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"
(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?
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COPYRIGHT (C) 2007 JOHN N. KOTRE