Reimagining Spirit (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) -- A Review
REIMAGINING SPIRIT: Wind, Breath, and Vibration. By Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. X + 141 pages.
I have a longstanding interest in the Holy Spirit. This is rooted in my experience with Pentecostalism, and its influence on the course of my spiritual life. I wrote a book about spiritual gifts, I titled Unfettered Spirit, which represented an accounting of my journey with the Spirit. That book was an expression of a quarter-century of exploration, and I have continued that exploration since that book was published in 2013. One of the areas of expansion of my own thinking is related to my increasing engagement in interfaith work. As Amos Yong has written in several places, the Spirit might be the key to building bridges across religious lines. That premise intrigues me, which is why I found Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s book Reimagining Spirit so thought-provoking. Kim brings into the conversation her own experiences as a Korean American theologian. It’s the cross-cultural dimensions of her presentation that broaden the conversation that can too often reflect only Euro-American understandings of the Spirit.
Kim is a theologian whose writings have helped expand my own understanding of theology and the way that culture influences it. She also deals with the way racism affects much that we do in theology. While Reimagining Spirit isn't a lengthy book, it is rich in insight and helps us expand the boundaries of our understanding of the Spirit. In the course of the book, she brings her own biography into the conversation. This is in line with her work on intersectional theology. In her introductory textbook on intersectional theology, written with Susan Shaw, she writes that “intersectionality is a lens for understanding how gender, race, social class, sexual identity, and other forms of difference work concurrently to shape people and social institutions within multiple relationships of power” [Kim and Shaw, Intersectional Theology, p. 2]. That commitment to doing intersectional theology stands as a foundation for this exploration of the Spirit of God.
Regarding the Spirit, I think this statement from the book captures her sentiment well: "Whenever we welcome and embrace the Spirit within our lives, we draw closer to God. God is in all things because all things are in God" (p. 2). She speaks of the Spirit here as being free and present in all things and thus is not limited to the Christian understanding. "The Spirit is boundless, and it is both naive and ignorant for Christians to claim that it is only their Spirit that is holy" (p. 3). By establishing the freedom of the Spirit, she invites us to follow the Spirit into conversations beyond the fences of our own tradition.
In the course of the book, as she explores the nature of the Spirit and in doing so focuses on environmental justice, a concern present in other books she has written. The basic elements of the book focus on what Kim calls "three movements” of the Spirit: light, wind, and vibration. She explores each of these movements in some detail, but first, she sets the foundation. That foundation is an examination of the Spirit in relationship to the global context. She draws on her own background as a Korean, bringing into the conversation the Korean concept of Han or suffering. In bringing this concept into the conversation she notes that Christian theology, especially academic theology, has tended to be defined in Eurocentric terms. She believes this is no longer tenable, which means Christianity must learn from a broader global context. In setting forth this proposal, she makes a good point that the Spirit has often been made a junior partner in Trinitarian theology. That is to the detriment of the theological enterprise. She seeks to amend this by elevating the Spirit to an equal partner in the divine nature. For her purposes, she draws two concepts from her Korean background as a means to this rethinking of the role of the Spirit in Christian theology. The first concept is chi, the Korean concept of the Spirit that is understood in terms of light, wind/breath, and vibration. The second concept is Han or unjust suffering, which includes suffering from racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Bringing Han into the conversation opens up our understanding of the role of the Spirit in the World. To understand Han one must understand Korea’s history, for it has been a nation often under duress, and thus experiencing unjust suffering. To understand the Spirit, we must understand the role of the Spirit in relationship to suffering.
From this foundational chapter, we move first to the Spirit as light. The concept of light is ubiquitous in Scripture. In this chapter, she explores ways in which the Spirit is understood as light, and how this understanding gives us hope for a better future. From light, she moves to wind and breath, which are metaphors that have traditionally been used to describe the Spirit. The Hebrew Ruach and the Greek Pneuma both are translated as wind and breath, as well as Spirit. This might be the most traditional of the chapters.
The chapter on the Spirit as vibration is perhaps the most intriguing. She begins the chapter by sharing her first experiences with Pentecostalism, which frightened her. It took time to understand what she observed of her parents participating in Korean Pentecostal experiences. Over time, however, as she studied science and learned about the science of vibration, read the scriptural accounts of the Spirit, including the Spirit hovering over the abyss at creation, she began to understand more fully the nature of the Spirit. She also began to notice how the idea of vibration creating change is scientifically valid and religiously promising. In fact, she sees this present within Hinduism. She also sees it as revelatory regarding climate issues. Ultimately, she writes that "the Spirit moves and creates new things. The Spirit is something that we cannot capture or contain." She speaks of feeling the presence of God as vibration — "We can often experience God because God is always moving. Likewise, the Spirit is too. It is a form of vibration, that fills our world." (p. 97).
Having laid out her understanding of the Spirit as light, breath, and wind, and as vibration, she explores in chapter 5, the relationship of the Spirit to social justice. She speaks of discrimination, racism, and climate issues. She speaks again about the "Han of the earth," the suffering of the earth and our contribution to that suffering. She speaks to cultural hybridity and what that means for our communities. This will require a new pneumatology, one that might learn something from the Asian concept of Chi. The principle here is that there aren't many spirits, but different names for the one Spirit. By acknowledging this, we have a foundation for interfaith and intercultural conversations that can lead to healing of the World. If, as she suggests, religious language barriers can be broken down, this can lead to the healing of Han, of suffering.
As Kim notes in her conclusion, the Spirit is free. The Spirit can't be controlled. The Spirit cannot be limited. That's a good thing, for the world! The Spirit, she states, "opens rather than closes the door for us to be a conversation with other world religions." (p. 125). I hope and pray this is true! For this reason alone, this is an important book.
While there are many excellent books that explore the Spirit (as noted I’ve written one), which means the Spirit is not as neglected as it once had been, there is still much to learn. My view is that in Reimagining Spirit, Grace Kim has moved the conversation forward in important ways, reminding us that our engagement with the doctrine of the Spirit is best handled in the context of intersectional theology.