On the Blasphemy Challenge: A Quakerly Perspective

Published on Thursday, 15 March 2012

Over the past few years many people participated in the "Blasphemy Challenge", which asked people to submit a video denouncing the Holy Spirit. I found this quite absurd. I happen to be a non-theist and have been since about 4th grade, but I do believe in the Holy Spirit, or as Quakers call it, "the Inner Light" (I will explain this below, but in short I see the Inner Light or Holy Spirit as not supernatural but rather descriptions of a natural phenomena). Since Mark 3:29 states that a denunciation of the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable and eternal sin, the promoters of the Challenge required that submissions include an explicit denunciation of the Spirit.  There are three problems I see with this challenge. First, being a biblical literalist arguably can and often does require an implicit rejection of the Spirit.  Second, the phrase "eternal sin" does not necessarily equate with going to Hell. Third, saying you denounce the Holy Spirit does not mean you actually do (even if you don't like the descriptor of "Holy Spirit"). Many Christians, especially Biblical literalists, treat the Holy Spirit as the weak third "person" of God. If an urging of the Spirit contradicts the Bible, a literalist will always go with the received interpretation of the Bible. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. Why the Bible or its received interpretation should trump the Holy Spirit is beyond me. As 19th century American Quaker, Elias Hicks, noted with regards to Biblical literalism:

"They have been so bound up in the letter, that they think they must attend to it to the exclusion of everything else. Here is an abominable idol worship of a thing with out any life at all, a dead monument!" (Haney, 1867)

I believe that people who truly embrace the Holy Spirit should be naturally resistant to the logical fallacy of the argument from authority and to the hierarchies of human institutions (including the Church). It is only logical that the institution of the Church would try to control and limit the experience of the Holy Spirit among the faithful.  I will leave it to you, dear reader, to think of examples of the Church constraining the faithful experience of the divine to only acceptable and highly stylized forms. I don't think you will have difficulty thinking of examples of this in just about every church setting. As for hellfire and eternity, there really isn't any evidence that Jesus or even the early Christians believed in hell. The Christian concept of the "immortal soul" and hell appears to come mostly from the Greeks and definitely not the Jews. If you believe that the Bible is the only authoritative source of God's message to creation, then you will have to make a lot of assumptions from scant evidence to support the notions of hell or an immortal soul. Lastly, denouncing the Holy Spirit may be tricker than just making a declaration. Quakers have long held to a notion that there is a measure of "divine light" within each person. This Inner Light (which is virtually interchangeable with the Holy Spirit) is the ability to be acutely aware of oneself as part of the whole. The Inner Light is not fantastical, mystical, or magical in any common sense of those words. It is, as Elijah discovered, a "still small voice" that can easily be crowded out by the noise of the world and the hopes for a "super hero God" to come and save you from your trials and tribulations. The responsibility of the faithful is to cultivate that light and seek it out in others. To me embracing the Holy Spirit is the rejection of the supernatural God in favor of what can be known and experienced directly. To me, the Inner Light is an stirring in my being, an often subtle raised awareness of myself in the context of the whole. There is no magic, no supernatural power at play, no demanding that the cosmos be bent to my will, no set of arbitrary rules to follow. To me the Holy Spirit is the internal compulsion to know and do what is right and just, to seek to bring people together not rend them apart, to speak truth to power, a desire to feel whole and complete. I believe that the Inner Light/Holy Spirit is wholly interpretable using the latest neurobiological research. But regardless of explanation, the experience is still real. Demystifying it with science does not dilute its power. Just as most people fondly describe sex, sexual attraction, and falling in love in flowery non-scientific (and often deluded) terms, I prefer to describe the experience during meeting for worship (and at other times) as being "moved by the spirit". Maybe you would use some other words to describe the experience, but would you eagerly denounce it, whatever you might call it?