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What is Spiritual the Sequel, or Rambling Is Back in Style, Kids

Hi, everyone. I’m back.

There are two basic kinds of posts on this blog. There’s the kind to (hopefully) get you talking and the kind where, wow, apparently I have a lot on my mind. OK, yes, it’s admittedly apparent that I have a lot on my mind even when I’m trying to get you talking, but the point is: Posts “before” a GT meeting introduce and lay out a discussion topic. Posts “after” a GT meeting are where I get to ramble on about how I’ve been musing about and wrestling with my own question. Usually, in the spirit of this post and the mission of this website, these “after” posts are more rhetorical attempts to stick an idea or question in our respective heads, rather than generate more discussion. Sometimes it probably works and sometimes it probably doesn’t. Cool. Then another “before” post comes along to try to generate more discussion. Anyway, if you’re looking for a discussion topic, feel free to discuss what follows if you want; I’d love it. But the next month’s topic is coming soon. (Feel free to suggest future topics too, btw. I have plenty of ideas in the queue, but am always interested in knowing what people besides me actually want to talk about). You also have my permission to avoid the “after” posts in favor of the “before” ones. You know, cuz I’m such a generous guy. And I’m really just writing these for myself.

By the way, meetup rocks. This group is developing into something awesome. The last meeting brought a number of new folks to the table, and with a bunch of different personalities and spins on life, we nevertheless had a great time getting to know each other and talking about last month’s topic. I’m looking forward to the new faces we’re bound to meet this month.

Last month’s topic generated a little bit of interesting online discussion too. I think there is growing consensus in the comments–and at Gray’s–that my categories of “what is spiritual” just didn’t do the trick–either the categories themselves, or how I explained them. 🙂 I don’t feel too bad about it, because how do you categorize the spiritual? And conversation has been good in both places. Anyway, Jenn is right, I didn’t exactly nail the Christian perspective in any one of those. I probably didn’t nail anyone else’s perspective, either. 🙂

I really enjoyed Agnosticus’ comments where he wondered if “what humans experience as spiritual” is something related to matter and energy, in the same way our consciousness is naturalistic and yet something other than matter itself. That is intriguing indeed.

It reminds me of how the biblical writers talk about the “soul” of a person. In modern days, when we hear someone talking about a soul we think of something deep, but maybe distinct from the body, this sort of spiritual disembodied thing, distinct from the life, work, cravings, strengths and weaknesses of the human body. Maybe not always, but sometimes we use the word that way. Definitely when we use the word “spirit”, it’s something separate from our bodies. I think we get that mindset more from the western philosophical heritage (#3 in my earlier post was supposed to be about the material world vs. the world of ideas, but I didn’t explain it well) more than we get it from the Judeo-Christian heritage, even though Christian theologians often think about human souls in the more dualistic, platonic way (and have for a long time). Anyway, the Hebrew and New Testament words that get translated “soul” or “heart” or “spirit” as they apply to people are a lot harder to pin down than the concepts behind our words that we use to describe a person. Today we like to divide ourselves into nice sharply divided categories–mind, emotions, will, body, or something along those lines. There are categories and words for these aspects of personhood in the Bible, but the lines seem fuzzier. The biblical writers seem to know that when a person gets distressed, it’s the whole person; when a person is corrupt, it affects the whole person; when a person is joyful, it’s the whole person; when a person needs saving, it’s the whole person that needs saving. Judaism and Christianity aren’t the only worldviews with this insight, but I do appreciate the insight all the same.

One thing that is different in a lot of the Bible than agnosticus’ perspective, perhaps, is the place of God in all this (feel free to disagree, though!). As the Judeo-Christian tradition developed through the writing of the Bible, God is transcendent. The big distinction between kinds of beings, according to the biblical writers, is Creator and created things, not “spiritual’ things and “physical” things. Simultaneously both shocking and internally consistent, is the idea that the Creator is mysteriously and intimately involved in what has been/is being created—sometimes accomplishing things through means we would call “supernatural”, sometimes using the very naturalistic processes and human personalities that were created to accomplish what is needed. We get pictures of God absent, present, in control, allowing freedom, and interacting. Mysterious indeed. The picture the Bible gives us makes it difficult to gather up evidence for if you want to win an argument about whether this sort of God exists. But the picture indicates God is very much there.

