Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”(Genesis 6:3)
When I was in seminary, I began to wonder about the above passage and what God’s withdrawal of His spirit (Greek: pneuma) from humans meant for our anthropology. What does it mean that God’s spirit will only temporarily abide in us but not be a permanent part of our existence? Does this change what it is to be human, for apparently prior to this God intended His spirit to abide in humans forever? The passage immediately proceeds the story of the Great Flood, a time in which God had become deeply troubled by the evil He could see in humanity. Certainly Genesis 6:3 is speaking about the mortality of humans. “When his breath (Greek: pneuma) departs he returns to his earth…” (Psalm 146:4). Had human sin changed human anthropology in some way?
I also read in John’s Gospel a passage which I wondered whether it represented the undoing of Genesis 6:3 and God’s withdrawal of His spirit.
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ (John 1:32-33)
In John’s Gospel the Spirit descend on Jesus and remains on Him. It seems to me that John presents to us the new Adam – the man with whom God’s Spirit remains and never departs. Was the incarnation of the God in Christ, we have the restoration of humanity, including God’s Spirit remaining on us and not departing. Christ heals all that is ailing in us and restores our relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit who is in the incarnator, coming upon the Virgin and by impregnating her with the Word, causing her to become Theotokos. And then the Incarnate One causes the Spirit to again abide in the person of Christ and to remain thus restoring humanity to our original state.
I was reminded of these ideas about the relationship between being fully human and having the Spirit of God remain on us in the following passage from St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD). His writings are very theologically dense, but profound.
“The faculties which search out divine realities were implanted by the Creator in the essence of human nature at its very entrance into being; but divine realities themselves are revealed to man through grace by the power of the Holy Spirit descending upon him. When, as a result of the fall, the devil had riveted the attention of these faculties to visible things, nobody understood or sought out God, because in all who participated in human nature intellect and intelligence were confined to the superficial aspects of sensible things, and so they acquired no understanding of what lies beyond the senses. But then, in those who had not of their own free will become inwardly subject to deceit, the grace of the Holy Spirit broke the attachment of these faculties to material things and restored them to their original state. On receiving them back thus purified, men again sought out divine realities, and they have continued to search them out through the same grace of the Holy Spirit.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 18732-39)
Mores simply put, it seems to me St. Maximos acknowledges that the ability to experience the divine was given to us humans by God from the very beginning. It is the Holy Spirit which reveals these realities to us by descending upon us. The ancestral sin, as well as all human sin, caused us to lose that faculty by which we experienced God, and we were left with an ability only to perceive the created order with our senses. It is the Holy Spirit who comes upon us and restores us to our original state – having the ability to perceive and seek out the divine realities again.
Thus Christ restores sight to the blind – even those of us who have eyes to see, still don’t see the invisible and ineffable God without the aid of God’s Spirit. We all are blind to this reality without Christ healing us and without the Holy Spirit coming upon us. This is certainly the Gospel lesson of John 9 and the man born blind who sees what the Pharisees cannot.
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.