In the late 90s I worked at a summer camp way out in the woods in North Carolina. One night after a closing Bible study in an old army tent with my campers we switched off our flashlights and fell asleep in the quiet dark. Around midnight I was awoken by a sound like I had never heard before—a wild yipping, yapping, growling chorus echoing through the woods and getting louder and louder, louder and louder until this pack of coyotes was rushing like a tornado right through our campsite. I’ll never forget sitting there on my cot, my heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through me, my imagination running wild as I listened to them scampering, sniffing, howling, and tearing at one another just on the other side of the tent wall—feet away from me.
I wasn’t afraid of them—I knew we were safe in the tent, but they awakened some slumbering part of me. I wanted to step out of the safety of the tent, I wanted to howl back at them, I wanted to run with them through the woods. I realized that while I had many things that coyotes do not have, those coyotes still had something themselves that I was wanting. Maybe something I was not even able to comprehend. What was it?
The great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once wrote, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” That’s a Pentecost statement, I think, because Pentecost is about broadening the idea of what intelligent comprehension is. Intelligent comprehension is not just spread sheets and flow charts and facts and rational answers. There is another form of communication, one which we’re all capable of speaking in, and it’s not a barbaric language, not just the howlings of a drunken mob, not the “tale told by an idiot” that faith is often made out to be.
The Spirit has its own intelligence that even we Christians are sometimes regrettably alienated from. Now, why is that? Are we afraid that if we go out to “run with the wolves” we have more to lose than to gain? Are we afraid that we’ll look drunk or foolish or that we’ll be scorned? We’re suspicious of the intelligence of the Spirit and the language she speaks, I think. The intelligence of the Spirit is hot, hopeful, loose, faithful, wild, and wise. Can you even imagine such words being listed together as if they belonged to one another? Hot and hopeful? Loose and faithful? Wild and wise? The intelligence of Pentecost says YES to such unlikely pairings because Pentecost does not see any animosity between that which is virtuous and that which is exciting, between that which is rational and that which overflows the dams of rationality.
Within us, within all of us and within each of us, and within the universe itself there is a deep reservoir of spiritual intelligence that doesn’t do arithmetic, doesn’t exist to fill in the circles on a multiple-choice test, is not held back by what it has been told is known and what it has been told is possible. It does not hold to the rules and restrictions of the grammar of rationality—and yet it is intelligent and intelligible.
It is an intelligence that is drawn to the Mysteries that cannot be proved, but which are useful and powerful precisely because they cannot be proved. You cannot prove that life is worthwhile. It is an untestable theory. And if you are a person who cannot decipher the natural intelligence of the Spirit, if you are someone who cannot be inspired to hope in times of despair, to faith in the age of reason, and to love in a culture of contempt—then no matter how great your achievements may be they will feel empty because no one will be able to prove that they are meaningful, no one will be able to prove that they are anything more than the predetermined accidents of an empty existence in a meaningless universe. And so through the intelligence of the Spirit we are inspired to become a people not of certainty, but of conviction.
The intelligence of the Spirit longs to look out on the vistas of the great questions in life and never wants the view to the far horizon to be blocked off by an answer, by a dogma, or even by a reasonable interpretation offered too early or too eagerly. God goes all the way to the horizon! And how often we try to hem God in and make God logical and dry and conventional. But by the intelligence of the Spirit we learn how to step out of the way, how to inspire, and how to be inspired by the view that is beyond us.
I mean, My God! Look at what happened on Pentecost! There was fire in the air! Everybody thought they were drunk! They were speaking languages they shouldn’t have known! And a bit after where our reading ended this morning, we are told that after witnessing the events of Pentecost morning more than 3,000 people were baptized! What was it that moved them to give themselves over to God’s Spirit so completely? Was it decorum? Was it tradition? Was it some creed? Was it an answer at the back of the coursebook? No, no, no, no. It was the intelligent, palpable, wild heat of that morning. It was the men, the women, the people who let themselves be moved by it, who let the speech of their tongues, the hearing of their ears, and the intelligences of their hearts be transformed by it. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our church, must be experienced at levels deeper than what the rational mind can comprehend.
Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, defined three kinds of legitimate authority: traditional, rational, and charismatic. Traditional authority is upheld by doing things the way they have always been done according to custom. Rational authority is upheld by doing things according to the rules, following the proper procedures. Charismatic authority is based upon the power of personality—connecting deeply to the emotions, the desires, and the soul of the people. Weber said that the most unstable form of authority was charismatic authority because charismatic authority dies when the source of the charisma (the charismatic leader) dies, or the power is maintained but only by transforming charismatic authority into something else—into tradition or rationality.
And this, I think, is what has largely happened to the churches and to Pentecost. The birth of the Church was a charismatic miracle of the Holy Spirit. Many of the earliest Christians were drawn into the church because of the way that the Holy Spirit was allowed the freedom to connect them spiritually and viscerally to God and to their neighbors. But slowly that miracle was transformed from an ecstatic, heart-pounding, communal encounter with God’s Spirit into something much tamer, something much more staid, something much more reasonable. We’ve turned it into a story about church history, rather than living it out as the example of who we are and what we do in church today. We have forgotten that our charismatic leader is not dead, is not gone. The Holy Spirit is still here, still working among us. WE are the charismatic leaders of the church of today and tomorrow—that’s the invitation of Pentecost to the Church in all ages.
Of course, churches have traditions, and they should. Of course, churches have bylaws and politics and theologies and interpretations and explanations, as they must. But our traditions and our rules and our expectations have always been meant to recreate the opportunity for the world to have a charismatic, Holy Spirit encounter with the power of the resurrected Christ and the living God. Beloved, in church it’s not supposed to be Christmas all the time, it’s not supposed to be Easter every Sunday, but every day ought to be a little like Pentecost.
Instead, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been domesticated by the churches, and it is up to us to reintroduce ourselves to the wild. Pentecost is the birth of the Church and the model for what the churches ought to be—and the story of Pentecost makes clear we’re meant to be more Dionysian than Apollonian, more tent revival than chapel, more Burning Man than country club. The Holy Spirit is a special kind of chemistry between people, between God and us, between the Church and the world, and heat is the key ingredient to the chemical reaction we are hoping to incite.
We need fire. And how many of us can say that we have been set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and that the flames are spreading to the four corners of the globe? The poet Rumi advises us on this point, “Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you. Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion. Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
So, this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday is not a Sunday to be rational, circumspect, or decorous. It is not a Sunday for easy answers or for seeking salvation solely in the experiences of our spiritual forebears. Of this I am sure: meaning cannot be found in answers given to us or in experiences unlived by us. Meaning can only be found in wrestling with convictions, with community, with suffering, and with love. When it comes to meaning, answers are just placeholders—the finger pointing to the moon.
This is the other virtue of Weil’s words, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” Not only do her words encourage us to broaden our intelligence, they also decenter us and remind us that that which is most real, most important is beyond us—and if we’re smart and if we’re humble, we’ll pay attention to what is most real—that intelligence which leads us first to grace and then to fire.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations