Editor’s note: In his doctoral dissertation, Pastor Pat Bailey of Telluride’s Christ Presbyterian Church is claiming the need for a re-visioning of the Christian church’s theology and its understanding of mission, the need for a more natural, integrative theology and for an earth-focused, contextual approach to mission. To that end, he is reviewing the theology of three contemporary theologians whose thought is very integrative of Nature and Spirit from three very different approaches. His current focus is the thought of post-modern theologian Mark I. Wallace. This blog is part of a weekly series.

Pastor Pat Bailey in front his church

Pastor Pat Bailey

Wallace wants to recover the biblical figurations of Spirit as various aspects of Nature, and in doing so, he imagines the Spirit itself as a “life-form”:

The Spirit reveals herself in the biblical literatures as a life-form, who labors to create, sustain, and renew humans and otherkind in solidarity with one another.  An earth-based understanding of the spirit will not domesticate the Spirit by locating her activity simply alongside nature; rather, nature itself in all its variety and diversity will be construed as the primary mode of being for the Spirit’s work in the world.  In this framework, the earth’s waters and winds and birds and fires will be regarded not merely as symbols of the Spirit, but rather as sharing in her very being as the sprit is enfleshed and embodied through natural organisms and processes.

By this bold language, Wallace intends to break the spell of metaphysical notions that associate the Spirit with such universals as intellect, consciousness, or being.  So the Spirit is imagined not only as indwelling Nature as a interanimating force, but as a natural, living being who co-inhabits all the entities of Nature.  The Spirit, then, is enfleshed in earth, Nature, and all their particular entities.

It is helpful to consider what Wallace is trying to counter by this description of Spirit as a life-form.  A common depiction of the Spirit in Christian discourse is as a sort of heavenly phantom or ghost, which sets the Spirit over against material reality and earthly, embodied existence.  Wallace renders materiality to the Spirit by its enfleshment in the particular entities of Nature and so its interpenetration with all of Nature.  The Spirit’s presence, then, is all pervasive, and “Nature itself in all its many manifestations is to be understood as the primary mode of being for the Spirit’s work in the biosphere.”

Wallace is also seeking to counter metaphysical conceptions of the Spirit in terms of universal ideals and foundational certitudes, and, so, he considers the figuring of Spirit as “a wholly enfleshed life-form who engenders healing and renewal throughout the abiotic and biotic orders” to be more true to the biblical witness of the Christian tradition.  Through engagement with the images carried in scripture and tradition and engagement with the late-modern context, Wallace risks the constructive task and offers a positive interpretation of the Spirit’s presence and work in the world that is startling, pragmatically efficacious, and inspiring.  His naming of the Spirit, like all naming, is never the thing itself and can never remove the ultimate mystery of the Other.  What his naming provides, though, is the invitation to find God everywhere.


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