Spirit & Sound, Part 2: The Breath Between Us

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 1: The Sound Breath Makes.]

I have spent the past few months thinking about what it means to say the Holy Spirit is the Breath of God. (For more about this, you may want to have a look at the first post in this series.) I’ve been writing about this theme in connection with the arts, not current events. But the Spirit (as Jesus says) blows where it pleases, and it’s seemed almost impossible to think about breath without also thinking about the conversations going on all around me.

On May 25th 2020, as I was just beginning to work on this particular essay, an African American man named George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The nation has been transfixed and horrified by the video of Floyd’s death—haunted both by his increasingly desperate pleas and the obvious indifference of the police officer to those pleas. In the weeks that have followed, Floyd’s final words—“I can’t breathe”—were taken up by millions of protesters around the world.

This response to George Floyd’s murder is poignant testimony to the relationship between breath, life, and voice. Take away someone’s breath, and you take not only his life, but his voice. And indeed, in the protests that spread across cities everywhere, activists demanded much more than that African Americans should be allowed to live. Signs and posters announced: “WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED;” “OUR VOICES WILL BE HEARD.” The loss of one’s voice (these protesters seem to say) leads to the loss of life, just as surely as the loss of life means the loss of one’s voice. Life and voice are bound up with one another. When violence accompanied some of the recent demonstrations, many were reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.s’ words: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”1 The title of the address from which this phrase is taken is “The Other America.” There are “literally two Americas,” King says, one of which “has failed to hear” the other.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America”

But of course (we might say), clearly, in this context “voice” and “hearing” are being used metaphorically. And that’s true. “Voice” and “hearing” mean more than generating and receiving sound; but neither do they mean any less than that. Life, and living together, means being present to one another’s sounding. The boundaries of a community are fixed, at least in part, by the reach of our voices, and when we are separated from one another’s sounding—indeed, when (as in the instance of George Floyd) we prevent the breath-life of another from reaching us—there is no possibility of shared life. Breath, life, and sound are bound up with one another. The protesters responding to George Floyd’s death want more than merely to be allowed to breathe; they want to be heard. And the rioters King mentions want more than to be heard; they want to be able to enter into “the fullness of life.”

The murder of George Floyd has occurred in the midst of another worldwide crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a lot the medical community still doesn’t know about COVID-19. One thing that we do know however is that both the spread and the effects of the disease are deeply connected with breath and breathing. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.

People get infected . . . by breathing in tiny liquid droplets containing virus particles. Those particles gain entry to the lungs, where they start reproducing themselves. If the immune system does not stop it . . . the virus causes so much damage that the lungs can no longer do their job.

“Briefing: Paths of Destruction. How SARS-CoV-2 causes disease and death in covid-19” in The Economist, June 6 edition

The suffering caused by the disease, however, extends far beyond those infected by the virus. The current pandemic has meant that in order to protect our own ability to breathe, we must shield and isolate ourselves from the breath of others. In-person meetings have been replaced with video-conferencing, Skype, and Zoom sessions. We are still able to see and hear one another, but we are no longer touched by one another’s breath. And we come away from these meetings slightly disoriented by the strange experience of having been present to one another without being in one another’s presence.

Return for a moment to the objection about “sound,” “voice,” and “breath” being metaphors only. We might consider the Zoom call as a kind of thought experiment, in which the metaphor is separated from the object behind and beneath it. The disorientation and dissatisfaction we feel may be some measure of the distance between hearing a voice and hearing a “voice.” Or perhaps it allows us to measure the volume of the empty space that remains when we have separated breath from sound; when mere “content” is distilled from “presence.” Breath, life, and sound are bound up with one another. The meaningful experience of sound is connected with presence and breath. The living of life includes the making of sound. The breath by which we draw life into ourselves is likewise the breath by which we move outside of ourselves, in the form of sound. Breath, life, and sound are bound up with one another.

All of which brings us back to the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek). And this Breath is (in the words of the Nicene Creed) both “the Giver of Life,” and the One “who has spoken through the prophets.” We might say then (with respect to this second work) that the Holy Spirit is “the Word-Bearer”—and that would be true. But the Holy Spirit is not only the author of words, but the generator of sound.

I may or may not agree with someone else’s analysis of a situation or the particular remedy they propose. What I cannot disagree with are their groans. These are too deep for words.

Steve Guthrie

Why emphasize that point particularly? The title “Sound Bringer” is awkward. (“Sound Maker” is even worse.) It’s not nearly so elegant as “Word Bearer.” But one reason it’s worth thinking about the Spirit as “Sound Bringer” is how readily many of us in the 21st century associate “speech” and “word” with text—with something static and silent. “Typographic folk,” says Walter Ong, “forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events.”2 But for most of the church’s history, the speech inspired by the Spirit (even inspired writing) was encountered first of all as a sounding word—an embodied word; a word that would speak of presence. Scripture gives us the image of “Breath/Wind” for God’s Spirit. And if we reflect carefully on that image given to us by scripture, it becomes clear that “Word Bringer” doesn’t mean “Text Sender;” still less “Idea/Concept Bringer.” If the Holy Spirit is the Breath of God then the word the Spirit brings is a sounding word.

This emphasis on sound opens up a few insights.

First, the Holy Spirit gives life, not only to humanity but to all that lives. There are not multiple sources of life, nor is it that human beings receive their life from God’s Spirit while the non-human creation receives life elsewhere.

