Chapter 2: What Can We Know of Spirit?

What can be said of spirit?

Commonly, spirit is distinguished from matter and it is less objectively described than is matter. Modern history often addresses the “spirit of an age” as constituting its attitudes, its hopes, its values and its purposes. When we speak of spirit, personal choice often enters the discussion. Among fundamentalist Christians, it is commonly believed that choice or pronouncements of faith makes it possible to save the spirit after death. For many, spirit is what is left over after the body is dead; but what its function is in daily living while the body is alive is not so clear. To some, spirit makes self-awareness possible and has the ability to influence or direct the material world. In his book, Ye Shall Be As Gods, Eric Fromm refers to humankind’s capacity for self-awareness as an existential dichotomy arising from being in nature and yet transcending it by self-awareness and choice. For Fromm, humankind can resolve that dichotomy only by going forward, by action upon that ability to choose and to act. For Teilhard de Chardin, self-awareness was not merely an attribute of humankind transcending nature, but a function of nature itself, deepening with increasing complexity.

Whereas some believe that spirit is separate from matter, others believe that it in some measure or another is bound up in or about matter. Whatever we can say of spirit in its common usage, which is sufficient for our purposes, it involves self-awareness, choice, purpose, and in some degree transcendence of mere physical being.

In that vein, few people would argue with the notion that the fact of a matter is different from the spirit of a matter. We could objectively describe the actions of a person, without describing the purpose or intent behind that action. For example, we could describe a son hugging his mother, propping up her feet and bringing a pillow for her head. We could conclude that it was a caring act. But if it is done for a manipulative purpose, it is not caring. It could be destructive despite its appearances. It is commonly said that the underlying purpose points to the “spirit of the act.” In a broad sense, matters relating to the spirit are spiritual.

Historically, the notion of God represented for people supreme spiritual activity in the world. It is not surprising, then, that notions of God and God’s will frequently surround issues of Natural Law.

The notion of God, not as personality or objective fact, but as a symbol of a mysterious, ineffable power alive in the world, is consistent with the early Hebraic prohibition against naming God. Under that view, to name God was to define God. The living God cannot be so limited. The Hebraic nominal reference to God represented the vitality of life grounded in its dynamic “becoming”: hence the “living God.” Eric Fromm has written that the literal translation of the message to Moses from the burning bush was not the present tense, “I am that I am;” rather it was the imperfect tense of the verb: “I am becoming.” Such a notion of God may refer to an energy or process of becoming in the world that is beyond all categories of human thought, hence the prohibition from naming God. To the degree the reader experiences a sense of becoming in the world, “God,” as used in this book, refers to that power. Such a notion of “God” needs no more identity or personality. It refers to the becoming of life, which was the message from the burning bush that would not be consumed. I believe this is the religious conviction, the sense of the divine, two of which Albert Schweitzer was referring in the following statement:

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

In Christian, Judaic, and Muslim traditions, God is represented as the source of both physical and spiritual things. When, in the creation story, God breathed the breath of life into dust to form man, God joined the spiritual with the material, and sanctified the union, noting it was good.

Assuming God as at least a mysterious power of becoming in the world, how can we know anything about God or God’s purposes? Generally, there are two poles of thought about knowledge of God or God’s purposes. One is the pole of extreme skepticism that holds that we can know nothing of God, whether God is or is not. At best, it holds, notions of God are matters of personal preference and belief. The other extreme is the fundamentalist pole which asserts that certain and absolute knowledge of God and of God=s purposes is revealed in sacred writings. For the Christian fundamentalist, it is the Bible; for the Muslim, it is the Koran; for yet others it is whatever sacred writing that is accepted as authoritative.

Criticism of extreme skepticism

As to the first pole, that we can know nothing about God, whether God is or is not, the extreme skeptics are correct that the notion of God cannot be directly proved. Hans Kung, in his book, Does God Exist?, reviews the historical arguments for God, and shows the refutations of each proof. He also shows that whereas God cannot be proved, neither can God be disproved. God is possible.

Kung then reviews philosophical and theological developments to nihilism: that the ultimate end is a godless world. As with notions of God, he shows that nihilism can be neither proved nor disproved. It is at least possible that human life is meaningless, and that all is meaningless, worthless, and null.

Kung concludes that whereas notions of God and of nihilism are neither provable nor refutable, each is possible. We therefore face a choice: we can either choose God and meaning for our existence and that of the world, or we can choose nihilism and no meaning.

