Friday, September 28, 2007

What Is Spirit?

And the stories he did it with the most were the ones about the things you couldn't see or hear or touch. The ones about the souls of trees, the things that animals knew, the two-edged ways of human beings. The ones about a Spirit. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 2)

And what exactly is Spirit?

(a) the things you cannot see or hear or touch
(b) something's inner essence, its very "soul"
(c) consciousness
(d) God
(e) all of the above

Theologian Amos Yong has counted sixteen ways the word spirit is used in the science-religion dialogue and admits he's missed a few. In the Old Story of Everything, Spirit is the very antithesis of Matter. In the New Story, it could not exist without Matter, and may not exist at all. What exactly is Spirit?

The answers are many because the New Story (first Matter, then Life, then Spirit) has many variants. Here are some:

1. Spirit concludes the story, but not as something real. This is the narrative of scientific materialism. Life is real, Matter is really real, and Spirit isn't real at all. Today the focal point of the Spirit question is the human brain. Over 350 years ago Rene Descartes said the brain--specifically, the pineal gland--was where body and soul met. But current neuroscience tells a different story, that body is real and soul is nothing more than neurological processes, which all come down to chemical processes, which all come down to physical processes, etc. Soul, at best, is (b) a metaphor for something's inner essence.

Interestingly, the Biblical understanding of soul is quite similar. The Hebrew word nephesh is translated many ways, but when applied to humans, it refers to the whole person, including the body. "There wasn't a soul in sight" captures the idea. So does the expression "in the depths of my soul"--meaning "in my inner essence." Christianity's "immortal" soul, capable of separating from the body, seems to have come from Plato, not from its own scriptures.

2. Spirit concludes the story; its meaning is (c) consciousness. Include in this category Spirit as mind, thought, intelligence, symbolic capacity, interiority, subjectivity. No matter what the name, Spirit in this sense is not "reducible" to neurological processes; it can't be boiled down to them. It may "emerge" from them, but it has a reality all its own.

3. Spirit concludes the story; its meaning is (d) God. Or Goddess or Godhead. Or Brahman or Allah or Tao or Jahweh, albeit in different roles. The Being of a thousand names and the Being of no name. The One "out there," the One "in here." The Omega (but not the Alpha). The Absolute. However conceived, this God is something more than individual human consciousness. She/he/it is transcendent.

So what exactly is Spirit? This one I'm going to wait out. Maybe for a 100 years to see how the neuroscience plays out. Maybe for 5 billion to see how the universe does. I'll table the debate between monists and dualists. I won't make distinctions the way Amos Young did. I'll simply take "Spirit" as a whole and revel in all the word's associations.

Something's going on in the cosmos that wasn't going on before. Let's call it Spirit. At this point in time, my answer to the opening question is: (e) all of the above. What's yours?





Greg F said...

hot off the kitchen table--

Spirit, natural as any miracle,
Great matter's second stage,
Provoked, shaped with clay,
Coaxed, warmed, fired to Self.

Ritergal said...

If I had to choose just one, I'd go with (b), but I'm glad we have the (e) option! For my own part, I adhere to the belief attributed to Teilhard de Chardin that "... we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

To me, that means our spirit, essence, soul, or what-have-you existed before this current embodiment and will endure beyond it. I neither know nor care about the details, but if I didn't believe this, I'd have little reason to get up in the morning and ponder such deep topics as this.

When I survey the man-made world, I see nothing, tangible or conceptual, that did not begin as an idea or vision in someone's mind. I cannot accept that the ability to have ideas and act on them is due to some sort of cosmic "spontaneous combustion." I have concluded that thought and intention preceded the physical world of matter.

Please do not ask me to explain the origin of that thought, nor to accept any explanation of where matter came from (with or without preceding thought). At some point it reduces to an article of faith, and isn't it deliciously ironic that even science must ultimately rely on faith.

John Kotre said...

Ritergal's is a comment that keeps me aware that matters of one's "story of everything" are not decided by the intellect alone. All of life's experiences come into play, the heart as well as the head.

I'm also surprised by the number of times I've heard about Teilhard de Chardin from commenters. I thought I'd pass on a quote from Thomas Berry and Mary Evelyn Tucker's new book "Evening Thoughts," published by Sierra Club Books. Berry was once president of the American Teilhard Association, and his thoughts are reminders of Teilhard:

"Indeed, since the universe is a singular reality, consciousness must, from its beginning, be a dimension of reality, even a dimension of the primordial atom that carries within itself the total destiny of the universe."

Charlie F said...

Here's something from Loren Eiseley's "The Immense Journey," about Alfred Russel Wallace, who was co-discoverer, with Darwin, of the mechanism of natural selection:

"Wallace challenged the whole Darwinian position on man by insisting that artistic, mathematical, and musical abilities could not be explained on the basis of natural selection and the struggle for existence. Something else, he contended, some unknown spiritual element must have been at work in the elaboration of the human brain." (page 84)

Sue W said...

My answer to the question is “all of the above”. Although I cannot taste, touch or smell the spirit, I know something is within me. Something drove Michel­angelo to paint the lunettes on the wet plaster of the Sistine Chapel – without the prelim­inary cartoon drawings – as well as sculpt David from a small model. This “something” must have been Spirit, consciousness or God. As an artist, I think I can understand the process. Since Michelangelo made numerous sketches and draw­ings, it seemed logical that when the time arrived for the painting the lun­ettes, he knew what composition he would use and the idea (spirit) led him to the fresh plaster or marble (matter) to bring life to a ceiling or a stone.

John B said...

We describe Spirit as “indescribable”. And, the crux of it lies in that last sentence about describing the indescribable. How can we describe something that is indescribable? We can’t, so, instead we make it a paradox. Kind of like the old Certs commercial, “it’s two, two mints in one”. Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, talks about paradox this way. The opposite of a truth is an untruth, whereas the opposite of a profound truth is a more profound truth. And so it is with Spirit, it is a most profound truth that we each discover for ourselves and make into our own more profound truth. As cold is not the opposite of heat, it is merely the absence of heat, so we know spirit by its absence or presence. It is an indescribable truth. The line from John Denver’s song Country Roads “country roads, take me home, to the place I belong” evoke a certain spirit as do the words from Robert Frost’s poem Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening “for I have miles to go before I sleep”. And, isn’t it a miracle that we can see the connection between the two?