10/07/2013 01:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Bill O'Reilly and the Holy Spirit

Recently, The Huffington Post Religion section featured a video blog titled, "Bill O'Reilly: God Told Me to Write About Jesus." This blog presents three participants discussing O'Reilly's 60 Minutes interview with Nora O'Donnell about his new book, Killing Jesus. The discussion centers on a clip in which O'Donnell asks O'Reilly, "Where did the idea come to you?" "All of the ideas come to me in the middle of the night," O'Reilly answers. "I believe, because I'm a Catholic, that comes from the Holy Spirit. My inspiration comes from that... And so I wrote Killing Jesus because I think I was directed to write it." "You are suggesting," O'Donnell responds, "that you are the chosen one, Bill." "I'm not the chosen one," he says. "I'm just one of many who have been given gifts... I'm trying to use the gifts in a positive way. And I believe that's all directed..."

It's no surprise that Bill O'Reilly is an unpopular figure on The Huffington Post, but I was surprised to see that all three participants in the video blog responded to this clip with smirks and sarcasm. One laughed and said, "I was just admiring how Nora O'Donnell did a magnificent job keeping a straight face while sitting through that interview," and later added, "God tells everybody who to kill." Another said, "It's the third book. There's the Trinity," and the other said, "Nobody's getting on O'Reilly's case because he's not a Muslim," and ended with, "Maybe God is a Republican after all."

There was no attempt to engage in ideas, or to even present thoughtful and clever satire, but only ridicule. One may or may not like O'Reilly, his politics, or his TV personality, and one may or may not care for his religious beliefs -- or religion in general -- but hopefully we can agree that conversations about divisive topics such as religion ought to based on information and intelligent consideration, rather than ridicule and sarcasm. So let's examine what O'Reilly said, from a theological perspective.

As a rabbi I am committed to the Jewish path to God, but I love all theologies and find much in the teachings of other religions that is consistent with my own faith, along with some things that I disagree with, or don't comprehend. As I understand it, the Holy Spirit, together with the Father and Son, form the Holy Trinity -- the three essential "personalities" through which humans can know God. The cosmic paradox at the foundation of Catholicism is the belief that these three are at once separate and distinct divine "persons", and yet are indivisible from the one God. This is a difficult theology, and can be misunderstood. First, to be a "person" in this sense doesn't mean that each has a visible or physical shape. Instead, according to Catholic teaching, this means that each member of the Holy Trinity is not an uncaring, indifferent force, but is something to which we can have an intimate personal relationship. Second, the Holy Trinity does not mean that there are three deities. Catholicism is very clear that there is one eternal God from which everything flows, and that the Trinity is a unity.

For Catholics like O'Reilly, the Holy Spirit is the living experience of God at work in our lives, bringing us, in the words of the Christian Bible, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). The idea of God's spirit as something that is active in our lives is found in the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, where we read that at the moment of creation, "the spirit ["ruach," in Hebrew] of God hovered on the face of the waters". This tells us that God's holy presence covers and animates all of creation. We need only to reach "up" through conscious intent to connect to God. At times God's spirit also reaches "down" to us in grace. We don't merit grace, but it is given unmerited in love. When we contact the spirit of God we are inspired -- we are "in-spirit." To be in contact with the spirit of God doesn't mean that one is somehow "chosen" as better than others. We are all irrevocably and equally connected to God through spirit (and the Jewish concept of "choseness" is not about specialness, but is about responsibility. See my blog "What Does It Mean That the Jews are God's Chosen People?")

The idea of a three-faceted, personal nature of the one God is not unique to Catholicism. Every theistic religion recognizes that none of us can ever completely know God, because we are limited by our senses, our intellect, and the constraints of physicality and time. But we can know God through God's attributes, and these attributes are often seen in a tripartite structure: the transcendent -- that which is completely beyond human comprehension; the spiritual -- that which animates our consciousness and guides our lives; the incarnate or manifest -- that which is found in the physical beauty and wonder of creation. We see this in Hinduism, which pictures the one God in three primary manifestations: Brahma -- the transcendent Creator; Shiva - the spiritual Destroyer of ego illusions; Vishnu -- the incarnated Maintainer who teaches us in love. And Judaism, which is adamantly monotheistic at its core, also recognizes that God is known to humans through various attributes, which are often seen in three parts (although, unlike Christianity and Hinduism, these are never seen as distinct "persons"): omnipotence -- the all powerful; omniscience -- the all knowing; omni-benevolence -- the all good. The various Hebrew names used for God, such as Adonai, Elohim, and El Shaddai, indicate these different attributes, but are all of the one God.

There is solid theology behind O'Reilly's claim that he was directed by the Holy Spirit to write his book. One can disagree with or challenge this claim, and we should have honest and vigorous debates about contentious issues such as religion and politics. But these debates must be done in order to understand, not to win, and never to ridicule. This doesn't mean that we must agree, avoid conflict, or give up on our views. But it does means that each side must commit to the search for truth. To respond only with ridicule is to indulge our lower nature - our fears and insecurities. We ridicule others in order to feel superior and to avoid actually examining difficult issues.

Ridicule leads to demonization, ending in causeless hatred. This causeless hatred is a disease of consciousness that afflicts humanity, and is at the root of much of our communal and personal suffering. The cure for this disease is found in objective exploration, as free as possible from personal agenda, with the intent to seek understanding, not victory. This requires that we carefully evaluate and, if necessary, discard some of our most deeply held beliefs if they prove to be inconsistent with facts. And the cure takes hold when we muster the courage and humility to see people as they are, with the desire to help, not to convince, knowing that all of us share a common humanity, that we all struggle in some way, and yet all of us seek wholeness and love. Yes, even Bill O'Reilly.