Support the Café

Search our Site

How Real is the Spiritual?

How Real is the Spiritual?


In an article titled, “Of Resurrection and Spiritual Communion,” in the May 4, 2020 Covenant, the Living Church online blog, the theologian Dr. Elizabeth Anderson explored a particularly post-modern problem which has emerged from the forced Eucharistic fast imposed by sheltering due to the pandemic. The two positions come from those who mythologize the Resurrection into some sort of eternal presence*, and the literalists who want to see Jesus’ rising as more of a resuscitation than a transformation into a body of a different kind. She says, “The Gospel accounts seem keen to stress that Jesus is not simply a ghost, or a figment of anyone’s imagination, or merely a felt presence. He can be touched; he still bears his wounds.” She goes on to suggest that post-modernists assume that real things are physical things. That relegates spiritual things to anything from metaphor to a disturbed imagination. But ancient and Medieval theologians understood that spiritual realities were “true because they were spiritually true, and material things reached their perfection in being united and conformed to that more fundamental spiritual reality,” and not individual subjective experiences. Her article pivots to the current debate about spiritual communion via live streaming and the like. But I would like to stop here, with the question about the reality of the spirit world.


If we believe in the Holy Spirit, such that Jesus isn’t merely a teacher of some good ideas and the Spirit is a cultural artifact to remind us of this teaching, but that Jesus is the incarnate Son of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is both spirit and real, then we must believe in other spirits and other gods. It isn’t for naught that much New Testament Scripture deals with spirits, ones which cause illness or demoniac seizures, and Satan, who tempts Jesus in the desert, and is a powerful being, a trickster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Spirits are real. If they are not, the whole foundation of Christianity has just been demoted to a New Age cult of love and butterflies. Not the overwhelming notion that God poured out himself into humanity to die for our sins, and returned with such overwhelming love for us that, no matter what happens to us in this world, we can be saved, forgiven, brought forth in a new body, a new life, for all eternity. And as an aside, while post-modern Christians are shedding all that superstitious stuff, the neo-pagan magicians and witches are totally on board with the view of the spiritual world’s reality, spells, signs, and all, a view which they share with Scripture, the first Christians, and early church Fathers and Mothers. 


Which brings us to the two readings for today’s Eucharistic liturgy, Acts 14:5-18 and John 14:21-26. I just love the reading from Acts. Paul and Barnabas, once more on the run, are in Lystra, a Roman colony in Anatolia. Paul sees a boy crippled from birth, but with faith to be healed. And he heals him. The crowds are astonished, and call Barnabas “Jupiter” and Paul “Hermes.” A priest of Zeus comes with an ox to sacrifice to them. Paul shouts, denying this, and despite his preaching the Gospel, the crowd are barely restrained from sacrificing the ox. And I can just picture them, waving their arms, shouting in every language they knew, “No, no, we are not gods. Stop.” It makes me laugh. But the theological point is that the notion of the One Living God in and through Jesus is not an easy one to grasp if your culture has always had simple, if not very useful, gods who are more like Roman patrons than the Holy One of Israel or of his Son, Jesus the Christ. 


Turning to John 14: 21-31, even Jesus’ own disciples don’t get it. They are blind, or kept blind until given the Holy Spirit, as to the reality of Jesus as the Son of the Father. Verse 21, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them,” is not a suggestion. It is a commandment. And the fruits of obedience to that commandment open the heart and eyes to see and love Jesus. Still, his own can’t wrap their heads around this new reality. Thomas asked Jesus to be shown the way, as in map directions, missing the point that Jesus is the way (Jn 14:5). Philip has asked Jesus to be shown the Father (Jn 14:8). Now it is Judas’ (the other one) turn. “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world? (Jn 14:22).” St. John Chrysostom writes about verse 22, “See how [the Apostle’s] soul was oppressed with fear? He was confounded and troubled, thinking that he would see Jesus as a dead man the way we see people in a dream.” While I don’t think that this was fear, what is surprising is Jesus’ reply. The Rev. Dr. William Countryman, in The Mystical Way of the Fourth Gospel says, “Jesus replies with an “inappropriate response,” which seems at first to have nothing to do with Judas’ question. Yet it is the only possible answer to it. Jesus will show himself to the believers alone because they are the only ones who can see (p. 104).” Two critical points lie here. First, Jesus does not come back as a ghost. That is what all those eating-with-Jesus stories are about. The dead don’t eat. That he is often not recognized points to the metaphysical change which we are to expect at the End Time. The second point is that only believers can see Jesus. Jesus has over and over told them that he is in the Father, that if you see him you see the Father, that they are one, that all he says comes from his familial intimacy with and from the Father. And even then, they don’t get it. This is both a stumbling block and the gate to faith. 


