A Word of Pneuma: a Meditation Inspired by Adoration

The following essay reflects some ways in which Jean-Luc Nancy’s challenging but rewarding book, Adoration, can illuminate our Quaker tradition for our time. Here as always, I use Christian images in a theopoetic or mythic sense: “not,” as Nancy writes on pp. 70-71 of the book, “to give explanations relying on a state of knowledge different from our own, which would therefore be wrong and illusory for us, but expressing an experience (e.g., the presence of the dead, the fascinating power of fire, the begetting of children, etc.) that is ultimately an experience of unlimitedness, of incommensurability, of an extravagance experienced as being inscribed within nature, life, the exorbitant order of the world.”


The pneuma is blowing where it wills, and you hear its sound but cannot perceive from where it comes or to where it goes; thus is everyone who has been begotten of the Pneuma.– John 3:8

Creation of Adam

Pneuma, writes Jean-Luc Nancy in Adoration, “is what does not speak, without being silent either. Not words, but the breath that carries them. And the trace of this breath in us, in the other. A word of breath.”1 Pneuma means both breath and spirit. In Genesis 2:7, Adam begins to live when he receives pneuma (Heb. nĕshamah) directly from God. In keeping with Adoration‘s emphasis on continuous “creation,” I’ll adapt here a present-tense translation of that verse from scripture4all.org:

And Yahweh Elohim is forming the human from the ground soil, and he is blowing breath of life into his nostrils, and the human is becoming a living being.

The human, that of soil, is given the divine spirit, that of God, as source of life. Another way of expressing that is found in Genesis 1:27:

Elohim is creating the human in his image; in the image of Elohim he created him, male and female he created them.

In that passage’s implication of relationship in God, Christians may find a proleptic reference to the Trinity; we will speak more of that doctrine later. Here we note that if humans are created in the image of God, and if, as Paul taught, Christ is “the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creation,” then (to continue with Pauline imagery) we are created in Christ, as members of Christ’s “body.”2

Our tradition asserts, then, that “in the beginning” we are what the author of 2 Peter would call “partakers of the divine nature” (1:4). But Peter wrote in the (postlapsarian) context of promise because human beings lose that nature, that life, by attempting to appropriate to ourselves the divine pneuma’s world-creating power. That error is described in the biblical story as an insistence on differentiating good from evil, light from darkness, for ourselves — that differentiation being, as we see in Genesis 1:1-4, the first step and sine qua non of God’s organizing of chaos into Edenic order.

In the beginning … the earth became chaos and void, and darkness is over the surfaces of the abyss, and the spirit of Elohim is vibrating over the face of the waters, and Elohim is saying “It shall become light,” and it is becoming light. And Elohim is seeing the light, that it is good, and he is separating the light from the darkness.

God separates light and darkness, good and evil, prior to any discrimination by the human mind: for the newly enlivened Adam and Eve, the good will be a given, a gift, the light by which they see. And as light is good by nature, so, too, in our mythic narrative, are human beings originally good. But by grasping after that goodness we lose it. Nancy’s understanding of that error, or sin, is insightful and thought-provoking. “[Sin] is not defined by fault,” he writes; “it is the condition of mankind closed in on itself.” In an endnote, he elaborates:

The sin comes down to grasping [what is given and must remain given, must be received as gift, not appropriated], to incorporating it by knowledge and by absorption. Forgiving sin allows this grasping to let go.3

One manifestation of sin is our dependence on morality.4 Although we learn in Genesis 2:17 that the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” is death, and in 2 Corinthians 3:6-7 that moral law is “the letter [that] kills, … the ministration of death in characters chiseled in stones,” we insist on the necessity of a moral code. Our attempting to live according to law is a grasping after an abstracted good that leads us down a dead end: if we believe that we are succeeding, we become increasingly self-righteous and narrow; if we believe that we are failing, we become duplicitous or despairing. Fixed in stone (yet easily rationalized in application), law asserts its solid presence and predictability over pneuma, the wind that blows where it will. Our dependence on a moral code is symptomatic of our focus on ourselves, our grasping after personal presence and goodness, but pneuma, the spirit and life of God, is the unappropriable right(eous)ness of relationality, of giving and forgiving.

That brings us back to the Trinity. And to Nancy.

… God effaces himself … in the Trinity. It is a question neither of three gods, nor of a three-headed god. It is exclusively a question of this: God is relation. He is his own relation — which is not a reflexive relation, neither an aseity [aséité] nor an ipseity, one that does not relate itself but relates absolutely. The ternary structure or appearance goes from one of its aspects to the other via something that is other to each of them, which is the relation between them. What is other to each of them is breath, spirit: sense.5

The pneuma, the “spirit of holiness” (or spirit of-holy-togetherness6) that is breathed into the newly-created human, is pure relationality. And that relationality is other. Further, as Augustine reminds us, it is gift.