Something for atheists/agnostics to chew on: Given the biblical perspective that God’s involvement in the universe often happens via the very naturalistic processes and people that (the Bible claims) God created, perhaps the evidence you claim we lack for God’s existence is due to looking in only some of the right places. Perhaps those desperate prayers we sometimes find ourselves praying that take the form of “God, if you’re there, HELP!” might yield a conclusive result (not necessarily the result you asked for…some religious traditions see God/the gods as easily manipulated, but not all of them). Or spending some time viewing the world through the narrative of a religious tradition might yield surprising insights into the world you live in.

Something for theists like me to chew on: Religious subcultures and individuals like to validate their agendas, views, wishes, experiences, and actions with some kind of claim that God is behind said agendas, views, wishes, experiences, and actions—the Bible says so, or the Spirit called me, or whatever. You’ve probably seen examples of these words justifying all sorts of horrible things, and you’ve probably seen these words used to describe things that you think God probably is behind. Perhaps you’ve not just seen examples; perhaps you’ve done examples. Perhaps I have too. What’s the difference? Given the hiddenness of God, how do you know whether God actually is behind something, or whether you’re just justifying what you want or think?


4 Responses to “What is Spiritual the Sequel, or Rambling Is Back in Style, Kids”

  1. Hi Dave. Nice post.

    You are definitely right on target in your assessment of the biblical writers’ views on soul/spirit/body (not that its my job to critique your views!). The ancient Hebrew people were a great deal less “other-worldly” in their worldview than most people would ever guess or imagine. Conversely, they were very “earthy” in their views, great miracle stories scattered throughout their sacred text notwithstanding. Indeed, the idea of an afterlife with any particular detail didn’t develop until sometime closer to when Jesus walked the earth. Their view of God (Yahweh/Elohim) was very anthropomorphic, and though very different than many other ancient Near Eastern deities in some ways (theologically), also shared many of the mythical overtones and undertones of their Near Eastern neighbors. We have inherited a much more Greek view of our being — very dualistic, body and soul…or even more popular, body, soul *and* spirit (the delineation of which is dogmatically described by some, held but totally unexplainable by others!). These “Greekish” concepts most definitely influenced the early Gnostic and, consequently, Christian worldviews and can be seen growing and developing in the New Testament itself. It would be beneficial I think, in many ways, for Christians to get in touch with a more holistic, less dichotomous view of the human self. The Gnostic version of Christianity is alive and well today and, in my opinion, de-emphasizes and even villianizes the body as essentially extraneous — even evil in some circles. Granted, some Christians are big into taking care of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit”; however, ironically, there is also a general emphasis that it is the soul and the eternal afterlife that matters since the body and this world will eventually “pass away”.

    I think your Creator/created distinction (vs. a supernatural/natural one) is interesting and I have seen it put this way from time to time (and used that analogy myself many times in the pulpit incidentally). Perhaps it is just another way of *saying* supernatural/natural”; but it lays out the relationship between God and Universe in a more intimate way I suppose — like the difference between saying “homo sapiens/artifact” vs. “me/my painting”. It is this mythical portrayal (please understand my use of “myth” here is in the correct sense, not the way it is often understood as meaning “not true”) of this divine/creation relationship that should make the Christian worldview appealing as an option for those seeking some kind of “spiritual” element to their belief systin their life. There has always been a tension in the (apparent) paradox of a God both transcendent and imminent in Christian theology.

  2. whoops…not sure what happened. I was writing this and it suddenly posted! I wasn’t done yet…so here goes more:

    I was simply suggesting earlier that perhaps the whole transcendent/imminent idea is inadequate at best and simply the product of ancient thinking at worst. What if, after all, the “mind” behind the existence of the universe as we know it is itself organized energy with the ability to manipulate other matter and energy into the creation of the current universe. If matter and energy truly are not created nor destroyed but only mutated (the quantum weirdness factor a part of it all), then it is possible that the matter and energy in the known universe is eternal along with the mind that manipulated it. Again, I’m not trying to push pantheism, I’m just saying that the natural/supernatural dichotomy may be a category created by the human mind to categorize our experience of the world. I know this is true when it comes to ancients (and even recents) explaining natural events via supernatural causes (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, comets, and even something as basic as the sun and moon moving through the sky). So, maybe, if there is a god (or gods), it is not as transcendent as we think (as well as the ability for a “soul” to survive the body as organized energy in some way). Yeah I know…way out kind of speculation, but no moreso than much of the popular Christian ideas! 😉

    Finally, I would agree that “seeing” the divine in natural activities (which, again, assumes a dichotomous relationship between nature and so-called supernature) is simply a matter of one’s perspective. For me, I have no real desire to piggyback supernatural explanations of natural events onto the natural explanation itself. If a natural explanation is sufficient, why complicate matters by superimposing a divine cause atop it? And as for as-yet-unexplained phenomena, I suppose the amazing success of the scientific enterprise makes me tend to think, “we may not know how that happened, but I bet one day we’ll figure it out…”

    Just my 2.5 cents.


  3. Hey, Kevin (and lurkers)–

    Weirdly, whatever I wrote last night wasn’t posted. I’ll try again. It was brief, anyway.

    I really enjoyed your post–it, along with some other things people are saying, is making me fascinated with some topics that I previously pretty much ignored, and I’m spending a lot of time thinking about stuff that will take a while for me to formulate opinions on. Hooray, this blog/discussion effort is working, if only for myself! 🙂

    So I’m curious about your “mind” idea and your following comments. I feel like I have two interpretations of what you just said and I’m not sure which is correct.
    1. Based on your last paragraph, I’m thinking you’re saying that all phenomena humans experience will probably someday be explained by observable natural causes. The idea of a “mind” that manipulates the universe to some extent, that is present within matter and energy, are you proposing that idea as an attractive mythological way of understanding the universe, that, from a cause/effect perspective, will be perfectly describable by the scientific enterprise? A good option for those who want to be scientific and a “spiritual” component to their belief system?
    2. Or, on the other hand, are you assuming that there are aspects of human experience that we can’t explain through scientific means, and the idea of a “mind” that is a part of and through all matter and energy is a helpful (if perhaps untestable) hypothesis to understand things that are beyond the scope of science?

    If the latter, I’m curious–for you, what kind of phenomena in human experience might this idea of a natural (if not supernatural) “mind” help us understand? Why not just be an atheist, or the kind of agnostic that doesn’t really see the need for supernatural explanations of anything. I’m not asking that as an attack, I genuinely want to know. Different people use appeals to supernatural–or at least not-currently-visible-through-scientific-methods-but-natural–phenomena to explain other observable phenomena, and other people look at the same phenomena and say it doesn’t require any kind of higher explanation. So what kinds of things are you thinking of that might possibly suggest a “mind within the matter and energy” sort of explanation? If, that is, you’re coming more from option two. As I write this, I’m feeling more confident that you’re option one.

    Either way, intriguing thoughts. Thanks for them!

  4. You are correct that I would lean toward the former. Yet, even if “mind” or consciousness can one day be scientifically explained and even demonstated (via AI — which itself has its own philosophical problems), that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there is a supreme Mind behind the Universe itself. Nonetheless, if consciousness can be scientifically explained and even reproduced artificially, I don’t see how science will ever be able to test the hypothesis of a supreme Mind — that will still be a matter of faith. That being said, a scientific explanation of “mind” on the micro-level would certainly lend credence to the possibility of “Mind” on the macro-level if it can be demonstated that consciousness is the product of and/or emerges from complex organized energy (i.e., it’s material). Of course, this still leaves alot of questions unanswered: namely things like brain/mind dependence (would the supreme Mind need a brain? If so, where the heck is it?). This is especially true since consciousess and intelligence are not necessarily the same thing. Intelligence is (in our experience) a product of information gathering, retention, retrieval and usage…which is without question dependent upon neurological networking in the brain. Can a mind be conscious and have intelligence without a physical brain? I’d say that question is still quite far away from a scientific standpoint.

    These are all just speculations, but they can be fun to contemplate!

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