the Word, not in a departure from the Word. The Word is the location of the Spirit; Jesus is the source of the Spirit. The more we enter into him, the more really do we enter into the Spirit, and the Spirit enters into us. This also exposes the false element in Joachim, namely, the utopia of a Church that would depart from the Son and rise higher than him and the irrational expectation that portrays itself as a real and rational program.

This gives us an initial outline of a theology of the Holy Spirit. I have said that we come to see the Spirit, not by departing from the Son, but by entering into him. In his account of the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the Eleven, John captures this truth in an eloquent image: the Spirit is the breath of the Son. One receives him by coming within breathing range of the Son, by letting the Son breathe into one (Jn 20:19–23). This is why Irenaeus’ sketch of the trinitarian logic of history is much more correct than Joachim’s. For Irenaeus, this is not an ascent from the Father to the Son and then finally to liberation, to the Spirit. Within history, the direction taken by the Persons is the exact opposite of this: the Spirit is present at the beginning as an instruction and guidance of man that is as yet scarcely perceptible. He leads to the Son and, through the Son, to the Father.

This insight agrees with what the Fathers attempt to say about the Being of the Holy Spirit. Unlike “Father” and “Son”, the name of the third Divine Person is not the expression of something specific. It designates that which is common in the Godhead. But this reveals the “proper character” of the third Person: he is that which is common, the unity of the Father and the Son, the unity in Person. The Father and the Son are one with each other by going out beyond themselves; it is in the third Person, in the fruitfulness of their act of giving, that they are One.

More Ratzinger, as collected in The God of Jesus Christ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.