Some thoughtful questions about flames, zebras and a rope—Pentecost Sunday 2018

A fiery, pentecostal arrangement of flowers by my wife Susanna

Some thoughtful questions about flames, zebras and a rope—Pentecost Sunday 2018

Today is Pentecost Sunday and, in most churches, the event it commemorates will simply be marked as if we have a clear idea of what it is we are celebrating, namely, the passing on of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection and thence, through the millennia, the passing on of the (exact) same Holy Spirit on to us. However, as I sat down to write this address I realised the need to confess that I have never known what this really means and I still don’t know today.

Oh, to be sure, I’m perfectly able to weave interesting and, at times perhaps, even moderately persuasive, metaphorical, metaphysical sounding addresses about the Pentecost event but, as I looked back this week at the ones I have written for you over the years all of them seem, in the end, to speak more of my own basic lack of clarity and ignorance than anything else.

Anyway, it was painfully clear to me this year that a different kind of thoughtful questioning was required and it is in this spirit that I now begin, even if this beginning sounds as if it has nothing to do with Pentecost at all . . .

Imagine yourself looking at a equine like black and white striped creature — how can you be sure that you are in the presence of a zebra and not a donkey expertly painted black and white?

Well, were you in a reputable national zoo and you came upon the monochrome creature and its associated information board saying “Zebra” there would be good reason to believe there was, indeed, a zebra standing in the compound before you. However, were you at some dodgy, make-shift fair and you came across another black and white animal and its associated information board saying “Zebra” you might well be inclined to be more suspicious. Immediate context is here vital, but it’s not everything — after all even the most “reputable” zoo could be suffering extreme financial difficulties and to have decided it needed to create fake zebras to pull the punters in. Ultimately, of course, you could only be sufficiently sure you were in the presence of an actual zebra by undertaking a physical examination of the creature before you and then comparing it directly with another creature which — thanks to a long scientific study of such things — you already knew was a zebra. But without zoological skills you’d need to engage a reputable zoologist to do the job for you.

But then how could you be absolutely sure that the zoologist you got hold of was trustworthy and had had passed on to them the appropriate skills and knowledge?  Well, you’d have to take references, check the zoologist’s peer-reviewed research and also the quality of the institution where they trained and have worked and so on and so forth.

In every case of our believing the sign which says the creature before us is a zebra (or the person before us is a reputable zoologist) there is in play a trust in (a reliance upon) some kind of extended, corporate process and institution. In the case of zebras and zoologists it is trust in (reliance upon) a constantly peer-reviewed set of overlapping scientific processes and disciplines curated and nurtured by educationally orientated, overlapping institutions such as zoos, universities, scientific journals which have been engaged in research over the course of many years.

Now what on earth has this observation got to do with Pentecost? Well it’s relatively simple. How would you know that the phenomenon called the Holy Spirit which you think you are either experiencing directly or being told is present in this or that church community (such as this one) is the same Holy Spirit spoken of in the book of Acts?

One thing is for sure, you cannot go back and compare it with a specimen of the original flame which putatively burned on the heads of the first disciples. Now add to that the fact that no one — at least no one alive — has ever seen such a phenomenon. Consequently, if we are to take this story as being in any sense “true (enough)” then we have to take it not only through and though on trust but as being though and through metaphorical. And now think about that — comparing actual zebras with actual other zebras, or actual flames with actual other flames may be possible but how does one go about meaningfully comparing the metaphor of the Holy Spirit as a flame with another metaphor of the Holy Spirit as a flame, i.e. how does one compare a flame which doesn’t exist (except as a metaphor) with another flame that doesn’t exist (except as a metaphor)?

The sheer number of different and often conflicting Christian communities and churches that have claimed, and still claim that they alone have had passed on to them the real, authentic Holy Spirit reveals the seeming impossibility of there being any way to decide the truth of the claim of this of any other church.

Given this fact, plus the fact that there is no original Pentecost flame to check against what is being claimed to be a modern, if metaphorical Pentecostal flame, what on earth is the point of going on about the passing on of the Holy Spirit at all, let alone having a Pentecost communion service to celebrate its coming to the first disciples and our sense of it being meaningfully passed on to us?

Surely, everything I say in this address (and anything said in any address by any other person in any other church) is, today, likely be no more than the equivalent of a dodgy, fair-ground owner trying to charge you twenty-quid (or whatever you put in the collection) to see a donkey painted as a zebra?