Therefore, since the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, and certainly God is holy, and God is a spirit, the Trinity can be called also the Holy Spirit. But yet that Holy Spirit, who is not the Trinity, but is understood as in the Trinity, is spoken of in His proper name of the Holy Spirit relatively, since He is referred both to the Father and to the Son, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit both of the Father and of the Son. But the relation is not itself apparent in that name, but it is apparent when He is called the gift of God, for He is the gift of the Father and of the Son …. When, therefore, we say the gift of the giver, and the giver of the gift, we speak in both cases relatively in reciprocal reference. Therefore the Holy Spirit is a certain unutterable communion of the Father and the Son.7

Our “original” (and originary) error is ultimately a grasping after pneuma itself: in order to make sense of the world with ourselves as center, we attempt to appropriate spirit as self or as possession of self. But in doing so we violate its nature and thereby lose it. To thus lose, or refuse, the gift of pneuma is to live no longer as member of Christ, who “does not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but makes himself of no effect” (Phil. 2:6), but to become enclosed in self. It is to fall8 from the light and life of innocence into the darkness and death called sin, for it is only in and by the Holy Spirit, the gift of pure relationality, that the world  (Gk. kosmos) — a construction, an organization of primal chaos — is configured for/as good.

However, even in that spiritual death there remains “a trace of this breath in us, … [a] word of breath.” That word of pneuma, the evangelist John teaches, is the Logos, the divine Word or Reason.9

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was toward God, and the Logos was God. And through the Logos all things came to be, and apart from him not one thing came to be …. It was the true light that is enlightening every human coming into the kosmos. (John 1:1-3,9)

As it is language — logos, the word — that constructs a kosmos, we can also understand sin as an error in thinking the world. “In the beginning,” says our myth, the world is created and organized for good by God’s own speech, the Logos, the outbreathing of the imago Dei.10 But we tend to project a world in the image of our “individual” selves and to believe implicitly that our projected creation corresponds to God’s. Setting up, if unwittingly, our own logos as lord, we enclose ourselves in a human-constructed world, separating ourselves from the “body” and “mind” of Christ the divine Logos.11 Consequently, we are unable to distinguish our human kosmos from the real, unable to “divide aright” between life and death, darkness and light: “the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness is not perceiving it” (Jn. 1:4). Nonetheless, asserts our Quaker tradition, “the Logos became flesh and dwells in us.” Even in our self-enclosure, the potential for pure relationality remains, if obscurely, within us; the trace of spirit — what Friends have called the seed of Christ, the measure of lifethat of God, the inward light — is always present in our hearts as promise and gift. That gift cannot be appropriated, but it can be received. And “to as many as received him, he gives the power to become offspring of God,”12 “partakers of the divine nature.”

The gift of spiritual life, while received and acting inwardly, remains always outside us, “at hand”13 but beyond our grasp — the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit, the divine relationality called agapē, within and among us. Agapē is usually translated as “love,” but that needs clarification. Nancy, with a nod to Emmanuel Levinas, offers a powerful definition:

On this view, love is neither a penchant nor an affection, even if it can create space for penchants, affections, and passions: love is first of all a way of thinking. It is of the order of those “thoughts that do not return to the self — pure élans” that Levinas discusses and that think through the experience of the other [autrui]. There is not even any need to invoke the ethical visage of autrui: it is enough to feel the power of the “outside” that is borne by, or bears, autrui. Love is always … a way of thinking in the sense of experiencing something real, if “real” always means “outside”…. 14

We are speaking, then, in terms borrowed from Nancy and others, of the power of an excess, of that always-other within and without us which exceeds us, which is incommensurable with us. And therefore we are speaking of a rupture, an opening, in the delusion of self-enclosure.

What is produced is a gap, a rupture from what could have remained within an inherent, closed identity — in truth, one should not say “identity” but idiocy: closed on itself, … bogged down in itself. Rupture opens identity by way of difference and the inside by way of the outside ….15

Dehiscence,” an earlier essay that was also inspired by Nancy’s work, focused on our need to permit our hearts to be broken open. But it is not only the heart, but, as Nancy reminds us, (“fallen”) reason as well that needs opening.16 We are called by Jesus to worship and live “in spirit and in truth.” Unlike, perhaps, Pontius Pilate, protector of public reality who shrugs his “What is truth?” as the Logos, “the way, the truth, and the life” whose kingdom is “not of this [human-constructed] world,” stands personified before him, we tend always to confuse our judgment with truth. But as Nancy writes, in context of Nietzsche’s thought, in his earlier book Dis-Enclosure, “Truth is value reevaluated: a devaluation of every measurable value, a devaluation of every given by which one evaluates.”17 Truth, as Alain Badiou might remind us, is in this most essential (and not essentialistic) sense an evental rupturing of one’s e/valuation, a breaking of one’s worldview and an opening to otherness: a dis-enclosure.

