Posts Tagged ‘spirit’

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to have conversations – either in person or online – with people who self-identify either as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  A core question in these conversations seemed to revolve around whether or not there was a “spiritual” part or nature in human beings.

So my asking “What is ‘Spiritual’?” in this blog is not about the field or practice of spirituality, it’s more about how we might identify what in us is “spiritual” when we use that word.Church-New

First, let me say that at this core level, I would NOT say that our spiritual self is defined by belief in a divine being or a set of beliefs about God, faith, or church. I say that because I think there are people who are spiritual who do not hold to the belief systems of any religious tradition, per se.

At its most basic, I think the spiritual part of humans has to do with meaning – with discovering or creating meaning about life or about the events in our lives. After all, if we’re just a bundle of cells with a brain and nothing more than thinking meat sacks that are here only to eat, procreate, and create human culture for the moment, we wouldn’t seek or assign meaning to anything. If there’s nothing more to our lives than day to day existence – no larger story or reality – why would we even begin to ask what our purpose is or why we are on this earth?

But we are a species of meanings, of narratives, of stories. That is the way we are wired. We seek to see ourselves as part of something larger, to belong to a meaningful narrative, not as just at the receiving end of a lifelong parade of random acts of suffering.

I have to confess that for many years now, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about God, about spirituality, about theology, and about how that all fits with healing, wholeness, psychology, and just the basics of navigating our way through a world that is full of both beauty and terror. Joseph Campbell said that people are not really seeking the meaning of life but that we are seeking the “rapture of the experience of being alive.”  I’ve been so steeped in all things spiritual and mythological for so long that I sometimes forget that most of my fellow sojourners on this earth probably don’t spend as much brain time on these topics as I do.

That point was brought home to me again this week in an exchange with a man who identifies himself as SBNR.  He told me he does not believe in God and is not sure if humans even have a “spirit.” I’ve felt for a long time that one of the wisest voices about the human spirit and about faith is Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan. In a recent meditation he wrote:

The Perennial Tradition includes a recurring theme in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. They continue to say, each in their own way:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

I forwarded the meditation to my SBNR acquaintance, and he responded that he really doesn’t think very often about God, or divine reality, or scripture, and that he doesn’t place much value on those things.  In a way I found that kind of stunning, then I saw some humor in my being stunned, but I finally wondered about the value of what are seen as sacred texts to a secular world.

I sympathize when people choose to not affiliate with any organized religion – I understand why people find little of value in the Church today – even though I choose to remain within the Christian tradition. But I don’t understand why people would dismiss the wisdom of sages through the centuries who have spoken and written of encounters with divine reality. Do we really think they were all lying or having hallucinations?

It seems to me that for someone to say they don’t believe in the divine reality that others have experienced is like saying you don’t believe in Istanbul because you’ve never been there, or that you don’t believe in gelato because you’ve never eaten it.

Like Carl Jung, I don’t believe in God. I know God exists. I know divine reality exists. I’ve glimpsed it.


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I awoke this morning crafting this thought:

The true art of being human is to marry the spirit of growth and highest potential to the soul of depth and limitation, through the bonds of reverence, compassion, and empathy for oneself and all beings.

We have yet to master this art.

Oh, we humans have a lot of spirit. That spirit – the one that reaches for the heights – is the reason we’ve landed men on the moon and built towers of glass and steel that seem to go on forever. But it’s also the reason capitalistic societies have an economic system based on the falsehood of unlimited growth. It’s also partly why the world rips resources from the Earth at the rate of the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings every day. (Source:  The Worldwatch Institute, 2010 State of the World)

Photo: Sheri Kling, Aran Islands, Ireland

It’s not spirit that we lack. What we lack is soul. Soul is about depth. It’s about embodiment and the limitations that come with that. It’s about the limits of a real life lived on the ground with real relationships and deep roots. It’s about community and valuing what will last over fleeting intoxications.

To be truly human, we must have both spirit and soul, heights and depths, freedom and necessity, novelty and sameness. This is the marriage that must take place within each human in order for us to become as Real as the Velveteen Rabbit, to make peace with the tensions between spirit and matter, the pull toward the heavens and the force of gravity.

But don’t we all find this difficult?

We want endless choices – in everything from jobs and sexual partners to the number of jars of jam in the refrigerator. For me, this has been made manifest in a sense of restlessness, of never being able to be in the present tense in my own life, but always believing I’ll be happy when something else happens – when I find a romantic partner, when I achieve the right career, when I live in the right geography. It’s not that I don’t recognize the good things in my current life, it’s just that it’s always felt like there’s a hole at the center of me and I’d only feel better when it was filled by something.

Yet what if that something is just being willing to come home to myself? What if that tension between heights and depths, between spirit and soul, is the true human condition, after all – not something to concretize in one or the other, but a dynamic flowing union of yin and yang energies?

I heard an interview on National Public Radio the other day where a libertarian named environmental regulations as a stifling limit on innovation. Yet it seems to me that saying we can’t innovate within those limits is like a comic saying he can’t be funny without profanity. Both reflect a failure of imagination.

Ethan and Sarah Hughes have no such failure of imagination. Some years ago, they embarked on an adventure called The Possibility Alliance based out of their homestead in Missouri, where they have a constant flow of visitors learning about permaculture. They use no electricity or fossil fuel and live on $3,000 per year.  Ethan and Sarah Hughes may seem poor in cash yet they are rich in life.  And they live out more spirit and creativity within those difficult limits than most of us can even fathom.

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