Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Holy Spirit and spirit possession: parallels?

In a news article entitled “Spirit of Understanding,” the Presbyterian News Service writes about the San Francisco Theological Seminary’s T.V. More lectures and one of the speakers, Rev. James Noel who spoke comparatively on the Holy Spirit and spirit possession among various African religions. The subtitle of the article is, “Noel draws parallels between African spirit possession and the Christian doctrine of Holy Spirit.”
While this is only a news article and not the whole lecture, I nonetheless want to make some comments using Noel’s quotes placed in the article by the author Jerry L Van Marter. I always hesitate to do so when I cannot find the primary source. But since it isn’t posted and I think it is important I will do so.

According to Van Marter, Noel stated that “Christians have not discounted the reality of spirits but theologically evaluated them as evil or, at best, impediments to full conversion…” And Noel conjectured that, “This evaluation forecloses any comparison between the religious phenomenon of spirit possession and the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit or pneumatology.”

Noel gives a reason for wanting to view the two together. It is because he believes the slaves brought to the United States from Africa were comforted by their experience of possession since in an unfamiliar land they still experienced something familiar which they believed touched the unknown. Noel suggests that the only way one can understand the African beliefs and experiences is by comparing the two, the possession of spirits and the Holy Spirit.

Using the Old Testament account of the bands of prophets being possessed by the Holy Spirit, Noel likens it to the possession encountered by those in African religions. He goes own to speak of how the Spirit (And here I am not sure if I should capitalize Spirit.) speaks for national concerns. Noel then tries to identify the Spirit by quoting Abraham Eichrodt, “part of the nabis’ [gathering of prophets] power was focused not on individuals ‘but exhibited a strong pre-occupation with national concerns.’”

Noel continues:

The spirit was part of the drama unfolding on the stage of the Middle East’s geo-political history … We can discern, then, a tension in Christianity over whether the Holy Spirit is to be treated as an experiential and subjective or a conceptual and objective reality.
It is then suggested that there is a competing view of the Holy Spirit in the United States and a competing view of social justice. One view being to avoid the religious and focus only on politics and the other to focus on the Spirit as “a powerful force for justice.”

This last comment is seemingly an attempt to see the Holy Spirit as the leader of a movement to bring about social justice. However,  I want to look at some of the other thoughts which really accumulate in Noel’s statement that there is a tension in Christianity over whether the Holy Spirit is “to be treated as an experiential and subjective or a conceptual and objective reality.

So there are three problems: equating spirit possession with the Christian’s encounter with the Holy Spirit; using the example of the prophets in the Old Testament as an example of spirit possession since both are controlled by the spirit; and the suggestion that  there is a tension in Christianity about treating the Holy Spirit as an experiential and subjective reality or as a conceptual and objective reality. I want to look at these in order.

Equating spirit possession with possession by the Holy Spirit:

John S Mbiti, who was Professor of Religious Studies at Makerere University of Uganda and Director of the Ecumenical institute, Bossy, Switzerland,  in his excellent book African Religions and Philosophy explains that for most African tribal religions there is a difference between the “living dead” and spirits, but the difference is one of time and distance. The living dead are still known by the living. They are still part of the tribe or family. Spirits have moved into the realm of stranger, they are unknown. And Mbiti writes about the reaction of those who believe in such spirits:

Since the spirits have sunk into the horizon of the Zamani, they are within the state of collective immortality, relative to man’s position. They have no family or personal ties with human beings, and are no longer the living-dead. As such, people fear them although intrinsically the spirits are neither evil nor good. They have lost their human names, as far as men are concerned—i.e. those that once were human beings [some are divinities]. To men, therefore, the spirits are strangers, foreigners, outsiders, and in the category of ‘things.’ (78)

And as far as possession goes, for the most part, it is not welcomed although that is not always so. But the important point here is that the spirits cannot in any way be equated with the Holy Spirit. Spirits are supposedly humans who have died, who have entered the world of immortality and are therefore unknown. The Holy Spirit is personal, he knows and is known by the believer—the relationship is intimate. Going deeper the spirits know nothing of Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the believer is to lift up all that belongs to Christ.

Old Testament Prophets as an example of spirit possession:

When Noel speaks of bands of Prophets he is undoubtedly thinking of Saul among the prophets in 1 Samuel 10:9; 19:18-24 and the schools of prophets in 1 & 2 Kings. The ones in 1 Samuel are the stories of Saul being overcome by the Spirit of the Lord as he meets the prophets.  Saul’s first encounter with God’s Spirit and the Prophets is an affirmation that God has chosen him. In the last story Saul takes off his outer clothes and prophesied all night; that is, in a sense, a judgment on his disobedient and manipulative actions. He was attempting to kill David. None of this proves that the actual prophets were in anyway possessed and their will overthrown by the Spirit. They were certainly not possessed by spirits, but rather the Spirit of God rested on them.

On the other hand in the New Testament several people are possessed by demons and are totally controlled until Jesus or one of his disciples free them in the name of Jesus. Such African religious possession is much more like demon possession since the person is overpowered and controlled. Mbiti, after explaining that in African religion some possession is not always feared but used as a means of gathering information through mediums, continues:

 But on the whole, spirit possessions, especially unsolicited ones result in bad effects. They may cause severe torment, on the possessed person; the spirit may drive him away from his home so that he lives in the forests; it may cause him to jump into the fire and get himself burnt, to torture his body with sharp instruments, or even to do harm to other people. During the height of spirit possession, the individual in effect loses his own personality and acts in the context of the ‘personality’ of the spirit possessing him.

There is more, loss of sleep and health-enough to understand that such possession and the movement and work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life have no relationship whatsoever.

The suggestion that there is a tension in Christianity over how the Holy Spirit might be treated, as an experiential and subjective reality or a conceptual and objective reality:

The answer to this tension, if it is true, is that the Holy Spirit is both but neither. This is what I mean: The Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Trinity. Therefore the Holy Spirit is objective reality in that the Spirit is, as God is, separate and above humanity. On the other hand the Holy Spirit is a gift given to the believer by Christ and in turn the Holy Spirit lifts up all that Jesus Christ is. This is the subjective part, but undoubtedly not in the manner meant by Noel. Frederick Dale Bruner and William Hordern put it this way:

The work of the Holy Spirit is the honoring of Jesus Christ. The work of other spirits is the honoring of themselves or of other realities. We are not necessarily in the presence of the Holy Spirit when we are in the presence of a great deal of talk about the Holy Spirit. But wherever  a church or a person centers thoughtfully (that is biblically and evangelically) on honoring the person, teaching, and work of Jesus Christ, there we may be quite sure, we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit’s work is the thoughtful honoring of Christ. The Holy Spirit does not center on the Holy Spirit. [1]

That is to say, in the presence of the Holy Spirit we are experiencing Jesus Christ above all else. It is experience but only because it upholds all that we may biblically know of Christ. The Spirit is never the drama unfolding in history—a feature of Hegel’s dark thoughts. Rather the Spirit is that gift of the Father and the Son who coming to the church convicts the world “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ guiding Christ’s people to Christ who is truth.

[1] Fredrick Dale Bruner & William Hordern, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House 1984) 15.


will spotts said...

how remarkably disheartening

Viola Larson said...

Remarkably? Almost expected I think.

will spotts said...

I don't think people get exactly how extreme this claim is. That is what is remarkable to me.

Viola Larson said...

Oh, okay-I agree. But it really is the progressive view-that spirit belongs to all, and since they don't believe in evil spirits or demons and don't rightly or biblically understand the Holy Spirit or even the Trinity-it makes sense that this would be the outcome.