That breaking-open is necessary for authentic identity — identity-in/as-relationality. To accept that rupture, and not try to avoid or “heal” it, is an act of faith and hope, for it is an opening of and into the void, of and into the unfathomable, unappropriable alterity of self, other, world.

But in itself it is nothing but a gap, an opening. The infinitesimal reality (res, nothing [rien]) of opening. And therefore also of relationship, transport, transformation, or exchange, of the fortunate or unfortunate encounter. The opening is as risky, as adventurous, as it is fortuitous, as dangerous as it is precious.18

We saw that Paul and Peter wrote of existence in Christ as existence in the divine image and nature. John tells us that the divine nature is agapē,19 a “way of thinking,” in Nancy’s words, that “[feels] the power of the ‘outside’ that is borne by, or bears, autrui.” Feeling in the heart the “divine” power of the outside, the wholly other that includes self and every other (for all are together), was a fundamental motif for the first Friends. Feeling that power within makes us feel and think differently as we are drawn out of self-enclosure into pure relationality, into the real. And when we feel and think differently, we act differently. Living in and as that unfolding and unappropriable mystery, we act less according to “postlapsarian” patterns and more in consonance with the promise of our “first” nature as members of Christ, the Word of Pneuma that blows where it will. “If anyone is in Christ, new creation!”20

Notes for “A Word of Pneuma

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration (The Deconstruction of Christianity II), trans. by John McKeane, Fordham University Press (2013), p. 20.

[2] “The image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creation” is from Col: 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4. On “in Christ,” Michael Parsons writes, “For Paul, union with Christ is summed up in the short phrase ‘in Christ’ and its various equivalents. It is supposed by many to be original with Paul, and the idea appears in different ways about two hundred and sixteen times in his writing.” — Michael Parsons, “‘In Christ’ in Paul,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 25-44. On the body of Christ, see, for example, Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Cor. 12; see also Encyclopedia Britannica, “Saint Paul, the Apostle: The Body of Christ.”

[3] Adoration: the first quotation is from page 53; the endnote is from p. 111. The first quotation echoes Nancy’s earlier book, Dis-Enclosure (p. 155; see endnote 17): “Sin is not primarily an act, it is a condition, and an original condition.”

[4] “As soon as I put forward … that this or that ‘are’ the good or the truth of mankind or of the world, I enter into evil.” — Adoration, p. 74.

[5] Adoration, p. 30. I think that Nancy’s insight here is wonderful: God’s aseity is not aseity; that is, God is not self-sufficiency but relationality. Nor is his ipseity an individual selfhood.

[6] Romans 1:4. The alternative translation (“of-holy-togetherness”) of hagiosunes is from scripture4all.org’s Greek-English interlinear.

[7] Augustine, De trinitate 5, 11 (12).

[8] On page 71 of Adoration, Nancy speaks of “being as fall, which is to say, as a movement of what lacks a basis, a standpoint, ground.”

[9] Logos was a Stoic concept described in theistic terms by the 1st-century C.E. Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.

[10] In words that seem to echo our rendering of Genesis 1:2 (“the spirit of Elohim is vibrating over the face of the waters, and Elohim is saying ‘It shall become light,’ and it is becoming light”), Simone Weil, in Waiting for God (p. 124), says, “The whole creation is nothing but [the Word of God’s] vibration.”

[11] On the “body” of Christ, see endnote 2; on the “mind” of Christ, see 1 Cor. 2:16.

[12] John 1:12.

[13] Mark 1:15: “And [Jesus was] saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: be new-minded and trust in the gospel.'” The Quaker tradition would remind us that “the gospel” is “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God”: see Romans 1:16 and 1 Cor. 1:24; see also the post “‘That of God’: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20.”

[14] Adoration, pp. 58-59. The quotation from Levinas is from his Outside the Subject, trans. by Michael B. Smith (Athlone, 1994), p. 28.

[15] Adoration, p. 15.

[16] In his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (“The Third Proposition: Concerning the Scriptures”), the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay wrote of “the fallen, corrupt and defiled reason of man” and asserted that “the testimony of the Holy Spirit is more excellent than all reason” (a clear echo of John Calvin’s “the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason” in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4).

[17] Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure (The Deconstruction of Christianity), trans. by Bergo, Malenfant, and Smith; Fordham University Press (2008), p. 79.

[18] Adoration, p. 15.

[19] See 1 John 4.

[20] 2 Cor. 5:17.

Minor revision, 9/19/19.

Related posts: “Miracle and Sense”, Dehiscence

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