If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day … Hebrew of Hebrews … tribe of Benjamin … Pharisee … zeal persecuting the church … faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (Phil. 3:4–7)
We come now to the fourth of four reflections on the action of the Holy Spirit in human experience. Having looked at the Spirit’s action in bodily, psychological, and social dimensions, we now ask: What is the action of the Holy Spirit to transform cultural experience? By cultural experience I mean the realm of language, images, symbols, etc., through which human beings create and retain the meanings we give to life. What are the cultural ways we communicate our understandings of what it means to be a good American, or a good Christian, or a good son or daughter? In a large degree our lives are determined by the images that culture offers us.
At the most rudimentary level, the culture that shapes and determines us comes from our family. Suppose for example you are a member of the “Kennedy” clan! Being a member of the “Kennedy clan” determines so much of who you are. You learn to imbibe a certain aura that is “Kennedy-esque.” Kennedy’s are fated for greatness! There are no losers in the Kennedy family because losing is not an option. The Kennedy men are Ivy-league smart, fun loving, and very prominent in whatever they do. They are charming and ooze sexual power and mystique. They are religious but not too much so. The Kennedy women are also smart and elegant, but they know their place, which is in support of the Kennedy men. Kennedy men can stray; Kennedy women can’t. Yet there is also a tragic dimension to the Kennedy culture. Kennedy’s are those who have suffered for the greater good. Kennedy’s are both blessed and cursed. They bear the mantel of greatness in their accomplishments and in their suffering, both of which are public.
Now think about how powerful the Kennedy culture is. It is nigh impossible to resist if you are a Kennedy, and impossible to access if you are not a Kennedy. If a member of the Kennedy clan shows little ambition or lacks certain cultural graces, they will be shamed into conformity. On the other hand, what if a Kennedy gets converted to Christ and wants to give up all his/her power and wealth to join an ascetic, non-Catholic religious order? One can only imagine how hard it would be to follow that calling as a “Kennedy.” The Kennedy image would have to be transformed in a way that allowed for a new way of being to emerge, free from the compulsive power of that image. For such a transformation, the converted Kennedy would have to be empowered to step out of the Kennedy image that held him/her in thrall and embrace a new place in which the “Kennedy” image becomes a non-essential aspect of his/her identity in Christ.
Let’s think about this transformation in terms of the life of St. Paul. In the third chapter of Philippians quoted above, Paul gives his personal testimony of cultural transformation. In vv. 4–6 Paul elaborates the Jewish and Roman identity that held him prior to Christ. This Jewish, pious, zealous image of the true Jewish follower of Yahweh, like the Kennedy image, controlled Paul’s every thought and action, leading to persecution and murder. But when Jesus took hold of Paul, this religio-cultural identity was radically transformed. Paul continued to be Jewish, pious, zealous, etc., but his Jewishness existed now to serve the transcultural power of Jesus Christ. In effect, the religio-cultural image that held Paul became “iconic,” bearing witness to the reality that transcends all cultural images. The Spirit of Christ transformed Paul’s cultural existence so that his Jewishness became messianic, his piety became inclusive, his zeal became love for all others. The Spirit did not eradicate or annihilate Paul’s Jewishness. The Spirit transformed it into something life-giving and inclusive. This transformation of culture to the service of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit.