Let me start with an old pseudo-philosophical question concerning perception and reality. If a tree falls in the forest, you can hear the noise. The philosopher asked the question "What if no one is around to hear the tree when it falls? Is there a noise?"
There are hidden assumptions in such a question. Thus the question itself is misleading.
Asking the Wrong Question
This is the wrong question. The question purports to ask you about the sound, or the noise. But this question actually focuses on perception. It really asks about the hearer, not about the noise.
What is Noise?
The prior question is "What is noise?" or "What does the word 'noise' mean?" From a physical, scientific point of view, "noise" is the vibration of air. This vibration is perceived by our ears.
We also use the word "noise" for the hearing (perception) of the vibration. But the fact that no one's ear is there does not keep the air from being disturbed by the falling tree.
Perception or Reality
This is not a question about the reality of "noise" or "sound," but a question about perception. Restated, we would ask instead "If a tree falls in the forest, will there be an aspect of the event that we can refer to as 'noise'?"
We often ask questions based on assumptions we have not examined. When we do not examine our assumptions, we accept the limitations they place upon us. We do this in matters of theology and religion.
Our language tricks us here also. For instance, someone may ask a question like "What is the Holy Spirit?" Similarly this is the wrong question.
This form of question already assumes a conclusion. The focus is on the term "Holy Spirit." This form of the question jumps over the study of Bible references or alternative uses of the term "Holy Spirit."
The form of the question is actually using this phrase to refer the theological or philosophical category of "Holy Spirit." A more appropriate question is, "What does the term Holy Spirit refer to?"
This directs our attention to our prior understanding and helps us define our perception of the reality the term "Holy Spirit" already might have referred to in our previous understanding.
Go to the Source
This leads one to look at the record, in the Bible. Focusing on the language used enables the questioner to investigate and then draw a conclusion from the Biblical evidence.
That clarifies the source usage, and might help the enquirer distinguish his own concepts from the concepts behind the usages of the similar term in the New Testament writings.
The simpler, but misleading, question "What is the Holy Spirit?" is actually a philosophical question asking for a systematic conclusion. This approach avoids looking at the way the term was originally used by the New Testament authors.
The question of how the word Spirit is used in the Bible also focuses on the dynamic of the event or encounter. This is more resonant with the dynamic cultural focus on event, which we find in a majority of the world's cultures, such as the many African worldviews.
This also leads more easily to application, as the activity revealed in the scriptural event serves as a model for the activity of God's Spirit in the believer's life.
Original version of this article published under this series and title in Afri-Com, September 1993
This version written and posted 28 December 2005
Last edited 21 November 2007
Copyright © 1993, 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.