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A New Pneumatology Must Resist De-Personalizing the Spirit

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 15, 2007

In a previous post, I began to explore pneumatology. My conviction is that the church at large has neglected to thoughtfully reflect upon the Holy Spirit. One might suspect that the Emerging Church would be all about correcting that. While there is certainly more talk of pneumatology in the emerging church than I find in mainstream evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism, it hasn’t been as rigorous or productive as I’d like. Why do I care? Because unless our emerging ecclesiology is deeply informed by a robustly Trinitarian understanding of the Spirit, our little experient (the emerging church) will become a big pile of poo.

I want to be fair here. Many in the emerging church are starting to think about this stuff. I’m hardly the first. But overall the lack of reflection has been disappointing. And, all too often, the sort of reflection seems to be of the Spenser Burke sort. In his book, Heretics Guide to Eternity, he SEEMS to de-personalize the Spirit. I’m all for pushing past the rather limited way in which many Christians talk about the Spirit. But in our efforts to break free from traditional categorical confines, we mustn’t DE-personalize the Trinity. Instead, we should SUPER-personalize. In other words, the Spirit isn’t MERELY a person, but is certainly personal AND MORE.

Progress Christian Blogger seems to present this sort of perspective well. In response to my earlier post, he writes:

I think you might be misreading the Pneumatology of Emergent. I think that Emergent is full (not exclusively) of Evangelicals that are now being better educated about modern theology. Because of that, they are no longer holding to the ancient anthropomorphic view of the holy spirit as a “being” or “ghost” that does stuff to and for us, but rather as a attitude or spirit of mind that we are asked to take on as our own attitude which transforms us. This is not a rejection or watering down of Pneumatology, but instead it is just a natural evolution of thought from an ancient worldview toward a more realistic current worldview.

I think it is key for us to make that shift in world view so that we can start talking about the holy spirit more. It is critical that we discuss it, but as long as it is views as a “being” then it is going to be awkward and pretty much limits in educated discussions outside of the 3rd world or the deep south where that type of view is accepted.

My response:

Progressive Christian: I get it…but I don’t like it. This depersonalizing of the Holy Spirit may appeal to a modern theologically liberal mindset, but it isn’t Trinitarian and it is often embraced, in my not very humble opinion, unreflectively by many emerging church folks. And I’m not calling my fellow emergers unreflective in general here. I have been genuinely excited to be surrounded by such a thoughtful group of people. But when it comes to pneumatology, I’ve been disappointed.

Spencer Burke seemed to take the approach you’re suggesting and I think it was a profound mistake. You can say it is an enlightened moving away from an anthropomorphized view of the Holy Spirit, but to me it is the moving away from the personhood of the Holy Spirit. I have BIG problems…HUGE, GIGANTIC, MONDO problems with this sort of idea:

…they are no longer holding to the ancient anthropomorphic view of the holy spirit as a “being” or “ghost” that does stuff to and for us, but rather as a attitude or spirit of mind that we are asked to take on as our own attitude which transforms us. This is not a rejection or watering down of Pneumatology, but instead it is just a natural evolution of thought from an ancient worldview toward a more realistic current worldview.

Why do I have a problem? It isn’t because I want to maintain the idea of the Holy Spirit as a ghost that does stuff to and for us. I definitely think our understanding of the Spirit needs to be more panentheistic. However, to say the Spirit is an “attitude” that we need to embrace to experience transformation is really lame. I’m sorry for being such an ass about it, but you’ve struck a major nerve. It may be more “realistic” but it moves away from the profoundly terrifying image of a Triune God, whose perichoretic inter-penetrating relations establish God’s very Being, and whose outpouring of love establishes the very essence of the Universe. This very same Triune God calls us, in Christ, by the Spirit, and for the Father to partake of divinity. We the Emerging Church can’t drift away from that. End personal diatribe.

Read the rest of our interaction here.

for further reading . . .