All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath (Hebrew: ruach), they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit (Hebrew: ruach), they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

—Psalm 104:27-30

So all things receive their life from the Spirit. But because the Spirit is the Breath of God, in giving life, the Spirit also gives voice. The Spirit causes the created world to sound. As the Breath-Wind of the sounding Spirit moves in creation, it speaks through the prophets, but it also elicits sounding testimony from the trees, rocks, and waters. The Bible describes a creation that sings, mourns, shouts, groans, and declares. The Reformer John Calvin says that the “Book of Nature” is a text of exceptional clarity and eloquence: “on each of [God’s] works his glory is engraven with characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.”3 Indeed (he continues) nature is not only a text; it has a voice. So “the Psalmist attributes language to celestial objects, a language which all nations understand.” What this means is that human beings—we speakers of words, makers of sounds, possessors of voice—we are situated in a world that has its own voice, that makes its own sounds, that speaks its own word. God, by his Holy Spirit, has given us both life and a voice, but not us only. We are not the creators of reality. The world is not whatever we make of it. When we speak, whether as artists or in the business of everyday life, we do so in dialogue with a reality that is already sounding; a reality to which we should attend carefully. So, Job says: 

Ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; 
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath [ruach] of all mankind.

—Job 12:7-10

Augustine will echo this passage in a moving Easter sermon he preached sometime around 411: 

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air . . . question all these things. They all answer you, “Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.” Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?

—St. Augustine, Sermons, 241, Easter: c.411 A.D.

The sounding Spirit has given a voice to both the human and the non-human creation. That’s one thing we learn. The sounding Spirit also enables us to sound in ways other than words. That’s the second thing we can learn. 

Romans 8:22-26 is an eloquent testimony to the limits of eloquence; or perhaps better: it puts into words the limits of what can be put into words. The creation, Paul says, groans (v. 22) as it strains longingly toward its liberation. We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit likewise groan (v. 23), eagerly anticipating the completion of our redemption. And the Spirit as well “in the same way” (v. 26) prays for us “through wordless groans.” This passage tells us that ordinary words do not encompass the full range of meaningful sound, nor do they encompass the full range of the Spirit’s sounding activity. The Spirit prays with a sounding (“groaning”) that is meaningful. By this sounding the Spirit prays for and helps us. And yet this sounding falls outside or extends beyond the boundaries of ordinary words. These groanings are “unutterable” (alaletois)—“wordless” (NIV)—but that “wordless-ness” isn’t a deficiency or short-coming. Rather these are “sighs too deep for words” (NRSV).

This passage tells us what we already know: that we learn, that we come to know others and make ourselves known to others through sounds that are not words; through sighs, groans, laughter, and song. It tells us what we already know: that part of the meaning of a word is the sound of it. (And so we say: “It’s not what he said; it’s how he said it.”) This feature of our engagement with one another and with the world arises from our breath. And we have breath by the Holy Spirit, who is the Breath of God. 

All of this has huge implications for the artist particularly, but rather than focusing on that, I’d like to return again to where we started: to a man who couldn’t breathe, and a community that feels unheard. To a world of people sharing words without sharing breath.  

First, all of this reminds us that the Holy Spirit does not only speak, but groans. The Spirit groans on behalf of the groaning creation, and the groaning people of God. If we are people filled with the Spirit of God, then we will likewise be attentive not only to others’ words, but to their groaning. I may or may not agree with someone else’s analysis of a situation or the particular remedy they propose. What I cannot disagree with are their groans. These are too deep for words. If I am filled with the Spirit, then like the Spirit, beyond the words, beyond the debates, I groan with those who groan.

One of the great dangers of our particular historical moment. . . is that we are now able to share our words, without sharing our breath; we can present things to one another, without being present to one another.

Steve Guthrie

Second, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Life, we who are filled with the Spirit of God are also called to be People of Life—committed to life and its flourishing everywhere. If the Holy Spirit likewise gives humanity a voice, then we who are filled with the Spirit should be equally committed to allowing every voice to be heard. This is the will of God who gives breath to all creation. It doesn’t mean that everyone will use their voice well, any more than it means everyone will use their life well. But when voices are silenced, something given by the Spirit is taken away, just as surely as when a life is extinguished. In scripture, the Holy Spirit does not speak directly very often. Rather, the Spirit “speaks through” the prophets (2 Peter 1:21)—in the same way that the wind doesn’t sound on its own, but causes the sounding of the trees through which it blows. God does not often speak audibly from the heavens, but rather, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” It has pleased God to so make the world, that we should hear the word of God through one another’s voices. When we silence one another, we risk closing our ears to the voice of God.

Finally, it reminds us that (biblically), the word is only shared by the breath. The prophetic word of God, the written word of God—these both come by the agency of the Holy Spirit. In the same way Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit.” Apart from the breath, the Word remains dis-incarnate. Does that matter? Couldn’t God have just sent us the text of the Sermon on the Mount, and saved himself all the trouble of incarnation? No—because it is only by the breath of God in our midst that the Word becomes God with us. One of the great dangers of our particular historical moment, and one reason—I’m convinced—for the isolation and polarization that so marks our culture, is that we are now able to share our words, without sharing our breath; we can present things to one another, without being present to one another.

Of course, there is a place for texts, blogs, articles (like this one!), and so on. Paul wrote letters to the New Testament church. But God has made humanity so that by our speaking we likewise share one another’s breath, and so one another’s life. “Breath” and “life” in this context (it seems to me) are more than metaphor; more than some extraneous form which can be disposed of, provided that the content gets across. This in fact is how God has related to us—sharing with us not just some information, but God’s own Word, carried by God’s own Breath, which is therefore, God’s own presence. At this particular moment in the life of our world, it seems vital that we be people of the Spirit in just this way.

Featured image: “Breath of God” by Deb Brown Maher

[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 3: God in Motion.]

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America”
  2. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, 32.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.5.1.

Dr. Steve Guthrie is Professor of Theology at Belmont University, a Rabbit Room board member and Hutchmoot speaker, and also was for many years a member of a Beatles cover band (which we don't hold against him).


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