This past Sunday commemorated Pentecost in the historic Christian tradition. Since I’ve recently completed my doctoral dissertation on the contemporary ecumenical and theological approaches to the Holy Spirit, I was looking forward to this service and hoped to see and hear something positive, familiar and thought provoking in the gospel message that would be preached.
My family and I took a seat in the third row of this urban, Vincentian-run church. It helps to sit up front when you have a young child who is easily distracted, and it also gave us the advantage of seeing the entire group of music ministers – a youthful group of talented musicians, many of whom studied music in the Meadows School of the Arts on the Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University – who were sitting to the front right of the sanctuary, despite what all those stuffy ecclesial documents say about liturgical spaces, and where musicians can be placed or should be placed or should never be placed in churches.
This particular parish is just a stone’s throw away from the SMU campus, and is located smack dab in the heart of the Dallas Art’s District, which also happens to be the most highly-concentrated zip code of LGBT folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. So, this parish is really a cultural crossroads of college students, artists, musicians, LGBT activists, young families, yuppies, hippies, retirees, and Vatican II devotees. It also proudly boasts an award-winning Blue Ribbon parochial school that gives plenty of scholarships to poor, disadvantaged families from our bordering Mexican-American neighborhoods.
This talented team of young liturgical musicians sang several preludes before the service to honor the fact that the very next day was also Memorial Day in the USA. So, as early-arriving worshipers took their seats and the pews began to fill to capacity, the crowding congregation joined together to sing the well-known choruses of patriotic songs like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "God Bless America."
That’s when the confluence and juxtapositions of the celebrations of Pentecost and Memorial Day took a strange turn – at least for me. These preludes were real patriotic crowd pleasers! And that’s when I began to realize that we were headed slightly but also dangerously close to… okay, I’ll say it… idolatry.
That’s such an archaic concept – a traditional and legalistic concept – an unfamiliar concept to the vast majority of those in the historic Christian traditions, especially here in America.
Isn’t idolatry what the ancient Hebrew slaves were guilty of when they left their Egyptian oppressors and smelt a golden calf to worship on their way to Palestine? Is it idolatry when the next door neighbor’s teenage daughter erects a backyard altar to Justin Bieber? Or when the fifty-two year old neurosurgeon trades in his wife and family for a new Porsche and a twenty-something supermodel – that’s the pursuit of idolatry, right?
But could patriotism actually become… idolatry?
There I was, on a Sunday, in a Christian parish singing "God Bless America" – on the day we should be honoring the third person of the Holy Trinity. I certainly mean no disrespect to our fallen US Armed Forces, but you would think that honoring one-third of the Godhead would – oh, I don’t know – take some basic liturgical precedence over our collective national pride in our past military strength and the sacrifice of each of our fallen patriots. You would think, right?
Our collective Christian formation on the person, role and gifts of the Holy Spirit is sadly lacking. From a purely academic standpoint, I would challenge anyone to go into any library located on any Christian seminary campus, ministerial institute, denominational university or graduate school of theology. I’d suspect you will find what I often refer to as “the one-ten-none principle.” That’s where a theological library stocks one thousand books on the actual topic of God as Father, for every ten thousand books on God as Son, for any single book whatsoever under the category of God as Holy Spirit. One-Ten-None, it’s a principle I encourage you to test out for yourself. From an academic point of view, you will find a smattering of devotional-type books on praying to the Holy Spirit in most libraries, but, oddly enough, few textbooks honestly considered as doctrinal or theological heavyweights on the Holy Spirit.
As a theologian, I am consciously aware that the fastest growing segment of global Christianity would now be identified as independent and loosely-affiliated Charismatic and Pentecostal Christian churches; these folks are multiplying exponentially – while the numbers of mainstream Protestant and Evangelical denominations have long-suffered global plateaus and may potentially even cease to exist in the next hundred years or so. Sociologists and statisticians working for Gallup, the Barna Group and even the Pew Forum actually foresee a not too distant future where these Charismatic and Pentecostal adherents could even overtake the billion-plus Catholic adherents worldwide – just look at the research on their growth in the traditionally historic Catholic strongholds like Central and South America.
Whatever our own formational and theological leanings, these Charismatic and Pentecostal adherents do have a specific theology of the Spirit. They see Christianity through a Pneumatological lens. And they would clearly argue that they have a specific formation in the Spirit.
So, as the celebrations of Pentecost and Memorial Day are juxtaposed this 2,012th year since the Holy Spirit – it is taught to us – impregnated a young Jewish virgin, I am conscious of the apparent Patriotic and secular overlap upon this Christian holy day – precisely within the gathering church community.
My education and my church upbringing have definitely schooled me in the Spirit of Patriotism. My own family history is replete with heroes who served in the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. My maternal grandfather served in France during WWII and lost four brothers on the beaches of Normandy. My father was a US Marine and served in both the Mediterranean and Saudi Arabia. One uncle served in Vietnam and survived. An aunt was the first woman to be offered command of a ship in the US Coast Guard. One nephew fought in Iraq and was seriously wounded. Four nephews are currently in active duty. My extended family histories are full of US soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines – and we are all proudly patriotic.
My doctoral work and its concentration on the person, role and gifts of the Holy Spirit has helped me to understand and formulate my personal theological opinion that the vast majority of our mainstream Protestant, Evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic churches are not actually forming their own members in the Holy Spirit! And this is quite sad to me.
It helps to explain why, on the festival of Pentecost – the very festival of the Holy Spirit, and birthday of the Christian church – this proudly post-Vatican-II Vincentian-run parish with professionally-trained musicians from SMU was overrun with the Spirit of Patriotism – instead of the Holy Spirit!
I don’t think this was intentional idolatry – but it made me pause and consider what is most important to me, and what – as a theologically trained Pneumatologist – I would hope to hear in a Christian church on the day that was actually set aside to commemorate the original outpouring of the Spirit of God upon all women and men.
Patriotism or Pentecost – which was more emphasized in your own formation?
PhD in Christian Systematic Theology (Duquesne, 2011). Wrote his doctoral dissertation on Contemporary Ecumenical Pneumatology or the study of the person, gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit, across all the major Christian church denominations. Taught in a Catholic seminary for eleven years, and was the first layman appointed to the role of "Director of Formation" - a post that previously had been canonically reserved for ordained clergy - the first such appointment in a Catholic seminary anywhere in the world. Besides his primary teaching interests in systematic theology, he designed a mandatory year-long course in Judeo-Christian spiritual traditions, and has a particular teaching interest in the formative companioning of the Carmelites Juan de la Cruz and Teresa de Avila. Memberships held in the CTS, AAR and CTSA.