I’m 45 now, and have noticed a shift in definition and usage, over time, in words like “spirit” and “spiritual” within North American culture.
I have mixed feelings about that shift: at times I feel it as a potential watering-down of the authentic Holy Spirit, which is clearly still at work in the world (despite depressing evidence to the contrary, at times). I’ve had pentecostal or charismatic Spirit-infused moments in my life, and have witnessed some amazing things.
Yet the “small s” version of the word is also a point of entry and commonality. Small ‘s’ spiritual seeking can help people draw closer to God, but without pushing the hot buttons of specific religions, political parties, ideologies, etc. It also lets us delay talking about the clumsy history of violent and shortsighted Christians (or other religious zealots who lacked the “Spirit”) who acted wrongly in God’s name.
We need to talk about those problems eventually, of course. But they shouldn’t prevent a spiritual conversation from ever getting started. Anyone who feels the need to throw them into the conversation early is merely using diversionary tactics to avoid dealing with their own spiritual and emotional issues. It’s easier sometimes to hide behind debates and ego, to build a brick wall between one’s scientifically/historically learned head and one’s proud, needy, scared heart.
Yet most postmodern people are just more comfortable saying they are “spiritual” than they are in “signing up”, in formally affiliating with a complicated association of other messy humans, whose claims they may or may not accept in full.
I guess that’s okay. I’ve learned to accept that people are suspicious. As Lincoln famously said, “You can fool some people all the time, all the people some of the time, but not all people all the time”. The same can be said for getting all the people to believe the same thing at the same time, and then to do something with that belief. Heck, we really ain’t even gotten rid of slavery yet. It just went overseas, or underground.
At the most rudimentary level, though, here’s where I’ve come down on the subject of the relationship between the human spirit (or soul, if you prefer) and the Holy Spirit:
The Spirit of God existed with Yahweh (or Hashem, or the Lord, use whatever form you’d like to describe the Source figure) and with the Christ (the “embodiment” of God) at the beginning of time. That’s the essence of the Trinity, a concept not directly presented in the Old or New Testaments, but intuited via a combination of faith, inference and logic. A priest mentor of mine (writer and activist Fr. Richard Rohr) recently said this at a small conference:
“The Big Bang was the first Incarnation, and Christ was the first idea in the mind of God.”
So the Holy Spirit can be said to be the energy or power that instigated that Big Bang, at the first moment of time and space. It caused –and was spread– through the explosion of creation, and the dissemination of the “stuff of God” in a million different directions. Thus, as leading astrophysicist Neil deGrasse-Tyson recently and eloquently reminded us, “we are stardust” …and therefore each contain a tiny piece of that original spirit/life-force of creation.
Here’s how Neil puts it, how he beautifully reconciles science and faith, in discussing Something that is parent, friend, awesome gift, and most certainly the soil that each of those younger, rival siblings (faith and science) grew out of:
A talk given to neurosurgeons and other physicians at the Salk Institute
“kinship with the cosmos” !!! That’s the spirit, Neil. When we think of spirit, therefore, we are acknowledging that cosmic energy, that light, or life, or love force — i.e. that power that each human has a portion of, but which is only a tiny portion of the original and larger Light.
As Tyson acknowledges, some of these ideas feed into a more New-Agey kind of theology or philosophy. And he’s not in the business of caring. He’s a scientist, not a preacher. Maybe in contrast you do care, and such talk of stardust and spirituality is discomfiting to you.
If so, let me stand in the gap here, with one foot in each field, and say that this kind of blending of truth from several disciplines is only dangerous if one proceeds from a weakness of faith, from an insecurity that one will soon be in over one’s head.
On the other hand, if one believes that God can stand up to scrutiny and experimentation– including the twisting and flexing of both ancient and current wisdom in the hands of an authentic but imperfect seeker like myself– then talking about photons and angels in the same sentence is not only easy, it’s exciting.
The only distinction I would make is this: that we are called to stand in awe of the Source, not the results (and certainly not our own intellect, or limited understanding of those results). In Christian parlance, we were brought into existence to worship the Creator, not the Creation.
This also means that to not worship is to go against the flow, to dam up the stream coming from the Source directly to your own soul. And to worship the rock on the riverside, instead of the flame that formed it, is to be distracted from the full, bright truth. For the genuine energy of God’s Holy Spirit, proceeding forth from the Big Bang, may even still be present in small amounts within that fancy crystal from Taos or Tibet… but why pray to a rock, or even settle for climbing a mountain, when you can walk in peace with the One who instead has promised to help you move mountains?
Relationship, with humans and God, all within the “love that fires the sun” (to quote songwriter Bruce Cockburn), is both our origin and our destination. It is in fact our whole reason for being. Within each of us, the Holy Spirit seeks communion, or maybe re-unification, with the ever-expanding, Big-Bangy spirit of God that is present in every living thing.
So why would anyone run from such a life-changing conversation? We all love fireworks, don’t we?