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On Pentecost and “Matters Not Dictated By the Holy Spirit”

« Pentecost » (c. 1545) by Titian []

“Objection: The Scripture is plainly full of matters not dictated by the Holy Spirit. –Answer: Then they do not harm faith. Objection: But the Church has decided that all is of the Holy Spirit. Answer: I answer two things; first, the Church has not so decided; secondly, if she should so decide, it could be maintained.”

— Pascal, Pensées, #567.

“The Apostles, prompted by the Spirit, invited all to change their lives, to be converted and be baptized. Immediately after the event of Pentecost, Peter spoke convincingly to the crowd: ‘When they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts, 2:37-38).”
— John Paul II, The Mission of the Redeemer, 1990, #47.


An accusation leveled against God in recent years is that he did not do enough for us. He gave us the cosmos and our existence in it, perhaps. But since he did not give us everything we think we need and want, either he does not exist or he is cruel. He is, at best, a negligent God. He abandoned us in this messy world and left us to fend for ourselves. Our “rights” have been violated by the divinity itself. We have no choice but to act on our own. We will make the rules, establish justice on earth. We have no need to listen to any revelation from on high or respect it if we hear about it. How could any “god” know more about us than we know ourselves? We have a “right” to happiness. Since we are not happy, someone must pay.

What’s more, we have a “right” to have our “rights” respected. We cannot depend on anything outside of ourselves. It isn’t wholesome. We are free to make what we want and do what we want. We are “owed” what we want; we are victims if we do not have it awarded to us. That is the basis of our dignity. The Supreme Court understands this and has worked to let us enact our own views of the universe. There is no natural or divine order. The Obama administration, in its many arbitrary decrees, has made every effort to free religious people of the blindly-imposed burdens attributed erroneously to God. Current elections are about extending government power to free people in religious organizations from restrictive commandments and customs that might inhibit government polity and control. So goes the current wisdom.

Part of the history of Christianity has been the effort to decide what the Holy Spirit was up to out there among the nations that had not yet heard of the “good news”. This is why missionaries were sent out. But most of the Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim world wants nothing to do with them. Some now say that the Holy Spirit merely inspires us to be good human beings, or to practice whatever we want. No particular way of approaching God is better than any other. So we really do not need missionaries, or even dialogue. Why disturb anyone in his settled beliefs? It only causes violence and turmoil.

At the end of the Gospel of John, we are told: “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:24-25). The other part of Christian history recounts how the Church was formed and organized, how it came to understand in ever more careful terms just who Christ was, his place within the Godhead, his Incarnation amongst us, his life and death, the Resurrection, Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, we can ask ourselves: “Just why did God do it this way, as it were, his way?”


The best way to answer that question, it sometimes seems to me, is precisely to imagine some other way that would be better—one that made more sense to us. Actually, some of this alternate imagining can be found in Scripture itself. It is not without interest that right up to the Ascension, the Apostles were still wondering if Christ was about to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. They could not quite get it out of their heads that, while Christ did announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, he did not quite mean what they thought he meant. He was not going to establish a world-wide Empire beginning in Jerusalem, Macedonia, Persia, or Rome. Eventually, St. Augustine devoted over a thousand pages to explain the difference between the City of God and the City of Man. (Just to have this book was probably reason enough not to set out on worldly empire.)

But we also find the accounts of Christ’s temptations in the desert. Here, the Devil himself is perplexed over what Jesus is up to. He (the Devil) knew that he (Christ) was up to no good. So he felt him out. The Devil understood a good deal about his Adversary. He (Christ) seemed to be able to accomplish things that no ordinary human agency could bring about. The Devil has certain pretensions of his own. So he asks Christ to “adore” him. He does not get anywhere with this approach. The Devil presumably knew that he was not himself divine. He had some premonition that God was up to something else. Some thought that the devils fell because they knew something about this God-becoming-man business. They did not like it. But they could not be sure. So this Christ had to be tested to find out just who he was.

