Review: Embracing the Other

Embracing the other

Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity), Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.

Summary: Explores the multiple oppressions experienced by women who are Asian-American (or other) immigrants of color, and how the “Spirit-Chi” of God enables the embrace of others across ethnic and gender boundaries.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes about the experience of immigrants and women from a first person perspective. As a child, her family emigrated to Canada where she experienced  racism as she was mocked and treated as the other because she was from Korea. She also experienced sexism in the strongly patriarchal church her family became a part of in their conversion to Christianity. In the introduction of this book addressing the embrace of the other, and how a re-imagined understanding of the Spirit of God can speak powerfully to the marginalization of the other, she begins with her own painful experience, and then widens the scope.

First, she turns to the foreign women of the Bible, and particularly to the foreign wives of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were “put away,” expelled as unclean so the Jewish community could purify itself, and then to Hosea as a word of hope for the importance of all women. She then considers the racial experience of Asian Americans, the “almost white” or “model minority” who are nevertheless, always “foreign,” even if they have been citizens for generations. The experience of women compounds this marginalization as they are often subordinated in both home and in ethnic congregations. Kim goes back and traces this experience through western imperialism and colonial experience down to the present. She then outlines the history of feminism, from the outliers of Rahab and Ruth in scripture, to both white feminist and global feminist theologians. It is in this context that she introduces the appeal of the spiritual experience of God to ethnic minority women that allows approaches to God that are relational, life- and other-affirming, and not shaped by Western patriarchal and discriminatory structures.

All of this lays the groundwork for Kim’s own pneumatological proposal of the Spirit-Chi of God. This at once draws on the Spirit of Shalom in scripture that sets things right and brings wholeness and connection, and the concept of “Chi” in many cultures–the life energy or spirit that inhabits us all. She believes this connection of Spirit with Chi enables a conversation across cultures and faith that allows for fundamental human connection, or embrace as we tap into the enabling power of the Spirit. She also relates this work of the Spirit to erotic live, the powerful connection between human beings, hence the subtitle of “The Transformative Spirit of Love.” For women who struggle with the “male” persons of the Trinity (although beyond gender in human terms), Spirit can be a powerful and transforming means both of engaging God and pursuing the shalom of God in the world.

Kim’s description of the experiences of racism and sexism, particularly among Asian-American women, speaks out against how both church and society oppress.  To address how our pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) empowers the embrace of the other is a vital and needed area of theological work in moving beyond sentimental expressions of being “One in the Spirit” to substantive talk about oneness with the other.

The most controversial elements of this work are the association of Spirit with Chi, and the discussion of erotic love. I personally did not have difficulty with the latter, believing that the redemptive work of God extends to our most basic loves and restores them to God’s creation intent. The power of the Spirit of God to work through even our most primal and embodied affections to forge strong human bonds is not to be looked down upon, but may be foundational in many instances in growth into agape love. More troublesome was the idea of Chi-Spirit. I think there definitely is a point of contact between the biblical idea of the human spirit and concepts of “spirit” or “life force” or “energy” that is worth exploring in inter-religious conversation. It is the equation of this and the Spirit of God in singular, rather than distinctive or even complementary terms that was troubling, and could be construed as a form of pantheism. I find myself wondering whether the transformation of which she speaks need involve the regenerative and sanctifying work of the Spirit resulting from faith in the redemptive work of Christ, or simply by increasing one’s chi.

I’m hesitant in raising this as a white male, given the framing of this discussion in terms of race and gender. I think it can be reductionistic and dismissive to consign much of the church’s historic discussion of the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity to white, male, hegemonic discourse (my words, not Kim’s) without argument. This is particularly so given the involvement of Near Eastern and African Christians in the early church councils, including the Cappadocian Basil the Great who wrote one of the earliest formulations of Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit. Also, one of the most potent forces in global Christianity is Pentecostalism, where the empowering fullness of the Holy Spirit energizes mission across cultural boundaries. I was surprised that a book on the transformative work of the Spirit, empowering love for the other, does not address this vibrant movement.

