The events of the last few years tell a different story: the remarkable controversy over Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ; the unflagging popularity of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, based on an old notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child together, and that Mary and the child escaped to France and became the centre of a vast secret cult; the incredible success of the Left Behind stories, that have sold more than 40,000,000 copies and helped set the stage for what some journalists are calling the “rapture mentality” of right-wing America.
What happened? The power and creativity of the Christian faith obviously aren’t dead. They’re enjoying one of the most remarkable resurgences imagined. Why? What’s the secret of Christianity’s enduring dynamism?
Perhaps it goes back to something the Gospel of John says occurred in the upper room in Jerusalem. The disciples gathered there after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, even though the doors were locked. He greeted them with the customary greeting “Shalom” and showed them the wounds in his hands and side. He told them he was sending them out just as his Father had sent him. And then he did a very odd thing. He breathed on them.
Our word “inspiration” comes from the Latin words in spirare, “to breathe into.” Jesus was inspiring the disciples by breathing his own breath into them. It’s a wonder this didn’t become a sacrament of the church, because it set into motion one of the most powerful forces the human spirit has ever known. Jesus breathed on the disciples and started a revolution of creativity that has never stopped.
It formed the early church, which by the fourth century was the most powerful influence in the world. It shaped the art and thought of the Middle Ages. It led to the founding of the great universities. Our culture in North America grew out of the Christian Reformation. Even when the world began to look more secular, the basic driving force of art, education, medicine and philanthropy all came from Christianity. The creativity Jesus released in that little room in Jerusalem when he breathed on his disciples shaped and reshaped the world for centuries.
We can’t imagine our culture without it. The great cathedrals, our legal and judicial systems, our whole understanding of morality, our arts, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, the modern university system, the healing professions, social services, the idea of a United Nations, world service organizations – none of them would have happened without the enduring breath of Christ.
That heritage keeps being renewed. This is why there’s a resurgence of religious interest in the present time. The creative power is still there. It’s still at work in our lives and culture.
The phrase “Caesar’s breath” is science’s way of reminding us that energy never dies or disappears. The molecules of Caesar’s breath, 2,000 years ago, are still in our atmosphere today. They have scattered around the globe and we are breathing them with every breath we take. Similarly, Christ’s breath is still alive. The breath he breathed into the disciples that day in the upper room – the spirit and power of God – is still circulating. And it is far more powerful than Caesar’s breath. It’s the reminder that God, whose spirit hovered over the face of the deep at creation, was still making the world through Christ and is still working on it today.
Where is that spirit operating now? What will its new manifestations be? The challenge is to try to see it, to anticipate it, before it happens, to guess which way the power of God is going.
If the past is any guide, the Spirit of God will manifest itself in creative ways that will completely surprise us. It will be something we probably never guessed or expected.
Perhaps, with the new globalism produced by electronic communications and modern travel and the erosion of old economic and political barriers, a hundred years from now we shall see a Christianity vastly transformed by its openness to other religions and its desire to relate to them in the quest for a new and higher form of spirituality.
That may be threatening to some people. That’s why fundamentalism has become so strong. People are afraid of the unknown. They cling desperately to what they regard as the great pillars of their own faith and believe the world will come to an end if those pillars are threatened in any way. That’s why the Left Behind books are so popular. They convince frightened believers that the world is about to come to an end because their old religious culture is under siege.
And it isn’t happening just in North America. There’s a brand of fundamentalism in almost every religion in the world right now. That’s why Islamic fundamentalists have been so successful in rallying Muslim fanatics. They too are afraid of the collapse of the only culture they have known.
This frightening time we are in is a great creative opportunity, and the inspiration breathed into the apostles all those centuries ago is still alive today, and it will respond to the opportunity by forging a new Christianity for a new age. It will produce new understandings of the world, and new theologies and ethics, and new forms of worship and devotion, and new societies for advancing all of these.
Henry Kissinger, who has become one of the world’s leading oracles, said recently in The Washington Post that we are all too shortsighted. While we are focusing our attention on the Middle East, al Qaida and the terrorists, something of much greater significance is occurring. It has to do with Asia, which Kissinger says is becoming the next great focus of manufacturing and economic power in the world, and which will soon rearrange all our perspectives of who we are and what it means to be members of the world order.
Suppose he is right. Buddhism and Hinduism and other Asian religions are already becoming popular in the West. What will the ascendancy of the East do to alter the playing field for Christianity? I believe that Christianity is up to it – that the creative power that has been there from the beginning, since that day when Jesus breathed on the disciples, will prove itself as strong as ever. Nothing will look the same after the revolution. But the spirit of Christ will still be there, shaping a new world for our children and their children and their children after them.
A faithful churchgoer well into her eighties was asked how she felt about all the change taking place in the world around us. “Oh, I don’t worry about it at all,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “You know, God has always managed to bring the best out of the worst, and somehow I don’t think God will fail us now!”