[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 2: The Breath Between Us.]
We believe in the Holy Spirit,—Nicene Creed
The Lord, the Giver of Life,
Who proceeds from the Father (and the Son)
Toward the beginning of the current pandemic, an article appeared in Wired magazine, its title articulating a subtle but meaningful distinction. It read: “They Say Coronavirus Isn’t Airborne—but It’s Definitely Borne By Air.”1
What on earth does that mean?
Let me try to translate that title into a slightly less gnomic form:
To the best of our knowledge, it seems coronavirus cannot live on for an extended period of time, freely floating about in the air around us. However, the virus can be and is transmitted when microscopic droplets from the lungs are carried on the air, through, for instance, a cough or a sneeze.
I’ll spare you an extended quotation from the same article, describing the actual journey of these contagions from the lungs of one person to those of another. The upshot however could be summarized in a slightly altered form of the article’s title: “The Coronavirus isn’t Airborne, but it is borne by Breath.” The work of breath, that is to say, is to take what is living in one, and to cause it to reside and grow in another. Let me repeat that: the work of breath is to take what is living in one, and to cause it to reside and grow in another.
Some of you—perhaps particularly those who have suffered under many years of children’s sermons—may already have detected a metaphor gestating in these words. And you would be correct. But while this is metaphor, it isn’t “mere metaphor.” Instead, we’re riffing on the very image that scripture gives us. Spirit means breath, or wind. (For more on this, see the first or second articles in this series.) The Nicene Creed says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” And as the article from Wired reminds us, this “procession” is one more way that the Holy Spirit is breath-like. When you and I are sitting together talking, my breath moves from my inner being, out toward you. More broadly, breath takes what originates inside one person (sounds, ideas, words . . . or viruses), and carries it to the inside of another person. This is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit as well. The Spirit takes the good things that live in God and causes them to live in me—whether that is life, or holiness, or knowledge, or power. So, Jesus tells his disciples: “All that belongs to the Father is mine,” and what is more, “the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:14-15) So the Spirit receives what the Son has received from the Father, and makes it available to us. We see this happen just a little later in John’s gospel, after the resurrection. Jesus, like God in the Garden of Eden, breathes on his disciples, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). The very life of God in the person of Jesus Christ is now carried, by the Breath of God, to live in Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit proceeds. He is (in the words of British theologian John Taylor) “the Go-Between” God;” The Holy Spirit is God in motion.
The work of breath is to take what is living in one, and to cause it to reside and grow in another.Steve Guthrie
We could even say that the Holy Spirit is the divine person whose very being is to “proceed”—this is the very nature of breath. And if the Holy Spirit is fully God (as Christians confess), then this giving, flowing outward, and moving beyond God’s own self that we’re describing is not something extra or “external” to God. It is not just something that God “does.” Rather this outward movement is who God is. And remarkably, this is also one way that God has created us in his image. We also are beings who exhale—whose very being includes “procession.” It didn’t have to be that way. We could hypothetically imagine a different kind of world, in which only God breathes out, and human beings only breathe in. But God has made us like himself with respect to procession. We can only continue living if we both inhale, and also, exhale. If we were to refuse to “proceed” in this way—if we were to try to live wholly enclosed within ourselves, resisting any outward movement—we would die.
Interestingly enough, these same ideas about breath, procession—and infection!—are echoed in one of the most famous modern theories of art. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy defined art in this way:
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.—Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897)
Like the Spirit who gives us life, we have our being by exhaling, and allowing what is deep within us to move out beyond ourselves.Steve Guthrie
The image Tolstoy uses is so striking that his theory of art is sometimes called “Art as Infection!” Tolstoy uses the metaphor of infection over and over again throughout his treatise. Art comes about (he argues) when that which is “deepest inside” the artist is transferred to some external media (a canvas, a melody, an arrangement of syllables). Another person then comes into direct contact with that media, like a person placing her hand on a germ-laden doorknob. (Apologies for the “ick” factor in all of this.) And finally, as a result of her contact with that “contagion,” the same feeling that once resided deep inside the artist comes to live deep inside the viewer, listener, or reader. There are all sorts of problems with Tolstoy’s theory of art. (When I listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy perform a Mozart piano concerto, am I really feeling the same thing Mozart felt when he composed it? Or am I feeling the same thing that Ashkenazy is feeling when he performs it? Or am I feeling the same thing that the conductor of the orchestra is feeling? And, more to the point, how would I ever be able to determine whether any one of those and I were feeling the exact same thing anyway?) But there is something in Tolstoy’s theory of art. In the human impulse to create, we see some echo of God’s own being. God has created us to proceed. Like the Spirit who gives us life, we have our being by exhaling, and allowing what is deep within us to move out beyond ourselves.
There is something more that the word “procession” highlights for us: the Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life, but not in the way that a doctor is the giver of medicine. (Can you tell that I’m kind of stuck on the whole infection thing?) The doctor provides access to some healing power that is other than herself; but the Holy Spirit is himself the life he gives. We do not live from some power that God gives and that we then have apart from God. Indeed—“If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all humanity would perish together and mankind would return to the dust.” (Job 34:14) We live from God himself. God is the life that is in us, because there is no source of life but God. God doesn’t send us life the way a shipping clerk sends us a package. No; God himself, in the person of his Holy Spirit, proceeds. The fourth-century theologian Didymus the Blind writes:
the Holy Spirit is the fullness of the gifts of God, and . . . the goods bestowed by God are nothing other than the subsistent Holy Spirit. For it is this fountain that pours forth all benefits received by the grace of God’s gifts.—Didymus the Blind, “On the Holy Spirit,” II
God’s Breath is in fact God’s presence with us.