That choice can be informed. Whereas objective data does not define fully the subjective aspect of an event, it can suggest meaning and purpose. We cannot see intent or purpose. But, observation of objective circumstances surrounding an action may logically support inferences of intent or purpose behind the action. For example, if we observe one person pull a gun and another deliver a wallet, we might reasonably conclude that the first person is acting upon an intent to rob the other. We cannot see that intent, but the circumstances may lead strongly to that conclusion.

In social life it is important at times that society determine intent, to which circumstances, alone, may point. That happens every time a judge or jury determines “criminal intent.” No one knows the mind of the actor. Even a confession is a statement about intent of action, and not the intent, itself. Therefore, the determination of intent or purpose is always dependent upon circumstantial evidence. But as objective evidence can point convincingly to intent to act, so can objective evidence suggest conclusions about spiritual matters and purpose in the world.

Relativity of all knowledge does not render the world objectless or valueless. With the stroke of e=mc2, Einstein did not wipe away all reasonably secure standards in this world. Einstein merely recognized that energy, matter and action in the universe exist, not in isolation of, but relative to, the whole. The power of the whole derives from the dynamic relation of its parts.

As with all tools, logical tools are merely devices designed for particular uses. Their value to us is directly related to their design conditions and the circumstances of their use. Logic treats objects of thought as things, formed by the mind to be used, whereas the dynamic nature of the world does not strictly conform to the idea to which it is reduced for logical examination. Logic can yet be most useful when we recognize its limits: its “as if” nature. We must remember that even what we see as object has its circumstantial aspect. All knowledge is a dynamic blend of its objective and subjective aspects. But our conclusions can be sufficiently reliable for our field of action: a working knowledge which is reasonably reliable for its purposes, if not absolutely certain. Upon such a working basis Newton developed his view of the world as a machine created by God and set in motion by God to run on its own. The Western medical model is based upon a motion of “the healthy man,” whereas the Chinese notion of health is based upon a notion of dynamic balance of chi. Each works well within its sphere, but each breaks down at its extreme limits. That is true of all models of reality.

In our personal lives, there is a fundamental informed choice to be made: for or against God, for or against purpose or nihilism. That choice cannot be made on absolutely certain evidence or logical proof. Neither can it wisely be made contrary to evidence and reason. The great Seventeenth Century mathematician, scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, said, “Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary of what they see.”

Henry Bergson, early in the Twentieth century, argued that all of the organs of even the most rudimentary of animals depend upon a concurrence of many changes before any benefit could accrue to that animal for improved chances of survival. Bergson could not determine precisely the how or why of evolutionary processes, but he deduced it from the evidence. He concluded the concurrence of evolutionary changes suggested a purposive principle giving it direction. He called it “vital élan.”

There appears to be a basic order in the world, both of its state and of its processes. Chaos science teaches us that even in the apparent randomness of action ordered patterns appear. Such patterns suggest order. Might string theory suggest the possibility of a higher order of nature embedded deep within its fabric, a contemporary “vital élan?” Is it possible that, as genetic codes direct and guide the development at the cellular level of an organism, so matter may contain information within it, not from without, guiding, directing or influencing the development of life in many different environments and in changing environments? However nature has arrived at this point, we observe order within it, and we are in awe.

If we have the faith to believe that life has purpose, then evidence may suggest purpose which our senses cannot directly and absolutely proclaim. There is a point at which one is faced with a choice: either to leap in faith to a notion of ultimate purpose, for which the notion of God may be the symbol, or not to leap and find oneself in nihilism by default.

The eye of faith sees purpose in a world that is not fully explicable, and it responds in awe and wonder. The Jewish name of Yahweh, the imperfect form of the verb “to be,” recognizes the dynamic power behind the world’s processes without ascribing personality to it. In other places God is referred to as the wind, breath, or a rock. Not all Jewish references to God are personal, although it can be extremely personal for the victims, as where God is perceived to command the Israelites not only to go to war but to kill every man, woman and child they find. “I am becoming” recognizes a dynamic force of becoming in the world, which is beyond all categories of human thought. As a point of reference for finite minds, that power is here identified metaphorically as “God.”

This blog will examine other evidence which suggests that we can rationally assign purpose to life within its apparent randomness. It will draw some conclusions in broad strokes of what may be that purpose. Justice, conceived as such, is the squaring of the actual with the “ought” of that purpose.