I think this is often probably true although, in the end, I find  I need (or must) be slightly more charitable than this and say that not all people giving an address today on the theme Pentecost are dodgy fair-ground owners but mostly people who honestly believe their black and white painted donkey is a zebra.

Well, today in connection with the Pentecostal flame I’m going to try to avoid these traps by not giving you anything like the usual Pentecost story. Having said that, caveat emptor — buyer beware. Remember when it comes to what people standing at lecterns in churches say it’s best to remain highly skeptical about everything which is said — as Karl Marx (following Descartes) once said to have said, de omnibus dubitandum, “question everything”.

All these thoughts helped me realise that it was important to be clear that I am not claiming — because I can’t claim — that today we (I) in this church have inherited the Pentecostal flame as was experienced by the first disciples — whatever that mysterious phenomenon was. My claim today is way, way, way more modest and perhaps, in the end to some, even a little dull and unexciting.

Perhaps the most important thing to observe is that we nearly always misunderstand what it is meaningfully to inherit something we call a tradition — in our case today a Christian tradition that understands its formal beginnings in terms of a first-century CE story about the arrival of the Pentecostal flame.

In order meaningfully and truthfully to inherit this tradition ourselves it’s important to see that — despite claims to the contrary — we don’t need to have this Pentecostal “flame” passed on to us from the past in what we imagine might have been its perfect, full and fiery form. Again, despite claims to the contrary, neither do we need to have the tradition passed on to us in the form of something we call “a golden thread” — i.e. as a single, thin thread of Pentecostal fire that we imagine stretches unbroken from the start of things right down to this very time and very place.

As I understand it the Pentecostal flame (i.e. the tradition) is passed on to us in a more understandable, realistic and down to earth fashion and the image which best expresses what I mean is borrowed from Wittgenstein and is found in his so called “Brown Book” which consists of notes made from his lectures of the academic year 1934–1935:

We find that what connects all the cases of comparing [i.e. the use we make of the word ‘comparing’ (p. 86)] is a vast number of overlapping similarities, and as soon as we see this, we feel no longer compelled to say that there must be some one feature common to them all. What ties the ship to the wharf is a rope, and the rope consists of fibres, but it does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to the other, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping. (Wittgenstein, The Brown Book p. 87)     

So, again as I understand it, there is no single Pentecost flame passed unbroken on to us in our Pentecost celebrations. Rather what is being directly passed on to us is simply the last set of a vast number of overlapping, peer-reviewed fiery fibres, namely the conscientious people who went before us who together tried to live in what they, and we, are still minded to call the same, fiery spirit of Jesus and the first disciples; the fiery, creative, transformative spirit of love, justice, compassion, inclusivity and forgiveness.

In my mind — at least for today — the words “Holy Spirit” or Pentecostal “flame” may best be understood as acting for us as a rope that ties our particular community’s ship to the wharf of Jesus and the first Christian communities. In fact our use of all Christian language may best be understood as acting simply as a rope. It doesn’t give us exclusive claim upon having received some putative, unbroken Christian truth from the past but it does give our own modern barque of faith a meaningful and secure (enough) link to an ancient wharf.

As Wittgenstein realised this also means — despite claims to the contrary made by orthodox Christian churches — that there simply need not be some unbroken golden thread, one simple feature common to Jesus, the early disciples and any subsequent generation of people such as our own in order to be meaningfully connected with each other in the same tradition as parts of the same rope.

[So, for example — and speaking purely personally — it’s almost certain that I don’t believe in the same kind of God in whom Jesus believed. In fact I don’t find the idea of there being some kind of literal, theistic kind of Father God at all persuasive — if indeed that’s what Jesus believed. But, having said that, when I read the accounts of Jesus’ compassionate, radical, egalitarian teaching and ministry, I’m still inspired, set alight, by what I want to call the flame of his example, by what the tradition calls the Pentecostal flame, which has been passed down to me via the overlapping strands of countless men and women who, it seems, felt a similar inspiration to me.]

This may mean that to some people that all the foregoing only goes to prove I am, indeed, a dodgy fair-ground owner, not one charging you twenty quid to see a donkey painted as a zebra, but one offering you a rope of tradition that is being called the Pentecostal flame. A mere fraudster! But, as I understand it — at least this morning — whilst a donkey is not zebra, the rope of tradition is what is meant when we talk about the Pentecostal flame.

However, as I have already said once in this address, caveat emptor, buyer beware. It’s up to you to decide whether you find my train of thought persuasive or not.



The table ready for the communion service