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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Some “heretical” comments on the Holy Spirit

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When, in the Bible, reference is made to the Holy Spirit (or “Spirit of God,” etc.), the clear implication is that reference is being made to a supernatural Being: An invisible, intangible Being, true, but a “real” Being nonetheless. What I would like to suggest in this essay is that (a) there is a naturalistic explanation of the Holy Spirit which, though, is (b) purely naturalistic at only one level, with the explanation at a “higher” level being less clear, and thereby allowing room for an at least partial supernatural explanation.

The basis for my argument lies in the answer to the question: How do we even know that there is such a “thing” as the Holy Spirit? And the Biblical answer is that no one admits ever to have seen the Holy Spirit, only to have felt the Holy Spirit’s presence. That is, the existence of the Holy Spirit has been inferred from certain feelings—feelings judged, subjectively, to be of a highly positive nature. And those feelings have been said to have “produced” various positive behaviors.

In Romans 14:17 Paul says that the Holy Spirit gives one feelings of righteousness, peace and joy. In II Corinthians 3:17 he says that the Spirit of the Lord gives (a feeling of) freedom. And, most famously, in Galatians 5:22 – 23 he says that the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. Note that this list of nine virtues includes both feelings and (implied) actions (or, in the case of self-control, non-actions).

It is easy to simply take Paul at his word here, but we moderns cannot be expected to do so—nor should we. As individuals living in an Age of Science, we should note that Paul has identified a series of feelings that he has had that he has recognized as desirable, perhaps even pleasurable. And as one raised (outside of Palestine) in some version of Judaism—with its emphasis on the Law—Paul was very much “convicted” with the idea that certain actions are “good,” other actions “bad.” Thus, when Paul recognized that when he had certain feelings, and those feelings made it easy for him to engage in “good” behaviors, he took notice: This is something which would make him feel excited and, indeed, feel that God was behind this. But in thinking of God’s being involved, and the fact that he had not actually seen God, he attributed the feeling to God’s Spirit—i.e., the Holy Spirit.

This is, of course, but a guess as to what went on in Paul’s mind, but for us moderns it is a very plausible guess. However, given that we are living in 2011 rather than the early part of the first century, the plausible explanation—for us—of what was happening to Paul is that certain internal processes were occurring in Paul, and that it was those internal processes that were directly responsible for Paul’s reactions.

Once we have come to understand (“perceive” might be a more apt term) Paul’s reactions in this light, we can ask: What caused these internal processes to occur? In asking this question, we are now asking a second-stage question, our “internal processes” answer being the answer to our first-stage question. In answering this second-stage question, I would suggest several possible answers:

  • A supernatural Being—i.e., God—may have chosen to cause those processes to occur within Paul, and they did (this involving no “input” from Paul).

  • Paul may have (in effect, if not actually) requested those processes to occur within him. For example, prayers by Paul may have been heard by God, Who then blessed Paul by causing those processes to occur in Paul.

  • Paul may have engaged in certain activities which happened to be causally connected to these internal processes, so that he inadvertently was himself responsible for the occurrence of those internal processes.

The modern (such as myself) might be especially attracted to this third explanation; one who is might then ask:

  • What, specifically, did Paul do to set in motion the chain of events that led him to the feelings/actions which he attributed to the Holy Spirit?

  • Are there certain activities that we moderns can engage in that will produce those “Pauline” feelings/actions in us?

Frankly, I am not interested in the first question—but some may be, and I encourage them to pursue that interest. My interest, rather, is in the second question; but before addressing that question I would like to point out that I am not asserting that our second-stage question here has a purely naturalistic answer. Rather, what I am saying is that:

  • I think that it would be foolish to simply rule out the possibility of supernatural intervention. I, for one, am puzzled by the mysteries of time, space, matter, and life, and fail to comprehend how anyone can say, with absolute confidence, that something (such as God) does not exist. I simply can’t “wrap my mind around” such a non-belief.

  • If it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of supernatural intervention, it is also foolish to rule out the possibility that the Pauline feelings/actions can have as another cause our own planned actions.

If one believes—as I do—that both causes can be involved, the implication is that various actions on our part can result in the Pauline feelings/actions, and that we should therefore experiment with various actions to find out what “works,” and what doesn’t. Note that if one only accepts the first explanation, one may very well be penalizing oneself—and others—which failure could be interpreted as sinful! Thus, I suggest that we accept the second position--either along with the first (those of us who are theists), or alone (those who are agnostics or atheists)—given the potential benefits associated with such acceptance—and I hope that the reader finds this suggestion liberating.

My own entry in this regard is the Structured Interaction Group (SIG), participation in which—I hypothesize—can result in “Spirit-filling” on the part of participants, with associated Pauline-type feelings/actions. See Chapter 8 in my eBook "What Are Churches For?" 1 I can provide no evidence in favor of the SIG, but am hoping that others will experiment with it, to determine if my hypothesis has merit.

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Reference used:

  1. Alton C Thompson "What are Churches For?," eBook, downloadable from Brave New World at:

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Copyright 2011 by the author
Originally posted: 2011-AUG-29
Latest update: 2011-AUG-29
Author: Alton C Thompson

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