Criticism of Fundamentalist Biblicism

Christian fundamentalists claim that the Bible is literally the Word of God, a message straight from God: that the Bible is “inerrant” historically and scientifically; that it is also spiritually accurate and complete when rightly understood and interpreted. This extreme elevation of the Bible is often referred to as Biblicism. Similar notions abound in fundamentalist Judaism, Islam, and other authoritative forms of religions.

Christian fundamentalists deny the role of logic in their belief system, logic being a human device, and subject to error. They preach “saved by grace and not by works;” they preach grace as a thing in itself, rather than as an expression of value and acceptance as we are. Of course, that grace remains under lock, accessible only with the key of their particularly prescribed faith declarations.

The fundamentalist sees a radical separation of the physical world from the spiritual world: for them spirituality has little or nothing to do with experience, evidence, or logic. For them, the scriptures contain divinely literal revelation. They cite conflicts of scriptural authority with logic or experience as proof of the inadequacy of human reason and experience.

Fundamentalists bolster their claims of exclusive truth in their various, literal readings of the Bible, claiming it must be believed on faith just because it contradicts logic. Of the claim of Christ’s virgin birth, they might acknowledge it is not uniquely claimed by Christianity, accepting that the same was claimed for various Roman emperors. But they assert that Jesus’ physical rising from the dead is unique in history. Not so. Will Durant, in Story of Civilization, The Life of Greece, Volume II, notes at pages 186 and 187, the Greek god, Dionysus:

[H]e began as a goddess of fertility, became a god of intoxication, and ended as a son of god dying to save mankind. . . . Mourning for Dionysus’ death and joyful celebration of his resurrection formed the basis of a ritual extremely widespread among the Greeks. . . . The height and center of their ceremony was to seize upon a goat, a bull, sometimes a man (seeing in them incarnations of the god); to tear the live victim to pieces in commemoration of Dionysus’ dismemberment; then to drink the blood and eat the flesh in a sacred communion whereby, as they thought, the god would enter them and possess their souls. In that divine enthusiasm they were convinced that they and the god became one in a mystic and triumphant union; they took his name, called themselves after one of his titles, Bacchoi, and knew that now they would never die.

No doubt, Christianity has civilized the inherited Dionysian ritual by substituting bread and fruit of the grape for actual blood and body. Paul cautioned against excessive communion practices, perhaps as a warning that it not become a substitute for the Greek Dionysian and Bacchian revelry, which would have been familiar to his Greek converts. But it defies the claim of exclusivity for fundamentalist Christian beliefs and it bears remarkable resemblance to a widespread ceremony and belief system as much as one thousand years its senior. There are other similar beliefs and practices in other cultures that precede Christian practice.

Fundamentalists of all faiths seek certainty denied us in the natural world by looking to favorably selected literal statements of the Bible, interpreted in the light of other selected literal statements, to the exclusion of natural experience and reason. Friedrich Nietzsche said of it, “‘Faith means not wanting to know what is true.” Because their perception of truth is absolute, they are intolerant of people with other experiences and views. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, she has Rev. John Ames say at page 146, “It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism, by a good measure.” In that such fundamentalism is exclusive and intolerant of other views, it threatens peace and justice.

How can one test notions of spirituality and God if the source of those notions cannot be tested by means available to rational beings? How does one evaluate the validity or usefulness of a claim based, not upon experience, knowledge or reason, but upon the mere assertion of its authority? Fundamentalists argue that the answer is faith: we are “saved by faith.” They set up a battle of spiritual against material, Good against Evil; and they defend the faith against any reason or experience that may contradict it.

The Inquisitional Church found torture to be the weapon of choice in its spiritual battles of the Middle Ages. It could consistently torture, maim and even sacrifice human life for the contorted purpose of saving the soul for eternal life. What is the temporary compared to the eternal? Nothing! And so, to give the heretic adequate time to recant and be saved, the Inquisitors devised ingenious methods of slowly escalating torture: the rack, hanging by the limbs, burning at the stake, and many others. This was no mere punishment for heresy. Rather, it was rationalized as an act of Christian love, as an invitation, even an inducement, to salvation and eternal life. If at the moment before death the heretic recanted, the Christian community could then rejoice that one more soul was saved for eternity with God. Andreas dismissed Thimm’s suffering under the same rationale.

Had the Church not been caught in its “faith, not works” trap, it could have recognized that true faith needs no protection. Faith in the saving message of Jesus requires loving action. Faith without works is dead, the New Testament James would say. Luther did not appreciate James.

