Did the Holy Spirit abandon Jesus on the cross?

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27:46

No one who contemplates this cry from Jesus can help but get a chill up their spine. The quote is also in Mark and this adds to the reliability that it is authentic. In addition, it is somewhat troublesome, and so it’s unlikely that it was added later by some well-meaning monk (as is the case with some other quotes in the Gospels).

So, what does it mean? Consider this possibility: Upon his baptism by John, Jesus has a mystical experience, connecting directly to God. He manages to maintain that mystical union with God for three years until the suffering from the crucifixion is just too much for him. He can’t hold the connection, and cries out as he loses it.

If you re-read all of the New Testament passages about the Holy Spirit, you will note that in each one of these references something is happening  (descending, swirling, etc.). If you remove your “First Council of Constantinople” blinders, you will see that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God in people and not a thing-in-itself. Early Christians, mostly not as used to abstract thought as, say, Greek philosophers, would have had a hard time “getting” this concept. Thus, like so many other examples of reification in the history of religion, what was an abstract idea became (literally) personified. God-in-humanity became the third person of the Trinity.

Maintaining your connection to God is hard, even if you’re Jesus.

The ladder for ascending to God

In accord with our created state, the universe itself is a ladder for ascending to God.

(Saint) Bonaventure, The Mind’s Journey to God, Essential Writing of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn (ed)

The symbol of a ladder appears throughout Christian mystical writing. It’s as close to a perfect symbol as human language can come up with when speaking of “the thing that thought cannot think.” Approaching God requires us to strip away our human limitations one by one.

In order to come to thoughtful consideration of the First Principle, which is totally spiritual and eternal and above us, we must pass through the vestiges that are corporeal and eternal and outside us; this is “to be led along God’s path”;

Bonaventure (ibid)

We have to reach into our minds and begin stripping away everything that is “not God”.

then we must enter into our own mind, which is God’s image, everlasting, spiritual, and within us: this is “to go to God’s truth”; finally we must pass beyond to what is eternal, totally spiritual, and above us, by gazing toward the First Principle; this is “to rejoice in the knowledge of God”

Bonaventure (ibid)

This is what Wittgenstein means, at This is what Wittgenstein means, at the end of his treatise on the nature of logic:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, 6.54

Those who really delve deeply into the nature of logic and language will begin to see that, in the end, these are woefully under-powered tools for understanding the nature of reality.

Image source:
The ladder of divine ascent traditional panel Russian Orthodox icon

God is not Love

(God) is not soul or mind, nor does it posses imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or unequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. Existing beings beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth — it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

Dionysius the Areopagite (aka Pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology

Dionysius the Areopagite (aka Pseudo-Dionysius) was a Christian mystic who wrote these words sometime in the 6th or 7th century. As such, he cannot have been the disciple of Paul of Tarsus (Saint Paul) as he posed to be. Even so, his words were taken very seriously and are the basis for a lot of Christian mystical thought since that time. It seems pretty clear that the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing was familiar with Dionysius’s work, as was Meister Eckhart.

Dionysius’s works are fundamental to what is called apophatic theology, which is when we approach God by stripping away everything that we have a name for. This is sometimes called negative theology, but it’s important that it not be misconstrued as somehow anti theology – this is not the case. At the core of apophatic theology is the understanding that God is beyond words. Words, as a human creation, are woefully underpowered to grasp the essence of God.

If God is beyond words, God is also beyond the word “love” — therefore, saying “God is love” is as wrong as saying “God is an aardvark.”

The kingdom of God is nowhere

No matter what route the NRSV[1] translators took to get there, the word “realm” is a far more accurate rendition of what the Fourth Gospel was trying to communicate than is “kingdom.” A kingdom is a place. A realm is more of an experience.

(Bishop) John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel; Takes of a Jewish Mystic

In the previous essay I have mentioned that some current New Testament translations have adopted the phrase “God’s imperial rule” instead of “Kingdom of God.” There I said that I think that “God’s imperial rule” lacks flow and is therefore distracting. So, when I ran across the above statements from Bishop Spong, I was quite interested.

Why does a translation matter? Words don’t only have definitions, they have connotations. “The Kingdom of God” indicates, among other things, that God is male. It also indicates a place. I agree with Spong that realm is a better choice of word, but only because of the second definition of realm:

the region, sphere, or domain within which anything occurs, prevails, or dominates.

Dictionary.com

The first definition literally just says “a kingdom.”

However, according to BibleGateway.com, the NRSV does not use “realm” – the only translations referenced there that use “realm” are The Passion Translation (a contemporary translation) and The Wycliffe Bible (a fairly old one [1382]).

But, is this significant? I suggest that it is. For example, Bible Gateway does not include the translations from the publication by members of The Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who mostly approach the study of early Christianity from an agnostic standpoint. The Jesus Seminar is not well thought of in many Christian circles and thus it’s perhaps not a surprise that this translation is missing from the Bible Gateway.

Translation is not an exact science and bias is often inserted into translations, even if only accidentally. So, the phrases kingdom of God vs. the realm of God vs. God’s imperial rule (from the Jesus Seminar) may have an effect on readers which may sway their opinions of what they are reading.

Since I agree with Wittgenstein that religious language must all be metaphorical, it doesn’t bother me that translations differ. However, if you are a fundamentalist or a literalist, this could be quite problematic.

So, back to the original point: The kingdom of God that Jesus refers to is not a place, it is a state of mind (or soul). This is obvious from an open-minded reading of the New Testament, and nowhere more so than in Luke 17:21. If the kingdom of God is a place, and if “The Kingdom of God is within you,” you would have to have a very large body!

[1] New Revised Standard Version of the Bible