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Comments

22 Responses to “A New Pneumatology Must Resist De-Personalizing the Spirit”

  1. Jonas Lundström on April 17th, 2007 4:33 am

    Interesting post. I think we need to use God´s own story when we reflect about this, and not be to preoccupied with “theology” and the creeds. If we believe that the marriage between the church and the Powers was and is a bad thing, we would need to hesitate before we embrace the traditional theology of the trinity, since it was the Powerful church with the help of the Empire which produced this understanding and made it into such a cornerstone.

    To me it seems to be an easier and more natural reading of the Bible to understand the spirit as the dynamic and personal presence of God, but not as a “person” separate from the Father.

    What would be your scriptural base for your view of the spirit?

    (Feel free not to answer. This, of course, is a gigantic subject.)

  2. Progressive Christian Blogger on April 17th, 2007 10:23 am

    It seems to me like you are stuck between metaphor and history. Or possibly even stuck between several different metaphors which are inconsistently applied to your logic. It isn’t surprising because I see this as the #1 problem in Christian theology today. I’m not trying to be overly critical of you, but instead I’m very curious to follow your logic through to see if this is really what you mean or if the clumsy nature of language is causing problems in our communication.

    You made this statement that seems to highlight the conflict that I hear in your analysis:

    “You can say it is an enlightened moving away from an anthropomorphized view of the Holy Spirit, but to me it is the moving away from the personhood of the Holy Spirit”

    What could “personhood” actually mean in literal language in your idea of the “personhood of the Holy Spirit”. Viewing a spirit as if it is a person is wonderful (and common practice) when writing poetry but we can’t get caught up trying to understand that spirit as an actual person or person-like being. When we do that we get all sorts of bizarre theological issues. All sorts of mistakes with ideas of spiritual possessions (both good and evil) stem from this literalism.

    In poetic writing it is normal to speak of “things” like aspects of nature, creation itself, our even own emotions as having personal qualities. It helps the poet to craft his ideas when he uses this technique but we can’t let the use of this literary technique fall into the trap of literalism.

    The authors of Proverbs did this with the idea of wisdom as “sophia” or a femine representation of God’s wisdom but I never see Christians trying to take that literally and speaking to wisdom as if it were a person even though the author did. The 2nd and 3rd generations of Christians also did this with the spirit of compassion found in Christ as it is evidenced in the Gospel of John. I think what we have there is a telling of this story through the lens of Greek philosophy. There is nothing wrong with this UNLESS we try to read it as something more literal.

    Thanks for the dialogue which I am confident is the result of two passionate followers of Jesus seeking know his heart. fyi… I use the word “heart” in a completely metaphorical way ;-)

  3. Mak on April 17th, 2007 10:32 am

    I share your concerns.

  4. dlw on April 17th, 2007 7:29 pm

    I just wrote a paper for syst theology III titled, “May the Holy Spirit Be With You” where I argue that it’s best to be agnostic on whether the HS is a personal or apersonal being, as there seem to be no serious implics from the HS being personal…

    dlw

  5. Cullen on April 18th, 2007 9:38 pm

    Unless you’re a trinitarian.

    God is personal.

  6. markvans on April 19th, 2007 9:51 am

    I do think there are serious implications. Just off the top of my head:

    1) I’m not sure how an impersonal thing can mediate the Presence of a Personal God, or the Person of Christ.

    2) If the perichoretic relations within the Trinity establish God’s being, as many Great writers like Zizioulas and Gunton would argue, then demoting the Spirit to a Thing becomes problematic. The Spirit cannot be LESS than personal for their projects to be coherent, in my mind. And keep in mind, I’m using the term “person” in a way that expresses relationality and desire, not in a way that could be used synonymously with “being.”

    3) Some might be tempted to say “well, the Spirit is simply the love between the Father and the Son, or something like that.” To that, I’d say…ok. But love is personality and relationality. To say the Spirit is love (or God is love, for that matter) is to affirm personhood. Love isn’t an emanation flowing between objects any more than the Spirit is an emanation flowing between objects. Love is the giving of ones self in relationship. Love is relationships. Love is personhood. Love is God. And love is established in the triune self giving within the Godhead.