And again, it is the sounding world—the world of movement initiated by breath or borne by wind—that helps us to understand the very distinctive way that breath manifests another’s presence. First of all, sound comes to meet us. I can, to a certain extent, control what is visually present to me. I can actively direct my gaze, looking here and not there. But I am addressed by sound, whether I choose to be or not. I can turn my head away from an unwelcome sight, but I cannot turn my ears away from an unwelcome sound. We have eyelids, but (as someone has observed), no earlids. Likewise, I can see something whether it is alive or dead, whether it is moving or not. But sound necessarily speaks of life, activity, and motion. Think of being in the woods on a dark evening. You hear a sound and you’re suddenly on high alert, because something (or someone!) is moving out there. Because sound is evanescent (it doesn’t just hang around “on its own”) anytime we hear a sound we also infer the presence of someone or something making the sound. Walter Ong writes that “ound signals the present use of power, since sound must be in active production in order to exist at all. . . . [Sound] tells us that something is going on.”2
This in itself, it seems to me, is one point at which reflecting on the breath-like character of the Spirit is helpful. When we are met by breath we are addressed, approached, by the activity of another, that proceeds toward us. Spirit-uality then is not simply adopting a different perspective on things, nor is it simply getting in touch with my own inwardness. Rather, breath meets me from outside, in its liveliness and livingness. It is not under my control. “You do not know where [the Spirit] comes from or where it is going,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. (John 3:8) We do not become spiritual by (as it were) proceeding to a place of Spirit. Rather, it is God’s Spirit who proceeds to us.
Sound necessarily speaks of life, activity, and motion.Steve Guthrie
Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in this same verse remind us of one other thing that is distinctive to the kind of presence manifested by sound. “You hear [the wind’s] sound,” Jesus says, “but you cannot tell where it comes from.” Sound, in other words, makes that which is unseen available to our senses. “An inquiry into the auditory is also an inquiry into the invisible,” writes the philosopher Don Ihde.3 In John 3, Jesus appeals to the sounding of the wind, in part to remind Nicodemus that there are powerful forces at work in the world; some of which are seen, but some of which are not. The sounding world has the power to remind us of that still. And of course, this is equally true in our relationships with one another. There are deep things “inside” of me that are unseen and unknown to you, just as there are deep things inside of you that remain invisible to me. (“For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit [Gk. pneuma] within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit [Gk. pneuma] of God.” [1 Cor. 2:11]) My thoughts, like my breath, are within me and not available to anyone else, unless by that same breath they proceed toward another, making known what would have otherwise remained hidden.
This, it seems to me, helps account for why “sounding arts”—spoken word and poetry, theater, and especially music—move us as deeply as they do, and why they feature so prominently in Christian worship. They speak of presence. Moreover, they make available to our senses something that is unseen. For it is not only God who is mysterious and invisible. There are ways in which we remain unseen and unknown to one another as well—this is Paul’s point in the passage just quoted—unless we make ourselves known to one another. And indeed, God has so made us that we may do just that, proceeding, from one toward another by the breath given us by God’s own proceeding Breath.
As I look back over this article, it feels as if my own (figurative) breath has traveled some considerable distance, and along a somewhat winding path! And I would like it very much if “the thoughts that are in me” might be known—not just to my own spirit, as Paul says, but to all of you as well! So I’ll conclude, not with a rhetorical flourish, but with a few bullet points summarizing the main points I hoped to make.
- The Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, is breath-like, not only in giving life and sound, but also in that the Spirit proceeds.
- This is the work of the Spirit: to take what is in God and carry it out into creation; to bring what is “inside” of God to the “inside” of me.
- This is also one of the ways in which we are made in God’s image. We too can only live (or live fully) by “proceeding” out beyond ourselves.
- One particularly powerful and effective way that this sort of “proceeding” happens—one way that the things in me can come to live in another—is through the arts. This was Tolstoy’s conviction, and it is almost certainly correct.
- When we say that the Spirit proceeds, we are saying that God himself comes to us. God does not send us supply shipments, but his own self. This is again, another way that the Spirit is breath-like. Breath communicates presence.
- Music, theater, and spoken word, the arts of sound, are especially good at helping us to understand what is distinctive about the kind of presence that is manifested by breath.
- First of all, sound comes to us; addresses us. It is not under our control in the way that the visible world is.
- Secondly, sound makes sensible what is unseen.
- These two features of sounding presence can help us understand why music is such a powerful means of engaging with God and with one another. God and human beings are both personal realities, and persons—whether human or divine—cannot be known through examination. A person must come to us. A person must give him or herself in order to be known. Through breath, we give ourselves to one another.
- Roxanne Khamsi, “They Say Coronavirus Isn’t Airborne – But It’s Definitely Borne by the Air.” Wired Magazine, March 14, 2020.
- Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 112-13.
- Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenology of Sound, 2nd ed. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007), 51.
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).