Although Paul is often cited for “faith not works” he clearly preached that one’s faith comes alive with acts of love (Gal. 5:6).

There is some Biblical authority for a concrete, measurable test that can provide reliable evidence with which to test faith. Matthew 11:2-6 tells of a time when John the Baptist, was in prison, and he was having doubts about whether Jesus was the one who was to come, the one for whom John had been preparing the way. The Messiah was to bring a reign of peace to Israel. If Jesus was the Messiah, why was John suffering in prison? So John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him whether he could prove his spiritual authority. Jesus is not reported to make any assertion of Biblical authority. Rather, Jesus told John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they heard and saw: that the blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and good news is preached to the poor. In brief, good things happened about Jesus.

Mark 9:38-41 tells of another time when Jesus’ own disciples complained that others who were not Jesus’ disciples were healing in Jesus’ name. That certainly would challenge the use of reported miracles to prove his divinity. Jesus responded that no one who heals and does good in his name can be against him.

Luke, after presenting the teachings of Jesus to love our enemies and not to judge others, follows with a parable. Jesus said that a healthy tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does an unhealthy tree bear good fruit. The fruits of the actions of a good person are good fruits; the fruits of the actions of a bad person are bad fruits. So, by their fruits you will know them. Jesus taught the people to love their enemies and their neighbors as they love themselves. That was the great commandment. True faith does not demand protection; it demands action which bears good fruits.

As applied to the Rulo clan’s claim of authority for their faith, the fruit of that faith, torture and death, should have condemned it as contrary to the fundamental principle expressed in the creation story: that the world and all that is in it is good. Torture is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, and it is contrary to the principles of all the major religions to love neighbor as self.

Not only can it be shown by fruits and outcomes that the Biblicist’s assertion of scriptural authority to the exclusion of knowledge and experience and of other revelations of the divine is too narrow, but their claim of inerrancy can be shown to be inconsistent by reference to that very scripture. If the Bible is inerrant, the Word straight from God, and the final authority in all matters of faith, to the exclusion of human reason, experience and tradition, how does one resolve apparent contradictions in the Bible itself?

Consider, for example, that there are two different “accounts” of creation in the first two chapters of the Bible. In the first account on the sixth day God created the animals of the land (Genesis 1:24, 25), and then man and woman, together (Genesis 1:26-28), declaring, ALet us make man in our image, in our likeness . . .@ In the second account that begins at Genesis 2:4, God first creates man from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7), and then “God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed” (Genesis 2:8). God caused plants to grow (Genesis 2:9-10). After God placed man in Eden to cultivate it, He noted it was not good that man be alone, and so “out of the ground the Lord formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. . . .” (Genesis 2:19). But man still did not have a suitable helper, so God “fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:22). The chronology and indeed the creative acts in the two accounts are contrary and irreconcilable.

But, the inerrancy group is unabashed. While rejecting reason as humanistic, they are expert rationalizers. They respond that the use of the plural in Genesis 1:26 refers to Jesus and God, as announced in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But John’s pronouncement in a Greek culture used the word, “logos,” which related to the Idea in the Doctrine of Forms set forth by Plato. Moreover, the notion of a trinity does not explain the reference in Psalms 82 to Yahweh delivering judgments among the gods. There Yahweh accuses the other gods of failing to grant justice to the weak and destitute, and sentences them to fall and to die like men. The First Commandment simply requires that He be placed above the rest. God forbids idols, for He is a jealous god (Exodus 20:3 and 4).

Moses sings “Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods,” (Exodus 15: 11, and again affirms it at Exodus 18: 11) and Solomon, the builder of pagan temples as well as the Jerusalem temple, says, “Great is our God among all gods” (II Chronicles 2:5). And, how shall the Fundamentalists explain the two flood stories? In Genesis 6: 20, God tells Noah to gather the animals two by two. In Genesis 7: 2, God tells him to gather seven of every kind of clean animal, two of every kind of unclean animal, and seven of every kind of birds to keep their kinds alive on the earth. Apart from the conflict in accounts, that leaves a lot of animals for one ark.

Acknowledging the unavoidable conflicts if the Bible is read literally, what then shall we make of it? Some fundamentalists would say if you can’t believe the Bible (literally), what can you believe? The fundamentalist claim of literal truth of our translation of the Bible misses the point. Marcus Borg, in the video series, Living the Questions, tells of an Indian story teller who began his stories, “I don’t know if it really happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.” Perhaps we should approach the scriptures in a similar way, understanding that what we read was first said or written in a particular period, place, culture and understanding, and then repeated many times over many years.