    I sure wish LeRon were reading this and could weigh in…

  7. Progressive Christian Blogger on April 19th, 2007 12:05 pm

    Markvans,

    I think you may be starting with a framework that there is a heirarchy of “things” and somehow a “spirit” is less-than “human” on the scale. Is that your suggestion? Is this a demotion or promotion? In either case, what is a spirit? Are you a dualist in that you see physical and spiritual as separate “realms”? Isn’t the act of applying human qualities like language and emotion to God an immediate reduction in God’s status? Isn’t human a lower form? Wouldn’t Tillich’s view of God as the “ground of all being” end up being a huge promotion of the value of God in our eyes?

    These issues are so difficult because the all presuppose a world-view and unless we are all looking through the same lens we will never be able to dialogue in a rational manner. But then in probably isn’t rational to expect everyone to be able to look through the same lens.

  8. Jonas Lundström on April 19th, 2007 12:07 pm

    The blog-fuzziness appears, who is responding to who?
    Anyway, to anyone - my own view is that the spirit is God´s personal presence and energy. It is not “a thing” but an aspect of God - God among God´s people. (I disagree with the use of the thing-word as the Progressive Blogger used it.) Somewhat like the fact that “God´s love” is not a thing. This also to me seems more in continuity with the OT.

    If this is the case, it seems to me that your (Mark`s) fear of the “de-personalizing” of the spirit misses the target, although of course, you might be right speaking to some other opinion (Progressive Blogger?). I would not deny that the spirit is a personal being distinct from the Father, but I would not agree with it either. I do not know and I think the question might be the wrong one. In the same way, I am not at all sure that The Word was a distinct personal being prior to the incarnation. I suggest James McClendons (Systematic Theology, “Doctrine”) readings on these topics.

    Of course, this is part of the bigger issue of the trinity. To me, the traditional formulas seems to have developed in a direction quite alien to the scriptures.

  9. Corey on April 19th, 2007 2:28 pm

    Jonas,
    Good thoughts at the end of your post. If you haven’t read LeRon Shults, you might want to check it out as he fleshes that idea out quite expansively. I’m not sure that you want to go where you’re headed with the Word not being a distinct personal being prior to the incarnation. While there might be a way for that to be true, that is not John’s perspective. In his gospel, the whole thrust of the narrative is that Jesus is the Word and his eternal divinity is what gives him authority to dwell among us and redeem the universe.

    Progressive Christian,
    You also need to re-read the book of John. The God that is presented there and throughout the rest of the bible is an intensely relational one. But that relationality is not simply God relating to me and me to God. It begins with God’s personal interactions within God. It is this dynamic relationship of mutual submission and glorification within God that we are invited to participate in. The Father glorifies the Son and the Spirit…The Son glorifies the Father and the Spirit…The Spirit glorifies the Father and the Son. If the Spirit is not personal (which is defined as being able to give and receive love, to long for relationship and having the capacity to be longed for), then the trinitarian reality as elucidated in Scripture cannot exist. If we are not being invited into a real relationship of love, longing, and other-glorification, then our whole relationship with God is called into question and the point of this conversation becomes fuzzy.

  10. Geoff Holsclaw on April 19th, 2007 9:23 pm

    hey mark,

    good post. and great meeting you in Philly. see ya this weedend.

  11. Jonas Lundström on April 20th, 2007 1:36 am

    Corey.
    Ok, thanx for your the LeRon-suggestion. I agree that John´s gospel is the hardest to reconcile with this reading. Please note that I am not explicitly denying either the personhood of the (distinct) spirit or the personhood of the (distinct) Word prior to the incarnation, but I think we need not, and maybe should not have to acknowledge it either. It seems to me that John can be read in continuity with Proverbs and the apocryphical Jesus Syrac (I don´t know the name in english, sorry). According to these texts, it seems that there was a pre-existant woman close to God from the beginning, something few “orthodox” people would agree with. The Word appears to be personalized in John, but this might be in the same way as with The Wisdom. To me, it also seems that John´s Gospel speaks about the relationship between the human Jesus (Word incarnated) and God, and not some ontological relationship beyond space and time.

    Despite this, I agree that John seems to give some credibility to the orthodox view, and therefore, I would not deny it. But I also think that ortodoxy have major problems with loads of NT-text that speaks of Jesus as a real human, or that separates “God” from the Lord Jesus (placing Jesus “outside” of God, so to speak). (1 kor 8, 1 tim 2 for example). God is one, and the trinitarian theology, although not the intention, gives most (?) people the impression that God is a team, consisting of three individuals.

