One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.
Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.
One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.
But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.
One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.
Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.
I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.
As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.
This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.
Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.
In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.
This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.
We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.