What about the poor? Ah, social justice! Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be on the side of the poor? So why not change stones into bread? That way, we would put all the bakers out of business, of course, but everyone would be fed with no problem or expense. Suppose Christ had gone along with the Devil and provided free bread in unlimited quantities. Next thing we know, the people would want Bavarian chocolate cakes, Danish pastries, and Baked Alaskas. The Devil would then accuse Christ of niggardliness, just as the Hebrews in the Desert grew tired of quail and manna. They longed for the fleshpots of Egypt. There is a similar situation in Plato. Once the basic necessities of life are satisfied, people would want more, luxuries, nicer things. We have already here in a nutshell something of the history of economics.

The Devil next offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world, but with the one little hitch, that of his accepting to be second in command. Christ simply ceases arguing. Some conversations and arguments simply need to end when we see where they are going. “Be gone!” This is the problem with incessant dialoguing that never reaches any conclusion. It is like the Greeks in Athens discussing with Paul. When they came to something so ridiculous as the Resurrection, they bid farewell to Paul. They would deal with it at another time. There are many ways not to listen to the truth or to cut short insincere discussions. But the point seems clear. Christ could have done many things that he did not do. Why?


As we saw in John’s Gospel, Christ does invite people to “change” their lives. Evidently, that is something that cannot be done from the outside. And it seems that this invitation to change our ways can also be rejected. If it could not be rejected, we would not be talking about it. It would simply happen whether we liked it or not. In the short dialogue from Pascal that I cited at the beginning, the curiosity in Scripture concerns those not dictated by the Holy Spirit. The objector thinks, however, that the Church has claimed that the Holy Spirit does decree everything. Pascal answers in two steps. First, he tells us, rightly, that the Church does not say that Scripture is designed to tell us everything we need to know. Nor does the Church say that it does. But, secondly, if the Church did say that Scripture contains everything, “it could be maintained.”

What did Pascal mean by that? He meant that, if this were true, what was contained would in fact make sense when we thought clearly about it. He is reaffirming the experience that we have of those things indeed contained in Scripture. Namely, when we think about them, having learned them from Scripture, they do make sense and shed light on everything else. Faith does seek reason, and finds it. Likewise, when reason looks at what is found in Scripture, it finds good sense, when spelled out.

This conclusion brings me back to something I was talking about earlier, namely the accusation that God was negligent in not giving us everything we need. This is itself an aspect of the question of whether the Holy Spirit, on being sent by Christ at Pentecost, had as his mission the teaching us of everything that we needed to know about both God and the world. I like to approach this issue via the path I sketched above. Would we want a world in which bread and pastries were freely available with no effort on our part so that we did not have to do anything but eat them with no effort to make them or pay for them? In other words, would we want our practical reason—that function of the mind and hand that makes things—to be left unused by each member of the human race? I think not. We would become inert.


Let us take this issue a step further back. Mankind had to learn to bake. This means it had to learn to grow wheat, corn, oats, and other grains, not to mention how to make butter, strawberry jam, and Austrian whipped cream to go with the bread and pastries, let alone worry the dietitians and doctors when we eat too many of them. Mankind had to learn to mill the grains into flour. Ovens had to be invented. Baking is a certain skill. Not everyone needs to be a baker. If everyone were a baker, we would not have time for anything else. We would have an abundance of bread but no shoes. There are people who complain about the world because many are poor or lack something. Was the Creator somehow oblivious of this little need that went along with the object of His over-all creation? Or rather, did he have something else in mind about how best to provide for it? Was it all that cruel if he gave us enough brains and talents to work it out ourselves? Aquinas says that we were not created with tusks and hides because we were given brains instead to figure out how to protect ourselves.