  12. Anna on April 20th, 2007 1:56 pm

    Ok, I’m not theologically fluent one bit but I’ll toss in my theory on why identifying the Holy Spirit as an equal to the Father and Son is difficult for many.

    ‘Spirit’ is not tangible in the way Jesus was (is) and the way we can conceptualize the Father. For our scientifically-enlightened minds to fully envelope the personhood of the Holy Spirit is to…well…really live this stuff. And that just messes up our neat little envelopes of predictability and who wants that?

    I especially like G.K Chesterton’s arguments for the existence of miracles. To not allow for what we cannot explain is to be a materialist. The Holy Spirit frees us from becoming materialists because He is active in the affairs of men.

    Now, if we de-personalize the Holy Spirit, what happens? If He is just an “attitude” or part of the Good Ether, then the Will to act is removed. We can go along like ignorant materialists because sometimes the Good Ether is there and sometimes not and our lives are affected in little difference between the two.

    That’s the best I can add to the soup pot. Stir well and simmer!

  13. Cullen on April 20th, 2007 5:03 pm

    Jonas,
    is the point of discussing the Spirit to set the bounds of what is allowable or, to be doubly negative, what isn’t unorthodox, or are we seeking the best possible mode of beleif? Sure, no one in this chat will call you a heretic for quesitoning the personhood of the Spirit, but is there something higher we’re being called into that could only come from a real person with a real voice?

    Also, most trinitarians do not shrug their shoulders and think of the Trinity as the punchline of a “three deities walk into a bar” joke. Anecdotally, and more importantly, confessionally, I find trinitarians are much more apt to shrug their shoulders and resign the problem to the mysterious supernaturality of God. The scriptures you cited show distinction in the Godhead, but many others show unanimity; hence the Trinity.

    PC Blogger,
    One need not be a dualist to be a trinitarian (again, see LeRon Shults).
    At some level or another, everything is just energy that is harmonizing in a particular way. Sometimes it looks like a dirt bike, sometimes it looks like something we can only call “spirit.”

    Also, when we ascribe personhood to God, ae aren’t attributing human qualities to God. Rather, God was gracious enough to attribute humanity with a similar kind of personhood to the one that God has.

    Quite simply, scripture clearly shows that the Spirit is the immanent part of God. If the immanent part of God is not personal, and consequentially not relatable, then it’s game over. Faith is fruitless, and we should all go home and read Chuck Palahniuk.

  14. Jonas Lundström on April 21st, 2007 8:47 am

    This is very interesting, and I appreciate the possibility to discuss this, since many christians seems to be to scare even to speak clearly about this. I am learning through this dialogue.

    Despite the openess, there still seems to be a tendency to an all-or-nothing-argument in this dialogue. If we don´t clearly appreciate that the Spirit is a “he” (she?) distinct from the Parent, then it seems that several of the voices in this dialogue says that “our little experient (the emerging church) will become a big pile of poo” (Mark), or “then our whole relationship with God is called into question and the point of this conversation becomes fuzzy” (Corey) or “Faith is fruitless, and we should all go home and read Chuck Palahniuk” (Cullen). But it is really your view that this is spelled out so clearly in the scriptures that we can make drastic conclusions like this?? Isn´t this still a different way to make the heresy-accusation?

    It seems to me that several groups and individuals that have hade questions about the traditional teaching on the trinity, also have been good followers of Jesus in the power of the s/Spirit. For examples - swedish pentecostals traditionally have refused giving there allegiance to any creed (though not denying them either), swedish “free-baptists” have questioned the person-hood of the spirit and have at the same time been the closest we have had in Sweden to anabaptism. There also are loads of oneness-pentecostals out there (I have heard, we don´t have them in Sweden), denying the trinity but emphasising the miracles and so on. Polish and Italian anabaptists and others questioned the trinity but were more radical followers of Jesus than the mainstream-christianity. This might also have been the case with the not so known early ebionites. Some of the early adventist-groups emphazised prophesy and the spirit but had a unitarian view of God. And, dare I say, the Jehovas Witnesses (what is it called in english?) have developed an alternative church, taking several of Jesus commands serious, but also questioning the trinity. To me - this gives some indication that questioning the personhood of the spirit does not necessarily lead to all these bad consequenses some seems to fear.

