Written by Professor Lance Butler.
In Western countries people say they are ‘spiritual’ more often than they say they are religious, but I don’t feel that this adjective has quite settled down for us. And the noun ‘spirit’ is also clouded in ambiguity and feels even less settled.
‘Spiritual’ works pretty well as a contrast to ‘materialistic’ or ‘sceptical’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘down-to-earth’. It has a useful vagueness about it so that , unless we are very hard-nosed and ‘rational’, we can approve of it in a general sort of way. We feel that some of our thoughts and feelings are more ‘spiritual’ than others and that these are evidence of a ‘deeper’ part of us. We also feel that this has something to do with nature, with love and with art; so a mountain path, a deep personal connection and a Beethoven quartet are somehow ‘spiritual’ while a walk by the canal, a chat about a sports event with an acquaintance and a Duran Duran number seem less so. But we would be hard put to it to produce any definitions that could explain this difference.
And if things are a bit murky around ‘spiritual’ then they are often almost opaque around ‘spirit’. The problem amounts to this: is ‘spirit’ an objective entity or a subjective entity? Can we add an article to it? Thus we might wonder what ‘a spirit’ is. Is it a sort of person? A feeling? An illusion? And ‘the spirit’ only seems to work as a metaphor as in ‘the spirit of camaraderie’ in a group.
I feel we should be bold here and nail our colours to one side of the fence rather than the other, and for this the word ‘metaphor’ can guide us to a solution. Metaphors have two obvious sides, known in the trade as the Vehicle and the Tenor. The Vehicle carries the meaning but isn’t the meaning; the Tenor is the meaning. If you are a lion in your bravery then the lion is the Vehicle which ‘carries’ the meaning and the bravery is the Tenor or meaning.
So is ‘spirit’ literal or metaphorical? The word originally has to do with things that are invisible but important such as our breath; to ‘inspire’ is basically to put in air, to ‘expire’ is to run out of breath, and you can see the roots of the word ‘spirit’ in these expressions. In Hebrew and Arabic the words for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same – the word in both cases can more or less be transliterated as ‘Ruh’.
We can’t see breath but we rely on it. The ‘spirits of wine’ are produced by distillation to create a much stronger drink such as brandy; I suppose whisky is the spirits or spirit of barley. Brandy and whisky look rather like tea but their ‘spirits’, however invisible, have a very different effect (you might say an ‘inspiriting’ effect) from the effect produced by your cup of Earl Grey. The spirit of a sports team is invisible, but it’s there and you can ‘somehow’ feel it. Thus far ‘spirit’ is pretty much metaphorical: the invisible power of the whisky or of the team is like our invisible breathing; the hidden Vehicle is breath and the Tenor is the strange and rather wonderful new behaviour of the drink or the players.
But the waters become muddier if we look at our word when it is being used in a religious or metaphysical context. Here ‘spirit’ seems to be both literal and metaphorical; the ‘spirit of God’ that ‘brooded’ or ‘moved’ upon the waters at the start of Genesis feels metaphorical but sounds literal. More modern versions of the Bible use ‘hovered’ for what God’s spirit is doing and there is no doubt that the spirit that descends on Jesus, for instance at the moment of his baptism, is a literal entity or force easily represented by a dove. In slightly later Christian discourse this dove will be identified as the ‘Holy Ghost’ who will in turn be represented by a dove. The confusion here pinpoints our problem exactly: the breath of God is His spirit; that spirit is a ‘ghost’ that can be figured by a nice white pigeon. Yet it isn’t the dove that is literal, it is the spirit. The spirit of God is the deepest part of God; the ‘Holy Ghost’ captures the deepest reality ‘behind’ even God, and it can only be the love of God (for Creation, for His Son.)
Thus in religious and spiritual thinking the spirit is the most important thing and is the Tenor or meaning of the words that surround it. And this fits with our other examples: the most important part of whisky, what distinguishes it from tea, the point of whisky, is the invisible bite or kick it can give us; what makes the sports team work, its energy and locomotive power, is the spirit with which it plays. There is the mechanical aspect (distilling, kicking a ball around) and there is the ‘real spirit’ of the thing.
We need this. We need to stop being vague and instead insist that spirit is objective, is ‘real’, has its own existence, isn’t merely a warm feeling (though it might provoke warm feelings) and isn’t simply a metaphor. I am reminded of the older English word for being alive: quick – as in the quick and the dead – which captures the point well. The quick, lively, alive, animated aspect of things is what matters As Hopkins puts it ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’ Note the ‘lives’ and the ‘freshness’; this is life and energy that Hopkins is talking about. Life, energy, depth, breath, love, that is spirit.
Then, of course, there are ‘the spirits’, the angels, the beings of light met in Near-Death Experiences. The first thing that God creates in Genesis is light – the first, deepest, most essential thing is light. NDE survivors all speak of light, it is the commonest element in their accounts; light is spirit, spiritual beings are beings of light. God is ‘the Great Spirit’ and we are part of that. And so spirits are beings, they are best thought of as having an objective existence. They are the dead, as met in mediumship communications, they are the spirit guides that some people are lucky enough to feel around them. They are the ghosts that people see.
And our own spirits in the here and now? There is only one candidate for an answer to that question. You may use terms such as ‘soul’ or ‘self’ but the meaningful part of us, the part without which all else, especially all the physical, is irrelevant, is consciousness. The Great Spirit can be called the Universal Consciousness. And we are all parts of that, parts of the consciousness that, we now know, precedes matter.
It isn’t all just a metaphor then. For if you insist that it is metaphor then you have to ask ‘a metaphor for what?’ ‘If this is the Vehicle, what is the Tenor?’ you must cry. But the point is that spirit isn’t a Vehicle, it is the Tenor of our lives, only it is invisible and mostly imperceptible so we tiptoe round it without seeing that it simply is us.