In fairness, Kim has written elsewhere in greater depth on these subjects including her reimagining project relating the Spirit and Chi (visit her website for a list of her publications). I have not read those works, which may justify the assertions presented in briefer form here and answer some of the questions this book raises for me. I cannot help wondering if much of what Kim seeks to affirm in this re-imagining may be done without importing the conception of Chi into the conversation, which seems to me to blur the distinctions of Christianity and other religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I do want to affirm both her important focus on pneumatology and its importance in bringing liberation and transformation for the oppressed and power for all of us to love the other.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Review: Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life
Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a boy, I grew up hearing about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Later on, the language was modernized to refer to the Holy Spirit but there was still something mysterious about this person of the Trinity. And so it remains for many of us who functionally are “binatarians”. We speak of Father and Son but have only the vaguest notions of the Holy Spirit.

And so it was with some interest that I turned to this work by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann on the Holy Spirit, or in theological terms, “pneumatology.” This volume is actually the fourth volume in Moltmann’s systematic theology.

The title of the book is significant. Moltmann’s key theme in this book is that the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of life.” Moltmann is arguing not for “spirituality” but for “vitality” in our embodied lives, countering what he sees as Gnostic remnants in the theology and language of the church.

Moltmann takes an approach different than some others. He begins with our experience of the Spirit and moves to a theology of the Spirit rather than the other way round. It is through the Holy Spirit that the immanent Triune God is experienced in our lives. He looks at this in our experience, in the Old Testament and in the relationship of Christ and the Spirit. One of the implications of the work of the Spirit is the presence of God in all things and in all of life. There are no divides between “spiritual” and “secular” or material existence.

The second part of this work is titled “Life in the Spirit” and explores the work in the Spirit in what is classically known as the Order of Salvation beginning with giving life to our mortal bodies and to liberating us from sin, in which he also engages Latin liberation theologies. He explores the role of the Spirit in justification, distinguishing victims and perpetrators. He considers the work of the Spirit in regeneration and its relation to justification, in sanctification and in the giving of gifts to the church (which he would extend beyond the typical “gift lists” in scripture to all our talents and skills employed for God’s purposes). Finally, he explores the work of the Spirit in mystical experience.

The third and last section of the book is titled “The Fellowship of the Spirit.” He explores the relations within the Trinity and the implications of that Fellowship for the Spirit’s work in making fellowship possible in the life of the church–including discussions of intergenerational community, fellowship between the genders, and the relation of various action, self help, and other groups that may operate under the auspices of the church. The concluding part of the work contains what one might most classically consider when thinking of the theology of the Holy Spirit. Here Moltmann considers various “metaphors” for the Spirit and comes to his own definition of the Personhood of the Spirit within the Trinity:

The personhood of God the Holy Spirit is the loving, self-communicating, out-fanning, and out-pouring presence of the eternal divine life of the triune God.

He concludes the work with a discussion of the filioque clause added to Western versions of the Creed and a key factor in the schism between East and West. He argues for the East here, that the clause is superfluous at best and unnecessarily subordinates the Spirit within the Trinity and ignores the reciprocity existing between Spirit and Son.

A few comments on this book. I most appreciated Moltmann’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in all of embodied life. I agree with the need for a corrective to an over-spiritualized, gnostic view of life that denies our bodily, material existence and the goodness in this. At the same time, I wondered if Moltmann had moved from simply the immanence of God to a kind of Christian panentheism, God in all things (language he uses at points).

In addition, I do think it a challenge always in Trinitarian theology to discuss the nature of any of the “persons”, with all of the human associations of this language. I sense this difficulty in Moltmann who moves between “it” and “he” in referencing the Holy Spirit. I’m left wondering, in Moltmann’s definition of the Personhood of the Spirit and his uses of language whether he considers the Holy Spirit a “person” in the same way as Father and Son.

I read this work apart from the preceding three volumes in his systematic theology, or any of Moltmann’s other works, which may place me at a disadvantage. (This is what comes of picking up a book in a bargain section of a used book store!). Still, if I were to make a recommendation, I would start with Basil the Great’s, On the Holy Spirit, which is so helpful in understanding the development of the early church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

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