And that brings us back to the post-modern deconstruction of the reality of spirit. As much as I appreciate the post-modern German theologians when they suggest that God is mutable, changeable, they are wrong. If their prayerful insight explains the inexplainable in new ways, well and good. But God, I AM, does not change, although we might be given different visions of him at different times. As a collect for Compline says, “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. (BCP, 133).” Without that changeless God, what rest is there in this chaotic, ever changing world? It has to stop someplace. That changelessness supersedes exploding stars, black holes, quantum entanglement, and other things we also do not understand. but accept as real. Equally or more real is Jesus dying on the Cross to redeem us from our sins and rising to defeat death. 


If what Anderson suggested does obtain in the modern world, we have sold the farm. If the spiritual is a metaphor or self-delusion, a phantasm in a REM state of sleep, and not real, the entire foundation of Christianity is destroyed. Yes, only the faithful can see him, and love him, but we are all called to be the faithful. Pray. Keep the faith. We wait for Pentecost.


* I would speculate that is the basis of “spiritual but not religious,” but which perhaps would make us want to be social reformers. 


Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.



Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

What is the source of the stunning mosaic that accompanied this Speaking to the Soul, please?

Grant W Barber

“The second point is that only believers can see Jesus. Jesus has over and over told them that he is in the Father, that if you see him you see the Father, that they are one, that all he says comes from his familial intimacy with and from the Father. And even then, they don’t get it. ” ‘It’ what? Grammatically a pronoun with no concrete antecedent. Darn it. Instead it’s seemingly a colloquial crutch. Your writing is clear, a step by step way of laying out your argument well, and one can tell you write from not just a perspective of argument, but faith. And then, ‘it.’ We’re back to Philip’s question, we who live since the Ascension, just shifted over by one Person: what do you say to ‘show us the Son?’ I have my own answers, but it’s a pointing toward each time. Or do you claim that the medieval perspective you cite earlier, that we have a perspective on the world, seen and unseen, grounded first in the spiritual in order to understand the physical? I can actually go there. Might not explain antibiotics, viruses, and dark matter, but even that can be grounded in C. S. Lewis’ sense of true myth.

Kurt Hill

Naturally, much of what you write depends upon what “believers” Believe. I believe that God is Love, so as a Catholic Christian I would say that Love is the Way, the Truth and the Life. IMO even non-Christians who practice such Love to the best of their abilities and understandings achieve Salvation (through Christ). Evangelical Calvinists, of course, see things differently; they love their foul-smelling TULIPS. And we Anglicans have always been in theological debate with them. We even fought the last combat of the English Civil Ware here in 1655 at the Battle of Great Severn.

Kurt Hill

Interesting perspective.
Anglican Catholics, such as myself, have for centuries appreciated the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as a localized spiritual presence—much in the same way that God was viewed as being spiritually present in the Arc of the Covenant of our Fathers the Children—both male and female—of Israel. Puritans were complaining about this Anglican spirituality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here in America this High Church view has probably been more prevalent than some other views (e.g., Memorialism/Zwinglism) which were popular during some periods among some Anglicans in the British Isles, and which presently dominate Protestantism . At least since the excommunication (“ejection”) of the most recalcitrant Calvinist clergy in 1662 Certainly if one reads early American High Anglicans such as the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Rev. John Wesley, Bishop Samuel Seabury, and Bishop John Henry Hobart, the belief in His localized spiritual presence is clear.
However, It’s also important not to succumb to the magical thinking which sometimes oozes into American Episcopalianism from the larger Evangelical Protestant culture surrounding us. Their fundamentalist dogmatism—particularly of the Calvinist variety—has always been something that we Anglicans have defined ourselves against.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café