The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit
by Adolf Holl. Translated from the German by John Cullen.
English translation © 1998, John Cullen. 352 pages. Original title: Linke Hand Gottes © 1997, Adolf Holl. English version published by Doubleday; German original published by List Verlag, Munich.
WHAT DO JESUS, John the Baptist, Paul, Origen, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Emanuel Swedenborg, Simone Weil, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, and Malcom X have in common? One thing, according to Adolf Holl, author of The Left Hand of God: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Holl is a former priest and lecturer in the Department of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna. The biographical sketch on the dust jacket of Holl's latest book informs us laconically that, "[b]ecause of conflicts with Church authorities, he was suspended from his teaching and priestly duties." It isn't difficult to see why. Citing Jesus' admonition that the pneuma blows where it will, Holl refuses to set any boundaries constraining the work of the Holy Spirit. In Holl's account, the Spirit moves beyond Catholicism to work among both heretics and Reformers; beyond Christianity to inspire Islam; beyond religion to prompt philosophers, psychiatrists, authors, and social activists. Union organizers, Marxists, feminists, ecstatic visionaries, spirit mediums, freedom-seekers, convention-flouters, and rule-breakers of all sorts find a place in Holl's roster of the "Pneumatics," the Spirit-filled. Clearly, this is no conventional Christian treatise on the Third Person of the Trinity.
Holl is not shy about the controversial nature of his book. The title itself seems a sly allusion to the saying of Jesus concerning the giving of alms (Matthew 6:3). The style is wry and irreverent, beginning with the very first sentence: "For any halfway significant god, a thousand years pass in a trice" (p. ix). To read the text is to traverse a terrain strewn with doctrinal land mines. Self-declared theological moderate that I am, my hide is still smarting from the bits of shrapnel lodged in it. Jesus a trance medium much like those of non-Christian traditions? The gift of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts 2 the result of sleep deprivation on the part of the assembled disciples? Nietzsche, the man who announced the "death" of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Atheistic Marxism moved by the same force that gave birth to the Christian Church? Father and Son both co-opted by hierarchies and power-elites, with only the Spirit--quite probably feminine, as the grammatical gender of both the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma indicate--truly free and truly freeing? All orthodoxy wrong, only heresies faithful to divine inspiration? There is no dearth of vexing assertions here.
But what, in the final analysis, does Holl assert? What does he advocate? After a careful reading of The Left Hand of God, I'm not entirely certain. One thing seems clear: Holl favors the Pneumatics, the rebels, over those who would restrain them with rules, hierarchies, and conventions. He blasts the Church Fathers for restricting the role of women in early Christianity and the Gnostics (of whom he seems otherwise to approve) for likewise abhorring sexuality. Biblical scholarship as a way of apprehending the Spirit becomes a target of the author's scorn: "Libraries from Persia to Ireland began to fill with commentaries . . . and in those libraries sat the scribes, augmenting the existing glosses with further commentary. The longer the undertaking, the more ponderous and witless it became" (p. 129). Holl takes particular glee in twitting the clerics confronted with the visionary women of the Middle Ages: "The appearance of high-performance female mysticism between 1200 and 1600 engaged the father confessors in a theater of sublime eroticism about which they had not the slightest clue" (p. 184). Holl champions the inspired outsiders over the gatekeepers of orthodoxy.
But this isn't the whole story. Holl knows that personal inspiration unregulated by any external standard can also be a destructive force. He cites numerous examples, cautionary tales for those who would be open to inspiration: The radical Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer was a paramilitary fanatic who broke with Luther over the latter's refusal to support the Peasants' Revolt. Müntzer went beyond preaching violence to actually taking the field, proving himself an enthusiastic shedder of Christian blood. Heidegger was a proud member of the Nazi party who would later in life qualify--but never disavow--his appreciation for the Führer's ideals. The "sublime eroticism" and transcendence of Simone Weil and her sisters and predecessors, the medieval German mystics, entailed starvation--rapture of the spirit bought with the slow dissolution of the body. In a Pentecostal congregation on the Yucatan Peninsula, Spirit-filled rejoicing gave way to terrified apocalyptic rantings. Members saw visions in which they were menaced by Satan. The pastor seemed to become catatonic; a band of prophetesses seized control of the church and began issuing a series of increasingly bizarre commands. When alerted to the state of affairs by a worried parishoner, the local bishop forbade any further ecstatic outbursts during worship, saying that the congregation had been possessed by the devil. And that is the crux of the matter: How do we know whether the Spirit is doing a new thing or the Adversary is up to his old tricks? To replace the orthodoxies he derides, Holl seems to suggest nothing more potent than simple common sense. I suspect I am not the only reader who will worry that common sense isn't up to the task.
The Left Hand of God is not for the faint of heart--but it is worth reading. Working thematically rather than chronologically, Holl bounces back and forth through history, illuminating the similarities between the seemingly dissimilar and tracing the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit through the ages. He surefootedly treads the borderlands where theology meets psychology and philosophy and where Christianity encounters Judaism, Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. He reveals things that are hidden in plain sight (that the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove only once in Christian Scripture) and offers new insights (Jesus and John the Baptists as rivals). Holl taught me things I never knew about Catholic saints, Church Fathers, and heretics, and reminded me of things I had forgotten about the Reformation. He challenged me to examine my own beliefs.The Left Hand of God is contentious, controversial, and confrontational--but it is also a grand, exhilarating survey of Western intellectual and spiritual history. Shrapnel notwithstanding, I'm glad I made the trip.
Edited June 12, 1999.
Copyright ©1999 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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