I submit that the Bible is not the word straight from God, but a record of the God experience of Jews and of early Christians. We cannot read the Bible with any integrity without bringing to it our own experiences and prejudices, inherited and acquired. My own brother, Rev. Leon Wheeler, said it well in a letter to his denomination’s publication, The Sabbath Recorder:

I come to scripture informed by a prior understanding of what is, and is not, true. These are my lenses, courtesy of my family heritage, the traditions and teachings of my church, and various learnings from other people, cultures, and the world of nature. At times Scripture opposes what I have come to know as true, or good, or sensible. My response, overly simplified, is that the Scripture isn’t right at that point, and that’s okay.
I have eyes in order that I can see. I have ears in order to hear. I have a mind so that I can reason, comprehend, and act in ways that are good and holy. The world is a revelation of its Creator, a Word of God. It is no less inspired (and in some ways more inspired) than our Scriptures which are frequently described as the Word of God. I can do no less than weigh all the words of God, and be faithful to what I come to know.

Truth is not always contained in literal statements or pronouncements. It is much more dynamic than that. Albert Schweitzer set out to discover the historical Jesus in his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer found that was not possible: “But He does not stay; He passes by our own time and returns to His own.” But, for Schweitzer the quest was nonetheless fruitful because it affirmed that Jesus was a mighty spiritual force flowing through his time and into our own: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side. He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow me!’ . . .” Jesus is to us as the God of the burning bush was to Moses: “I am becoming.” The question is put to each of us: will we participate in that dynamic becoming of the world, or will we attempt to force it to do our bidding?

Fundamentalism is not exclusive to Christianity. Rather, it is a notable development among many of the major religions throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. It marks a fear of change that is inherent in the dynamic nature of our world. The above criticism of fundamentalist Biblicism can be applied as well to all forms of fundamentalism or to any attempt that would idolize spirituality and the becoming of the world.

There are also those of all the major religions who share a view of, and commitment to, the dynamic becoming of the world that is expressed in its own formal mythic statements. Although this book discusses spirituality and the power of becoming in the world from the writer=s Christian perspective, it need not be so limited: God is not limited to any formal theological or religious view. As Matthew Fox stated, “To connect with the great river we all need a path, but when you get down there there’s only one river.” One must understand that each of the major religions provides the devotee a path to travel. We will likely find there many other travelers of different appearances and persuasions traveling different paths leading to the same river.

Faith and Choice

Knowledge of spiritual matters is not as elusive as extreme skeptics would hold; nor is it as absolute and distinct from matter, experience and reason as inerrant Biblicists would hold. Fundamentally a choice must be made for or against purpose in life. The choices one makes will have a profound effect in that person’s life. A person who sees himself or herself as a cog in a machine, will act as a cog and react reflexively to whatever happens. One who believes in his or her ability to choose, in purpose, and in responsibility for that action will act upon that belief and respond to the world in a purposeful and meaningful way.

If there is no law that is natural to this world that we know, the consideration of the welfare of others is merely a utilitarian issue of self-interest and justice is personal and exclusive. Or, if justice is defined not by Natural Law, but solely by political authority, then justice is coincidental with those who have the power to make and enforce the law. In that case, Nietzsche’s proposition of will to power is affirmed, and his nihilistic conclusion is at hand. If, however, we recognize some order or purpose that is natural to the world, then violation of that natural order or purpose, Natural Law, will have consequences. In that case, one has purpose in living that transcends personal existence and self-interest.

Potentiality and Ought

In Psychoanalysis and Religion , Erich Fromm defined religion as that which gives us a sense of orientation and an object of devotion. Accepting this definition, religious beliefs and practices will strongly influence philosophical and theological views, and those views will influence religious beliefs and practices. Further, Fromm’s notion of religious orientation assumes freedom of action in the world. His notion of an object of devotion assumes that there is something beyond ourselves upon which we depend. Although a self-described atheist, Fromm believed that healthy religion is necessary to mental health in that it orients us to a dynamic world, to the kernel of potentiality in the soil of actuality, to “I am becoming.” One must wonder if Fromm’s proclaimed atheism, and similar claims of others, are but a rejection of idolizing theism. Accepting that justice is the squaring of “is” with “ought,” our examination of notions of justice will include notions of religion.


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