Gott ist gegenwärtig [God himself is present]. Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Menden, Germany

When we got our mail out of quarantine earlier this week, a little volume by Krister Stendahl titled Energy for Life: Reflections on the Theme “Come Holy Spirit — Renew the Whole Creation” tumbled out. Perhaps I should explain. The mail wasn’t directed to self-isolate by the Sangamon County Public Health Department, of course, but we let it stack up in the garage for several days before we take it inside (here’s why). That way we can be pretty sure no stray COVID-19 viruses are still clinging to it. It’s all getting to be part of our “new normal.”

Stendahl was a interesting guy. An ordained priest (präst) or pastor of the Lutheran state Church of Sweden, at various times he made his name as a New Testament scholar, dean of Harvard Divinity School and bishop of Stockholm back in Sweden. He was big on ecumenical relations, and in Stockholm he was responsible for first getting women ordained in the state church. In America, he was so supportive of that first generation of women who studied at Harvard Divinity, they called him “Sister Krister.” It was, of course, a compliment.

With all those responsibilities putting demands on his time, Stendahl didn’t write very much. But when he did, it was always worth reading. As the cliche goes, if I heard he carved a sentence on a watermelon somewhere, I’d drop everything to go find out what he’d said.

So when Energy for Life fell out of our stack of mail, I read it right away. It was written in advance of the 1991 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, on the theme “Come, Holy Spirit — Renew the Whole Creation.” Parts of it were remarkably prescient, like this:

When we read that story [of the flood, God’s covenant with Noah and the rainbow sign] in the 1990s we are haunted by the afterthought: God has promised it all right and that unconditionally — but did the writer of the holy text ever fathom that human beings could themselves trigger global destruction? (23)

But mostly it was about the Holy Spirit.

The bible begins, Stendahl reminds us, with the spirit of God hovering over the waters (in some translations). And it ends, in the last chapter of the book of Revelation, with, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ / And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come’.” The gospel of St. John and the letters of St. Paul, he also reminds us, are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Adam was created, Stendahl adds, in the image of God, and we — all human beings, as Adam’s descendants — are created in that image (the imagio dei). As Stendahl explains it, it’s an image of glory (the Greek word is (doxa, which has a range of meanings, all of them worth thinking about, from opinion and brightness to the glory of the Lord). Stendahl cites 2 Corinthians 3:18, a passage that was read at his funeral:

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

In this, Stendahl hears echoes of the Eastern Orthodox idea of “glorification,” or theosis, whereby “every [person] in whom Christ lives partakes of the glory of Christ,” as Wikipedia puts it (paraphrasing St. John Chrysostom). All of this gets into theological deep waters, and it’s more in the mainstream of Eastern Orthodoxy than my own faith tradition. But it connects with something that struck a very deep chord with me when I was visiting Alaska and got interested in the Russian Orthodox mission there. The Very Rev. Michael J. Oleksa of Anchorage, who has written extensively on Alaska history and the Russians’ interaction with Native cultures, once wrote:

Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, but they are pan-en-theists. The universe, taken as a whole, is not God, but He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” It is His will, His presence, His power that creates and sustains everything and everyone at any given time. Creation is not only an event in the distant past but the reality of each passing moment. “Grace” is not a supernatural substance, “amazing” or otherwise, transmitted to the otherwise graceless world by certain religious actions or under certain liturgical circumstances, but the very energies, the action of God in the world. All is Grace.

I’d never heard of panentheism before, and I associated pantheism (without the “-en-” in the middle) mostly with Native shamans. But Fr. Oleksa’s article on “Cosmic Christianity” in Alaska resonated with me. And since then, I’ve learned that theosis is also present in the western traditions. Call it a relative minor, an A-minor, as it were, in the western Catholic and Protestant C-major chord progression. But it’s there.

It’s there in the early church, in St. Athanasius of Alexandria (as quoted by Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, “The Son of God became man that we might become god. . . . [It is] becoming by grace what God is by nature.” Also known as divinization (by Wikipedia, for example), it’s echoed, in one form or another, by mystical writers like Meister Ekhart and St. John of the Cross … as well as Protestants like Lancelot Andrewes and John Wesley. It’s even there in Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And it’s also there in Martin Luther, again as a minor chord in the overall progression. In recent years Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki and other Lutheran scholars have returned to this idea of theosis in dialog with Russian Orthodox theologians. Mannermaa’s paraphrase of Luther states that: “When a human being believes in Christ, Christ is present, in the very fullness of his divine and human nature, in that faith itself.” While it’s controversial, I think Mannermaa and the Finns are onto something, and I’ve blogged about it (see directories HERE and HERE). So I was fascinated to see Krister Stendahl endorse it.

In Energy for Life, Stendahl anchors his discussion not only in St. Paul’s passage in 2 Corinthians on the imago dei but also in “a hymn much beloved in my tradition, written by one of the spiritual teachers of the eighteenth century in Germany, Gerhard Tersteegen.”

The hymn, Gott ist gegenwärtig, is usually translated into English as “God Himself is Present.” Tersteegen was a pietist, a German Protestant who sought a personal relationship with God without paying much attention to German Reformed or Lutheran dogma, either one. He left the Reformed church, and his hymn, Gud är mitt ibland oss in Swedish, first got into Stendahl’s hymn tradition by way of unofficial 19th-century pietist songbooks.

Stehdahl quotes a stanza that doesn’t appear in the modern English translations:

Light of light eternal,
All things penetrating,
For your rays our soul is waiting.
All the tender flowers willingly unfolding,
To the sun their faces holding:
Even so, may we grow
Letting grace renew us
And your life imbue us.

I won’t pretend I can connect this to Russian Orthodox cosmology or the epistles of St. Paul by means of a logical syllogism. I’m an English teacher, not a theologian, and I live and die by metaphor. So as an image or a metaphor, it works for me.

This does, too. Luther once said, “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe.” (Click HERE, for his original quip in medieval dog Latin and my thoughts on it.) And coming up Sept. 13 is “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, an annual community service project that unites ELCA congregations in “one of our most basic convictions as Lutherans: that all of life in Jesus Christ – every act of service, in every daily calling, in every corner of life – flows freely from a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.” There’s even an addendum, on Service in the Time of COVID-19, with tips on how to maintain social distancing “in compliance with local health guidelines.” And this:

We encourage you to plan your day of service in compliance with local health guidelines. The safety and well-being of your volunteers and those you serve is a top priority. Follow all local guidance regarding physical distancing, mask-wearing, maximum gathering size and building capacity limits.
As church, we are guided by our life in Christ to share the love of Jesus and serve our neighbors — even if such acts of service look different this year.

(Boldface type in the original)

I don’t know it I could parse it logically, and I’m not sure it matters. I think a day of service during a time of pandemic — and Luther’s pun — are powerful metaphors for how the spirit of the Lord can transform us from one degree of glory to another.

[Sept. 6, 2020]

Works Cited

Michael J. Oleksa, “The Alaskan Orthodox Mission and Cosmic Christianity,” Jacob’s Well, 1994, Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of New York and New Jersey

Thomas D. Stegman, SJ , “‘Lifting the Veil’: The Challenges Posed by 2 Corinthians 3,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, 4 (2009) 1-14. n1]. 2n1.

Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life: Reflections on the Theme “Come Holy Spirit — Renew the Whole Creation” Geneva: WCC Publications, World Council of Churches, 1990. 23, 47.

3 thoughts on “‘Letting grace renew us’ — a little book by a Swedish dean of Harvard Divinity and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit

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