W.The Bible does not offer a consistent theory of the soul and spirit. The omission left a lot of room for theologians to dance around the subject over 20 centuries. Again that people have a soul is not in doubt. Nor is there any doubt that there is a Spirit of God. Resolving the nature of these things is just not central to the story. This partial theological vacuum has been filled lately by Spiritualism. Whether in the form of Ouija boards or telemediums who contact the dead; whether pursued for fun or profit, solace or guidance many people today are turning to spiritualism to fill the vacancy. All agree that there is more to us than our physical existence.
W.Spiritualism arose in the 19th century in Europe and America perhaps as a reaction to rationalism, perhaps as an attempt to prove the existence of supernatural reality. It is a collection of beliefs and practices that center around the idea that there exists a spirit world in addition to the material world of everyday existence. In some cases this spirit world is where the spirits of the living go after death. In others spirits reside in this spirit world both before and after death. For some the spirit world is the only real existence. Sufficiently sensitive living people are sometimes said to be able to contact residents of the spirit world. This concept of a spirit world is a thoroughly modern construct and certainly not Biblical.
W.In the Old Testament spirit is likened to the breath of God and enlivens flesh. The ancients knew well the mystery of life. We are dust -- dust and a little water added to make the familiar potter's clay. We are formed like a clay pot and yet we move and breath. As long as there is breath there is life and a soul. Breath -- that small wind -- is life itself breathed into us by God at our creation. Likewise the Spirit of God is wind -- invisible, moving -- moving humans*, grass and trees alike. (*The breath of God is given only to humans and not other animals in the Old Testament.)
W.In the New Testament Gospels -- which portray the life and world of Jesus -- people are possessed by evil spirits. Good spirits on the other hand get hardly a mention. Most of the discussion of non-evil spirits come in the letters of Paul where he seeks to direct the corporate lives of early Christian congregations. When asked directly about life beyond life Jesus is reported to have said both that no one else has come from God (John 6:46) and that there is room for many (John 14:2) -- certainly not an unambiguous set of statements. One thing is certain. Jesus does not commune with the spirit world. When he wishes to speak with the dead he brings them back to life to talk to them in the flesh. In so doing he makes a clear statement about the importance of this living world and about the possibility and importance of communing with a spiritual one.
W.If Jesus speaks to us today no doubt he does not do it through spiritual mediums or channeled books. That there is not much mention of the life of the spirit either before or after death even in the New Testament should not surprise us. Christianity is an incarnational religion and Jesus' central message is that the Kingdom of God is here now.
W.The idea of the soul as the essence of a person able to out live the body and the Spirit of God as more than a physical phenomenon (wind) arises in Christianity after Jesus and is developed in later church history. They are ideas which first appear in the letters of Paul. Here both the human soul and Spirit of God are more like the modern conception we have of them. These are ideas which could have come into Christianity due to the early church's interaction with the Greek world and specifically Greek Platonic philosophy and its dualistic world view but not from Jesus to whom they are foreign.
W.The church's appropriation of Greek dualism follows a pattern that the church repeats over all it's history. Christmas is an appropriation of the old Roman Saturnalia festival. Easter appropriates some elements of the Angle Oestra festival. Wherever it has gone over the centuries Christianity has assured its success and overwhelmed indigenous faiths by appropriating parts of them and making these its own. This theological pragmatism has resulted in the Christian faith the world knows today.
W.There is some insight in Greek dualism worth consideration -- specifically that the manifest world is more than it seems. Dualism's opposite is monism -- the idea that there is no separation between the ideal and the real, the perfect and the imperfect, the sacred and the profane. Old Testament faith is monistic. The faith history of the Old Testament is of the struggle of monism over pluralism -- of the one true God over the many. The creed of the Old Testament is, "The Lord God is One". This is the root of our belief and its insights are also worth consideration.
W.Firstly, monism presupposes an integrated view of the sacred and profane that allows no escape into otherworldliness. Religion properly understood is not escapism from the problems or evils of this world but a call to action now. Not pie in the sky by and by but the Kingdom of God here now.
W.Secondly, the struggle between the one true God and the many is not over. We may not think of it but there are many little gods in our society which struggle for our attention and worship. Anything that we value above all else, anything that we trust above all else is a god. We worship money, power and possessions to name a few of these. These are the gods of many people. The struggle between the one true God and the many is never over.
W.Thirdly, monism is more consistent with modern views of the world as revealed by science. In our modern context we think we understand New Testament healings by the casting out of (evil) spirits as describing psychological problems and their resolution. We never consider to ask whether a person could be separated from his soul. Yet on the cutting edge of neurology Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Summit Books, 1970, chapter 12) and Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999, pp. 112-121) describe dispirited and desouled patients they have encountered their neurological practices. It is as though souls do reside in bodies (specifically the organ of the brain) or are manifestations thereof -- a radically monistic idea.
W.Maybe the ancient Hebrews were on to something.
W.Denying a spirit world does not deny a world of the spirit. What primarily is given up is the detachable soul that is able to wander the world before and after death or otherwise without the body. This is not the soul of the Bible in any case as the function of that soul is to animate the body. It is not without wisdom that the church has proclaimed for most of its 20 century history the resurrection of this same body. Denying a spirit world denies a dualistic notion of the nature of reality that has been fashionable since the Renaissance -- which is but the infancy of empirical thought. Growing up we humans grow old. So does humanity as a whole. In maturity both recognize the value of the older, truer wisdom.
W.We never meet disembodied spirits (or at least most of us don't claim to). Even people who seek out mediums to contact dead loved ones are seeking someone they knew in the flesh. And if a medium channels or otherwise represents the one they seek that can hardly qualify as meeting a disembodied spirit. In fact it is not possible for us to think of anyone we know in the slightest way as disembodied. The closest we come to this experience is to hear a radio personality or talk to someone first over the telephone. The result of meeting that person later invariably involves surprise because they do not fit the preconceived image of them created from the audio experience alone. That we create such mental images is witness to the impossibility of detaching a person from an image of that person.
W.What is left of the spirit and of the soul if we give up the spirit world? We can still talk of inspiration -- literally possession by the spirit -- to describe how ideas and actions seemingly beyond our nature and knowledge come to us. This is not the automatic writing of spiritual possession but real embodiment of spirit. We can still feel the connection between us and recognize that central numinousness that is us. When people of faith find themselves acting with righteousness, justice and compassion they may still believe that something transcendent is manifest without believing in possession. Likewise when they seek so to act they may look for a motivation within that is not their own but that of God who guides them. Possession is replaced with embodiment.
there is more to us than meets the eye or walks the earth. But to
say more about that -- how we are like God and how we belong elsewhere
-- is not faithful. We are here now and the central issue is what
we do about that.
us and whatever enlivens us is