THE HOLY SPIRIT: Supernatural Life, or Natural Super-Life? by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

Supernatural Life, or Natural Super-Life? by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

In the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries something changed in the significance given to this aspect of Christian life, following the emergence of a philosophy that exalted the notion of vitalism.  In various forms, this philosophy was the central message of biological evolutionists like Darwin, of the positivists, of the historicists, of the pragmatists and of intuitionists like Bergson with his seductive theory of the “élan vital.”  But it was Nietzsche who made a religion of this vitalism.  He put forward the theory of a superior form of well-being as the essential means by which the course of history, as he conceived it, would be realized.  He spoke of Christians as “tuberculotic of soul, no sooner born than they begin to die, following their doctrines of weariness and resignation.”  In the introduction to her edition of her brother’s works, Nietzsche’s sister gives this summary of his thought on this point:

He supposes that, because of the resentment of a weak and fallacious Christianity, everything that is beautiful, strong, proud, and powerful – like the virtues that arise out of strength – would have been rejected and forbidden, and that, for that reason, the power of those things to promote and elevate life would have been greatly diminished.  But it is now time for a new scale of values to be held up to mankind, values of strength and power and man the magnificent, until its most exalted point is reached, that of the superman, and proposed to us with driving passion as the purpose of our life and will and hope.  This new and wholly different scale of values should hold before us a model, vigorous, healthy, eager for life, an apotheosis of life.

In place of the Christian idea of supernatural life this substitutes a notion of a natural super-life; in place of the new man this proposes a superman.  Quality has been turned into quantity.  Life holds only the potential of a linear evolution in intensity and “power,” but not of any qualitative leap.  In the light of these developments, there seems to be a prophetic quality in the words written by Kierkegaard some decades earlier:

There is nothing to which man clings more than he clings to life; there is nothing for which he yearns with greater intensity and force than to feel the pulsation of life within himself, and there is nothing that makes him shudder more than death!  But see what an enlivening Spirit has to tell us here.  Let us then cling to him: who would hesitate?  Let him give us life, abundant life, and may the feeling of being alive seethe in me, as if life in all its entirety were contained within my breast.  But this enlivening that the Spirit brings is not a direct sublimation of the natural life of man in an uninterrupted continuity and coherence.  It is a new life, in the strict sense of new life.  In fact, you have only to make sure that death intervenes here, that you mortify yourself, and a life that, from another aspect is death, is most certainly a new life.

Nietzsche’s thought has to some extent been taken up by certain theologians and given rise to a new way of understanding what is meant by “life-giving” Spirit.  In place of the traditional notion of spirituality, they propose that we substitute the idea of vitality, understanding that to mean “love of that life that makes humankind one with all other living beings,” a vitality taken to be “true humanity.”

Our hymn, in the title, “Creator,” also evokes a universal action of the Holy Spirit, also beyond the confines of the church.  But, as we have seen, the hymn draws a clear distinction between the two ways in which the Spirit acts: as “Creator” Spirit and as Spirit “of grace.”  In the view we have just been considering, between the two spheres of the Spirit’s action there is a difference more of degree than of quality.  Every trace has disappeared of that almost infinite distinction that Pascal places between the three “orders” of life: material, intellectual, and spiritual.

The new interpretation of “Spirit of life” arises from the desire to find a theological foundation for the effort to come to the defense of life, especially life that is seen as weak, “impeded,” and threatened.  This divorces it radically from Nietzscherian vitalism which, on the contrary, is expressly conceived as propagating the notions of the strong, the Übermensch, of superior well-being.  I believe, however, that this very worthy effort can find no better foundation than in the traditional perspective, drawing its inspiration from the Biblical principal of death to self as engendering life for others.  Paul expressed it all when he wrote of the tribulations of the apostolic missions: “So death is at work in us, but life in you,” (2 Corinthians 4:12). 

Mortification should never be an end in itself: it should always serve the purpose of promoting life in others, whether physical life or spiritual life.  The ultimate model here is Christ, who died in order to give life to the world, and gave up his own joy in living so that others might know joy to the full.  Truly “spiritual” Christians are those who have followed Christ in this.  Often those who are most rigid in their asceticism, imposing the strictest discipline on their own body, are the very ones who are most ready to reach out and alleviate the physical sufferings of their brothers and sisters, whatever form those sufferings might take: disablement, sickness, hunger, leprosy.  No one has ever shown greater respect for life than they, or done more to assist and defend it.  And finally, experience shows that no one is able to say, “yes,” to a brother or sister in need without being ready to say, “no,” to self.

The two lives engendered by the Spirit – the natural and the supernatural – are therefore never to be separated one from the other, and still less opposed to one another, but neither must they be confounded and put on the same level.  It is the Spirit who gives and enlivens life in all of its manifestations, natural or supernatural, but each in its own order.  The Spirit promotes natural life, making it an apt recipient of the form for which God intended it, which is “conformity” to Christ.  He supports physical life in everything that ennobles human beings and orients them toward their eternal end, and he “mortifies” physical life in everything that stands in the way of their achieving that end.

To deny the radical “newness” of the life of the Spirit would mean to eliminate any relevance of the coming of Jesus Christ.  Life in Christ, or in the New Adam, would not be any different in kind from life in the old Adam.  It would mean also that we would have to accept that the life-engendering work of the Spirit would be heading for a checkmate, doomed to failure, because we know very well where our “vitality” on the natural level will lead us: to death.  The ultimate success of the Spirit is founded on the possibility that decline and death on the natural level can be “raised up” and transformed into success on another level.  The apostle writes: “So we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

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