Coop's Column - Spirit at Work: Exceptional
We focus on the Spirit’s work in creation—more specifically, on his act of creating each human being as a mirror of God.
Starting with the previous column, we are directing our attention for several weeks to the work of the Holy Spirit. I hope to highlight the Spirit’s special role when, in concert with the Father and the Son, he worked both to create and to redeem the world. Today we focus on the Spirit’s work in creation—more specifically, on his act of creating each human being as a mirror of God himself.
Scripture teaches that when God created the universe, the Spirit was present. He hovered over the formless void of the physical world (Gen. 1:2), and by his mighty wind (Hebrew ruach = wind, spirit) he gave shape to the vast expanse of the creation. “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:30). Thus, the physical universe has its origin and receives its form through the presence and activity of God’s Spirit.
And in an extraordinary manner God’s Spirit is active in creating human beings—each one unique and fashioned with exquisite care. Job’s friend, Elihu, confesses: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). The Holy Spirit breathes into each human being that which makes her or him a mirror image of God himself. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). About this entire process the psalmist rhapsodizes: “You have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5).
Human specialness needs declaring nowadays, given how pervasive and influential the philosophy of naturalism has become. Naturalism—and a sizeable contingent of evolutionary scientists who pay tribute to it—claims that human beings are of a piece with all other physical creatures. Nothing sets humans apart from anything else that exists. Writing in Harpers (June, 2011) to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, contemporary novelist Benjamin Hale expresses his bitter disgust at what he calls the Bible’s teaching on “human exceptionalism”—the notion that humans are set off from all other beings. The words of Psalm 8:5, says Hale, are nothing other than “beautifully written poison … [and] enrage me more than anything else in the Bible.” And why? Because, says Hale, “The psalm echoes Genesis 1:26, in which God makes man in his image … and puts all mortal creation beneath his feet.” This “anthropocentric ordering of the Judeo-Christian universe,” he claims, “… has fostered an attitude dominant in our culture that uncompromisingly divides ‘man’ from ‘beast.’”
Hale levels a final furious charge against the biblical testimony: “I read the Bible with fascination, awe, terror, and joy. Of all its poetry and philosophy, its darknesses and silences, and its great many gorgeous offenses, what I hate in it the most is its helping establish, in the Western philosophical tradition, the claim that [humans are special].”
This noxious cloud of naturalism heavily blankets our entire culture and threatens to choke from us an awareness of our God-conferred special calling and status. How refreshing and life-giving to be able to enter the “sanctuary” of the Lord’s presence on Sunday (cf. Ps. 73:17)! There the air is rich with the presence of God. There God’s Spirit brings fresh oxygen to our gasping souls. There we become reminded again about who we really are: (nothing less than) imagers of God himself and bearing ineradicable features of the Divine likeness. There we hear again of our incalculably high status and worth. There we hear Pope Benedict XVI’s prophetic message spoken directly to us: “We [humans] are not the product of some casual, arbitrary evolution. Each of us is a result of a thought of God. Each of us is loved. Each of us is willed. Each of us is necessary” (inaugural mass sermon, April 24, 2005). Reminded of this cardinal truth about ourselves, we begin to breathe deeply and freely again. We get something of a “second wind” to run the next leg of our journey.
It is in church—in the sanctuary of God’s presence and among fellow followers of Jesus—that we hear the Holy Spirit, our Creator, declaring to us: “You are exceptional.”
And in response we sing to the Triune God who made us—and to the Spirit, in particular—our prayer of acclamation and longing:
Creator Spirit, by whose aid, the world’s foundations first were laid;
Come visit every pious mind, come pour thy joys on humankind;
From sin and sorrow set us free and make thy temples worthy thee.