The things not in Scripture were elsewhere found in the world from the beginning. Scripture was not designed to help us learn how to make a rocket or a computer. Evidently, its author knew that these things could eventually be figured out with the things already in creation, especially the human mind itself. We conclude from these considerations that God had something else in mind when he got around to divine revelation. He did not need further to instruct us in what we could figure out by ourselves and would enjoy doing so. He just had to turn us loose on the world with enough time and a little pressure on us to go about learning what we needed and wanted to know. It is not that things in Scripture hinder us from knowing what we could know by ourselves. Usually they help us.

But the Incarnation and Pentecost are divine initiatives we could not have anticipated. Once they happened, we can make sense of them by thinking about them. That was Pascal’s second point. So Christ’s coming amongst us and his sending the Holy Spirit were needed to explain what we were really here in this world for, nothing more, nothing less. Revelation was not designed to tell us about building a better world order or how to do so in a few easy lessons. We were supposed to do what we could. But most people, most of the time in human history lived in pretty tough circumstances, usually brought on by themselves or others who put themselves first. And even those who lived in prosperous times somehow seemed to develop even more serious problems than the poor and less well-off. “Why was this?” we wonder. It was because human life was really about something transcendent. There was no escape from what we really are. This is what we were being told about ourselves and what we really wanted.

What men needed to know was not how to build a railroad or develop a better cough medicine. Rather, it concerned each person’s final destiny, what it basically was, and how to obtain it. Achieving this purpose is what each human life, no matter when or where lived, or how long for that matter, was about in its basic drama or story. At the end, each person is to be judged on the basis of how he lived his life based on what he did and knew for himself and others. This judgment is always fair and just, but is always founded on the free choices of the person being judged. They manifest what kind of a person he really is and always will be. In this sense, princes and scholars, farmers and merchants, mothers and fathers, the great and the small, are judged by the same standards. This is the only real equality, a proportionate one, that exists everywhere in the human historical universe.

The Incarnation, birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ are empirical accounts of what happened when God decided to explain to us exactly what we are and the significance of our own choices and way of life. God was in something of a bind. He could not invite other free but finite beings besides himself to participate in his own inner life unless they wanted to do so. Some things are impossible for us to have unless we want them after the manner in which they are. Friendship and love are two of these. They bind man and God together in a way simple being does not. We could not be given free choice with one hand and have it taken back by another so that we would necessarily be inhabitants of God’s Kingdom.

The genius of God’s redemptive plan, if we might put it that way, was that it was given to us as a “second chance”. That is, men had already rejected God and followed their own ways. If another way were to be provided to return to the original purpose for which we were created, it would have to be after the manner of a free gift, something that is really what we want but also capable of being rejected. The life of Christ in this sense is what happened when many men rejected God’s second offer. Instead of greeting and accepting him, they rejected him, denied him.

Christ’s response was to suffer in His innocence. With this suffering, some few finally saw His point that we cannot do wrong. But others rejected Christ’s way. They sought to find an alternate way. This is what the lives we see among us today are about. The continued seeking of an end that is not the one we were designed to possess, that of eternal life, that life that is ours, but follows our death. Its completion is not something we can do in this life.

What we can do in this life is to learn to provide for ourselves and to take care of one another, to worship God as he has indicated is the one way properly to worship Him. We can accomplish this purpose only if we use our minds and virtues to do what is reasonable and makes sense. When we reject the ways that are in reason and revelation, we end up in our own closed world. We claim a “right” to do what we want. We deny any transcendence or life beyond death, as the resurrection implies. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world for one basic reason, to keep alive and to make known in various ways, but principally through the Church, the essential truth, that we are made not merely for a life in this world, where we begin, but for eternal life where we end. Our path to it has been made known to us in the life and death of Christ.

The Spirit still leads each of us to only one goal, the change of our hearts whereby we choose to accept the final good that is given to us. This one good is so much better than anything we could concoct for ourselves that we are amazed that we could reject it. But we can and do. This is the drama of the history, of the world in which we find ourselves. It is a world in which, much to our surprise. God did not really leave anything out that we needed to know either to take care of ourselves or to be saved for eternal life.

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on May 15, 2016.)

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