    Cullen, God is spirit (John 4). God dwells among us, this is the mystery of the spirit. The one we meet in our midst, when we are eating together in the name of Jesus, admonishing each other, sharing our revelations and teachings, reaching out to poor, confronting the powers, is the very presence of God Godself. It was not some human power that came upon Jesus but the very presence of God, and now Jesus himself, through this spirit of God, reveals himself to us (John 14). Why does this make our faith fruitless??

  15. Richard Daley on April 21st, 2007 8:38 pm

    To me - this gives some indication that questioning the personhood of the spirit does not necessarily lead to all these bad consequenses some seems to fear.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it comes down to a question of the identity of the one you worship. If I worship a God in three persons and someone else worships a God in two persons, can we both be said to be worshiping the same God?

    The two ideas may be somewhat compatible philosophically (though it would take a better philosopher than me to say if it was) or maybe even compatible practically, but the religion/faith of Christianity is not one that is centered on the practical or philosophical (even though these are important) but on the relational and thus on the personal, in which case the “who” we are relating to becomes very important in my mind.

  16. Jonas Lundström on April 22nd, 2007 8:14 am

    That is a good question, but I think it can only be truly answered in a definite setting. For sure, there might be limits to how different our understanding of God can be while we are still serving God together, but we will always, I think, emphazise different aspects of God, not fitting all the pieces together in the same way. So far, my trinitarian questions has not caused some serious troubles in the christian groups I participate in. I would also prefer that we accept different theological views but emphazise the common practises and dare to trust that they will also shape our common theology. To me, the teaching of the scriptures has as aim to equip us for good works and practises (2 Tim 3) - to develop correct thinking is not their primary goal. Because of this, I have more troubles with “worship” that, for example, do not allow every believers participation (1 Kor 14) than differences in understanding of the nature of God.

  17. markvans on April 23rd, 2007 2:56 pm

    Jonas, I appreciate the apophatic nature of your words. When talking of the Spirit as a person, we are wise to not assume that the word means “person” in the sense that it can be used for you or me. It comes down to relationship for me. We can have a relationship with the Spirit and vice versa. And the Spirit is, in some way, God. Somehow the Spirit and Jesus both express God. I go along with the Fathers though and would like to say that God, Jesus, and the Spirit are in relationship with one another, though there are certainly not three “beings” or three “essences” or three “Gods.” One God.

    But language cannot grasp God. And I don’t think we should decide who is “in” and who is “out” based upon the words they use to describe a reality. After all, there are certainly plenty of theologically orthodox pricks who don’t have the love of God in their hearts.

    Nevertheless, we must use language to communicate. In our desire to explain our experience of God as part of a continued experience of God by humanity, we must be careful not to be snobby (like Progressive Christian comes across) in our insistance that using certain words like “person” is dumb. Nor can we be militant defenders of the particular words of Orthodoxy (saying that “three persons, yet one essence” are the only appropriate words to use when describing God. But we must use words. And, unfortunately, words are inherently divisive. They, by their very nature, say one thing and not another.

    As I proceed towards a new pneumatology, I am going to try to use new thought categories and metaphors, but I am going to, at the same time, be working from within the Orthodox Tradition. By this I mean that I want to affirm the “threeness” of God while I also affirm the “oneness” of God. And that any understanding of the Trinity that one puts forward must account for the tri-relationality of God, and therefore the tri-personhood of God. And of course, I’m using the word “person” in the ancient way, not the pop-freudian way. The one we call “Father” and Jesus and Spirit are each certainly not LESS than God. And God is the One who relates to us with Love, and is Love.

  18. dlw on April 23rd, 2007 3:17 pm

    Well, I am not sure that the HS is “personal” in the sense that we believe the word applies to the Father and the Son.

