Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding The Holy Spirit in a Global Context
Jul 31, 2022
2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.
Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.
3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.
4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.
7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?
8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?
9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),
11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”
12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”
13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!
15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!
16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
18 Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.[a]
Let me pray for us.
Holy and Loving God, we give you thanks for bringing us here today. However we find ourselves this morning, whether we’re worried about something, anxious, excited, or sad or apathetic, we believe that you meet us here, right exactly where we are. And that you meet us with the exact measure of grace and mercy as we need it. So would you help us to know that, to feel that, that you move toward us and surround us with your presence and love right now, as we listen and speak into the word. Reveal to us, through your Holy Spirit. Amen.
My talk today has a really long title. It’s called, “Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding the Holy Spirit in a global context” It’s inspired by a book by a Korean-American theologian named Grace Ji-Sun Kim, titled Reimagining Spirit: Wind, Breath, and Vibration.
The Holy Spirit has always been a little left out of the Trinity throughout history. Christians believe in a Triune God, God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. It’s really hard to explain. It’s a mystery. Christians are monotheiest, meaning they believe in one God, but this one God has three “persons” that are interdependent and in interplay with one another. Some say the creation came to be out of the overflow of love out of trinity. Some try to describe it by saying it’s like three different forms of water, like God is ice, Jesus is water, and Holy Spirit is vapor. But even when it’s always been kind of tricky to explain this Holy Trinity, Christians time and time again have come back to this language to describe God because it is central to everything we believe. But like I said, Holy Spirit always kind of gets the backseat. It’s easier to explain God and Jesus and Holy Spirit is, it’s like this thing. It doesn’t even get as much airtime in all of Christian podcasts combined I bet.
They actually struggled with this in the 3rd century. There were heresies like that the trinity was hierarchical, God was here, Jesus middle, and Holy Spirit at the bottom, called the heresy of Subordination. And actually a whole slew of heresies surrounding the trinity came up again and again. And every time they settled, “hey Holy Spirit is a person too!” Why? Why did the early church, in light of God and Jesus always keep the Holy Spirit in the mix, even when it was confusing and even cause for muddling of their beliefs?
Well, so let’s talk about the Holy Spirit today. What is it? How can we understand it better? How can it help us understand God and how God works in our lives? And you know what’s a good way to talk about the Holy Spirit? Metaphor! Sorry that was a little inside joke for the weekly attenders because last week I mentioned how every time I preach, I’m just like, “hey it’s a metaphor.” But hey, that’s what we’ve got with God-talk things. And Jesus always spoke in parables. Which parables and metaphors are not JUST a symbol of the real thing, but a thing that reveals the “real thing” sometimes in a more accurate manner than simply defining it.
Jesus spoke in parables because it was truth set in context. Truth about God told in their own languages, about farming, oil candles, and brides. God-talk, religion, is always like this. It’s always set in context. Out of context, nothing makes sense. We understand one another more often than not because of some kind of shared context. Let me give you an example.
When I first started learning English, learning idioms was the most difficult thing. That and culture. It made no sense to me to hear that, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” There wasn’t a good explanation for that idiom. I just had to keep living and speak English to understand it. And culture. I didn’t understand, growing up, why The Simpsons was such a funny or great show because even though I knew English, I generally didn’t understand the show. Jeopardy intimidated me, not because I wasn’t smart, because I knew I was smart, but I was just simply left out of the inside joke, or inside knowledge.
I didn’t get the references. After learning English at my grade level proficiency, you know what I did to become “more American?” I read and memorized the Trivia Pursuit that we picked up from a garage sale. Q: What painter is most famous for his series of water lilies? Q: Who played Sally Rogers in the Dick Van Dyke Show? Every card I flipped made me feel more American.
Okay, why am I going on about this? I have a point I swear. I’ll get to what Holy Spirit is soon.
Here’s why I’m giving you all this context to talk about the Holy Spirit. Dr. Kim in the book I mentioned says this:
“These debates (about trinity and the Holy Spirit) were largely grounded on Greek philosophy, and they relied on these categories to debate, discuss, and learn about God. This continued into the Medieval period and through the Reformation. European influence has dominated all Western discourse about the nature of God and theTrinity for two millennia. Take the phrase, the “absolute dependence on God,” coined by Friedrick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). It makes sense in a Eurocentric theology, but less so for African or Asian theologies. For example, in Asia, where there is heavy influence and practice of Buddhism, one practices ‘emptying’ rather than ‘dependence’. Schleiermacher’s way of thinking does not resonate or appeal to this Asian ideology as effectively as it may for the European mind. Euro-theology has shaped and molded Christian thinking for the past two thousand years. It’s difficult to shake off this kind of thinking or to allow different types of thinking to have any kind of prominence. Christian theology has too often been an exclusive club for white, male, European theologians, without the necessary inclusion of minority voices and representation.”
When a person of color says things like this I think, it’s not anything against Europeans. I think Euro-centric thinking has contributed so much to christian theology. It’s “yes, and.” Yes, and.
Conversations like this also unveil the fact that the American Christianity that many if not most of you have heard about or been in and around, is set in a particular context. One of the first things I learned in seminary that really blew my mind is postmodernism. A fancy way of saying bluntly a really harsh truth that: “there is no objective reality.” And not even in christianity.
There is no objective way to say something. Everything we say about God is set in context. There’s another fancy word that’s used in theology, sitz im leben, which is German for “setting in life.” This phrase was so central, I swear, everytime I had a test question that I wasn’t sure about in seminary, when in doubt, I mentioned this phrase and I probably got the test question right.
