Pentecost: A Human Sciences Perspective

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Next Sunday is Pentecost (Whitsun), the annual commemoration of how Jesus’ disciples experienced the Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. In this blog I want to suggest how the significance of that event can be understood from the perspective of the human sciences.

In doing this, I find the mature reflections about the coming of the Spirit in the ‘farewell discourses’ in John’s gospel more helpful than the narrative report by Luke in is Acts of the Apostles. For John, the key point is that the Spirit will dwell within the disciples in a new way, making his ‘home’ within them, guiding them into truth, comforting them, empowering them, helping them to find the right words etc.

I think it is helpful to put this in the context of the decline of an earlier animistic consciousness that experienced the Spirit as speaking through nature, for example experiencing hailstones as the wrath of God. That earlier mode of consciousness was already fading by the time of Jesus, leaving humanity with a sense of growing sense of ‘nature’ as devoid of Spirit. That sense has gone further with the ‘naturalism’ of modern times.

There is probably nothing to be done about the decline of animism, and Jesus makes no attempt to reverse the trend. One mode of spiritual experience is lost, but a new one develops to replace it. The concept of the Holy Spirit dwelling within seems to initiate a different mode of experiencing the Spirit.

In this new mode of spiritual consciousness, the Spirit is experienced as being within, rather than as speaking from without, through nature. In as far as modern humans know Spirit at all, it now has to be through inner experience. The reflections on the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel seem to be about this new mode of spiritual experience.

In taking this approach I want to acknowledge my debt to Owen Barfield, one of the Oxford ‘Inklings’, who included Tolkein, C S Lewis and Charles Williams; Barfield the most philosophical of the group. He was indebted himself for this approach to spiritual experience to the Austrian visionary and polymath, Rudolf Steiner.

Barfield makes the point that anyone tracing the way human consciousness evolved would observe a decline in one mode of spiritual experience and the birth of another, and that the crossover occurred about the time of Jesus.

He then suggests that Jesus was instrumental in the development of a new mode of spiritual consciousness that replaced animism, and that it was relevant not only to Jesus disciples but to how the whole of human consciousness evolved. That is a speculative linkage but, for some people, a compelling one.

For Jesus’ disciples, this new mode of spiritual experience was closely to their inner experience of Jesus after his crucifixion. He was no longer their everyday living companion and conversation partner, but they experienced him in a new, inner and more spiritual way.

There are similarities with how children, as they grow up, ‘internalise’ a sense of their parents presence and authority, even when the parents are not physically present. There is another analogy with the process by which, after bereavement, one partner in a couple who have been close, continues to experience their partner in a new, internalised way.

I am not suggesting that the way Jesus’ disciples continued to experience him after his crucifixion was ‘nothing but’ a process of internalisation; just that there is at least a helpful analogy between the two. The disciples’ inner experience of Jesus was a path-breaking example of the new inner mode of spiritual experience.

– Fraser Watts