    “1) I’m not sure how an impersonal thing can mediate the Presence of a Personal God, or the Person of Christ. ”

    dlw:Well, then it must be impossible for an apersonal being to mediate the presence of Personal beings! =-)

    “2) If the perichoretic relations within the Trinity establish God’s being, as many Great writers like Zizioulas and Gunton would argue, then demoting the Spirit to a Thing becomes problematic. The Spirit cannot be LESS than personal for their projects to be coherent, in my mind. And keep in mind, I’m using the term “person” in a way that expresses relationality and desire, not in a way that could be used synonymously with “being.””

    dlw: Once more, I prefer to try and tie these matters to the practical and find the perichoretic relations as often quite abstract. I’m not arguing for subordinationism in arguing that the “personalness” of the HS is not a critical issue for me.

    “3) Some might be tempted to say “well, the Spirit is simply the love between the Father and the Son, or something like that.” To that, I’d say…ok. But love is personality and relationality. To say the Spirit is love (or God is love, for that matter) is to affirm personhood. Love isn’t an emanation flowing between objects any more than the Spirit is an emanation flowing between objects. Love is the giving of ones self in relationship. Love is relationships. Love is personhood. Love is God. And love is established in the triune self giving within the Godhead. ”

    dlw: I don’t know. I honestly can’t affirm “love is personality and relationality” of a distinct sort from that of God the Father and Son. I think Gravity may be a form of love, though not the end-all-be-all of love. I think it is a matter of different sorts of categories of relationships…

    dlw

  19. Jonas Lundström on April 24th, 2007 5:50 am

    Mark, I appreciate your thoughts (and openess) and will try to watch and listening to your further thought on this. I would agree with the major part of what you say, but I still have some doubts. For sure, there seems to be a threeness in the way God has been working with the humanity, and it does not seem stupid to make the guess that this somehow also corresponds to Gods inner being. But still, I would not use the “person”-word. I am aware of the fact (?) that the church fathers used this in a different way than the modern use, but we live today and I have a hard time envisioning every believer thoroughly reading the fathers. As long as “person” for most christians does mean “individual”, I probably won´t speak of three persons in God. We have to communicate our teaching even to our child, the heathens and non-academic people.

    Also, there is a lot of talk about God being a relationship. A theologian friend of mine recently tried to explain to me that this is probably a way to reduce the influence of greek, ontological, “static” thinking about God. Sounds nice, but to my ears, this talk seems to promote the thought of three men hanging around in heaven in an eternal “team”. As words are also pictures, doesn´t this give us a picture of God as three individuals (as in the old icon)? It doesn´t help me much if they are dancing around…

  20. markvans on April 24th, 2007 10:14 am

    Sounds nice, but to my ears, this talk seems to promote the thought of three men hanging around in heaven in an eternal “team”. As words are also pictures, doesn´t this give us a picture of God as three individuals (as in the old icon)? It doesn´t help me much if they are dancing around…

    Ha! Great point, Jonas. I tend to agree with you. Language fails here. My concern is that we somehow maintain the relationality of God but without it conjuring up images of three guys sitting up in heaven, sipping a pint, getting drunk, and dancing about! I’m just not sure how to talk about God any other way, since to take away relational language tends towards impersonal language like “energy” or “attitude”. I’m not sure such moves are an improvement. Perhaps it is best to stick with Scriptural language and be ok with ambiguity:

    Matthew 3:16-17…

    As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

    John 14:26…

    But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

    Romans 15:30…

    I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.

    2 Cor. 13:14…

    May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

    1 Peter 1:2

    who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood…

    In the end, I want to preserve the relationality and “threeness” of these insights without negating that God is One. And I don’t want to throw away the insight that God is personal. But since language tends to confine and control, it may be best to tend towards apophaticism and simply articulate relationality the way Scripture does above, without making using words like “three persons, one being.”

  21. dlw on April 24th, 2007 8:16 pm

    I think the issue for me(and Jonas) is that the personalness of God is not at stake over whether the HS shd be seen as personal in the same sense as God the Father and God the Son…

    dlw

  22. markvans on April 24th, 2007 8:39 pm

    Is the Spirit God?

    Can I relate to the Spirit?

    Can the Spirit relate to me?

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