It means that we need to distill everything we hear and learn through their sitz im leben, and then contextualize it to our own setting in life. How do we do that? Well, it’s hard. But there is so much that’s revealed in cross-cultural endeavors that many mono-cultured folks can’t help but have a need for backpacking trips through southeast Asia. It means that when you talk to someone from another country, the conversation slows down, not because they are slow, but because you’re in two different contexts.
You have to listen to things being explained like,
“In my country people….”
For me, being bi-cultural, American and Korean, has helped me so much in understanding Christianity and faith, something about the crossing of worlds between the ancient near east world of Jesus’ time and today’s world. That’s why there’s so many different translations of the Bible. And it can be said, they are all right.
So let me get to my translation of the Holy Spirit in my setting in life that has made a difference in my life. And for me to share it, is not a departure from scripture or “traditional” theology of the spirit because it is the spirit who lives and breathes through me that has given me this thinking. To see the Holy Spirit as Chi, which is the Chinese word for a kind of energy that flows through all of life, may feel like a jump to some but it feels like home for me.
I’m not Chinese but Chinese and Korean share a lot of history, they’re right next to each other. The Korean word would be Gi, but I just used Chi because more Americans are more familiar with Chi than Gi. See, I have to over explain. Asian American theologian Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim has helped me widen my theology. She talked about learning about the Holy Spirit through indiginous shamanism and through the understanding of vibration in science. She gave me permission to widen the box that God was in, that seemed to be bulging out at weird places and not working out for me.
And actually many people of color, and also many white people these days are decolonizing faith. That just means that they are unpacking faith, translating it for themselves, making it their own. Even European missionaries have come to realize this, that when the local indigenous people embrace Christianity with and through their already existing ideologies and cultures, rather than a complete do-over, it tends to “stick” more. I do believe that this is what happened in the Bible text that I read today about Pentecost. That’s what the power of the Holy Spirit does. It speaks to each of us in our own language.
The Spirit knows no bounds, no language, no culture. It moves in and through it all. And I’d like to point out that it makes it look like you’re doing something crazy.
Have you felt this way, for some of us who have been beginning to decolonize your faith? Others think you’re crazy. Concerned that you’re moving away from the faith. That you’re drunk on wine at 9am in the morning. What, women can be pastors? Gay people can be pastors? What!?
Christianity, I have something to say to you. This is how you survive the pluralistic postmodern world. We have to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the global context. Let the Spirit speak through all different languages just as it did on that FIRST day after Jesus ascended into heaven, Chapter 2 of Acts, the book that accounts the early history of the church. It’s not as much,
“get with the program”
as much as
“Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start.”
when the Spirit of God first blew through that room.
Do you know how good it feels to get the reference? Something that is familiar. That you resonate with. They did this in classical music, which is euro-centric but really a brilliant time period and place of a music genre. Composers will use a formula that worked so well. At the beginning of a song they will introduce a very simple melody line. And then throughout the course of the song Mozart would play variations of that line, faster, slower, in a different key, but the best part is when that melody line comes back in the pure form, and you recognize it, that’s when the audience ears perk up, and they smile, and relax, and enjoy and feel a kind of resolution, and it stays with them, that original line.
Seeing the Holy Spirit as Chi felt like that for me. The metaphors that worked at one time but failed to hold up at times – Greek philosophy, legal terms (think Calvin/reformation), and so on suddenly settled into my heart, mind, body, and soul like never before.
The Old Testament referred to the Spirit as Ruach, breath of God, and in the New Testament as pneuma, great metaphors of the life force in nature. Yes, And. Here’s what Dr. Kim said,
“An understanding of the association of chi with the Holy Spirit or identification of chi as the Holy Spirit enables us to learn that chi is divine and is the true healer of bodies. Chi has been and is continually being used in healing. Chinese emperors, philosophers, and physicians have understood healing with the movement of chi in the body. Most believed that illnesses occurred when one’s chi is blocked and therefore it was important to redirect the chi to flow within the body. In traditional Korean practice, these beliefs are still held. Hence the understanding of chi is fundamental to healing oneself.”
And what I needed wasn’t understanding but healing.
When I read Afrian-American Theologians like James Cone, in his beautiful beautiful book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” it would speak to me that what I needed wasn’t a savior but a liberator.
Maybe the Holy Spirit as Chi speaks to some of you in your own language. Or maybe some of you are like, Lydia’s drunk on wine and it’s only 10 am in the morning. But that’s why I speak up, as jumbled as my words get sometimes. As illogical, incomprehensible, and nonsensical I feel sometimes. I hope it’s recognizable to at least a few of you. Because I also know how it feels to be the person who never got the reference.
Whenever someone says anything in our church at Reservoir I hope, we say to ourselves.
“How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? American, Chinese, and Korean; as well as residents of South America, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, Africa, Mali, Liberia, and Ghana, Haiti and Caribbean Islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the regions of Mexico bordering Texas; and visitors from India, and indigenous people, and Millenials, Gen Z, those who are on the autism spectrum, who struggle with anxiety and depression, who are differently abled, rich, poor, barely middle class, different gender identities—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”
They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other,
“What does this mean?”
I pray that we continue to get surprised and bewildered, asking again and again,
“What does this mean?”
together. Let me pray for us.
Healing Spirit, that is always continually moving in and through us, reveal to us the power of your love and peace that surpasses all understanding, one that speaks specifically and uniquely to each of our understanding and being. Thank you for ever present power of the Holy Spirit, that greets us and meets us wherever we are, wherever we’re from, wherever we’re going. You are faithful. You are love. Help us know receive you we pray. Amen.