The Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life.” Elizabeth Johnson in her Ask the Beasts, having surveyed what Darwin’s theory of evolution actually says, seeks to connect the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to the ongoing creation of life.
Although God’s continuing presence in the cycle of life is part of biblical thought, theologians tended to deemphasize it over the centuries. She gives three reasons for this.
First, the adoption of Hellenistic categories gave us a hierarchical belief that spirit dominated matter. Theology became concerned more with the salvation of souls and not so much about the world of matter. She sees this corresponding to patriarchal system where men, who were supposedly more spiritual, dominated women, who in their child-bearing role were more entangled in the material world.
Second, in the middle ages the distinction between nature and grace became important. Nature was the state of man and the world apart from grace. Grace was about God’s love and offer of salvation. However, biblically the creation of the world is as much a matter of God’s love and grace as salvation. The distinction between nature and grace failed to hold creation and redemption together.
Third, from the Hebrew Bible we get a critique of nature religions with their attention to the cycle of nature and fertility. The Hebrew view was linear and historical. A beginning and an end rather than a recurring cycle figured more in Hebrew thought. This helped consign creation to the beginning and downplayed continuing creation. However, continuing creation is on display in many passages.
Johnson takes the view that the Holy Spirit is God’s presence everywhere and always creating new life. She talks about the image of spirit as wind, creating the world out of chaos, moving where it wills in Jesus talk with Nicodemus, and coming like a rushing wind at Pentecost. She talks also about the image of the spirit as water giving life to a thirsty land. In the Bible spirit is “poured out”. Then there is the image of spirit as fire from the burning bush to Pentecost. In addition, spirit is like a bird, a dove descending. As spirit creates nature so the images of spirit come from nature in a “poetic circle”. The images all speak to the pervasive and mysterious nature of God’s powerful presence in the world. Another idea about spirit is that it wisdom. Spirit endows the world with beauty and order like a wise craftswoman weaving a garment.
Unlike some writers about the immanence of God, Johnson does not undo the transcendence of God. The expansive presence of God in this world does not subsume all of God. The doctrine of the Trinity helps keep us from reducing God to immanence. But the Spirit as God’s creative presence does give us a robust idea of God’s involvement in creation all the time and in every place. So if you believe in God and also accept the evidence for evolution, you can view God’s creative presence as the basis of all life as it develops and changes.
Johnson has argued that the church’s thinking has moved away from including the natural world. She thinks we need to shift the mode of our thinking so that we can grasp the reality of the creative Spirit of God pervading and acting upon the biological world.
I am not sure I entirely agree with everything in this chapter. However, she does seem to avoid the major pitfalls that process thinkers, for instance, have not avoided. I am going to read more and reserve the right to critique some of this later.