Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Return to the Sea of Spirit

In my last post, referring to Myer's book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, I said that I would devote some time to the question of how the spirit inhabits the body. It is an important question, I think, if we are to arrive at a meaningful understanding of the relation of body and soul, of the nature or life and that of death, and of what happens after death.

Let me begin by restating the conviction I have offered here previously that the human being is an amalgam of body and soul. Strict materialists would deny this, of course, but, not to put too fine a point on it, I think their position is foolish. The inability to see farther than the senses can reach or than science and mathematics can calculate simply shows a want of imagination and a corresponding lack of vision. The idea that only that which can be directly experienced by the senses, or that which can be counted or analyzed, is all that exists is shortsighted nonsense. Such a contention represents concrete thinking at its worst, not to mention that it simply denies or even derides the collective wisdom of humanity over the ages, which has held consistently from generation to generation and from culture to culture that man is more than the sum of his parts. And that this is true - that there are dimensions to life which transcend the merely physical, ought to be self-evident to anyone who has ever lived or loved or felt nobility or kindness or inspiration. To deny the spiritual dimension of life is to deny life itself.

Having said that, I return to the question: If man embodies a spirit or soul, how are the two related? In traditional terms: The soul inhabits the body, gives it life and expresses itself through it. But in what way does it so inhabit the body? How are the two "connected?"

Myers relates the testimony of several near-death experiences in which the person recalled that his soul "unzipped" itself from his body, as it were; that threads connecting the two were snapped or severed, and the spirit then drifted free, though remaining tenuously connected in such a way that it was able to return. For this reason, the witnesses seem to suggest, they did not die. This echoes the averment of others with which we are all familiar - those who state that in the near death experience they witnessed themselves floating free, connected frailly to their physical bodies.

Affecting as these assertions may be, I am afraid they do not impress me as being true. Rather, I think, they are like the statements of those who claim to have seen aliens from other planets: more the products of a collective memory of popular images of such creatures than of an encounter with the creatures themselves. All such stories have salient aspects in common, because, I think, all come from a common pool of a popular culture of books and films which implant in the minds of susceptible people a preconceived notion of the experience they will claim to have had.

Another problem with this view is, of course, the idea implicit within it that spirit is, in part at least, corporeal, in that it is linked by threads or tissues which, if they are to be severed, must be physical. And yet, in my view (as well as the conventional one), spirit is non-corporeal - it has no physical component. If it does, it is not spirit. If the idea of spirit is to have any meaning, then it must mean that it is distinct from the physical; something entirely different in nature and action. There can be no physical link to a non-physical entity, or that entity becomes some sort of hybrid substance, the nature of which as spiritual or transcendent is thus compromised.

And so the questions remains: If there is no such physical link - no thread or tenuous tissue connecting soul to body - then what does constitute the connection?

To the extent that I have thought about it, it has begun to seem to me that the question itself may be at fault. If we ask, How does the soul inhabit the body?, then we are assuming that the relation is essentially one of corporeal containment of spiritual essence. We imagine that the body is a vessel of some kind which holds the soul, or within which the soul dwells, for so long as life persists, and until death overtakes and debilitates the vessel until it can no longer retain the soul. It is as if a wineskin has worn out or an amphora has fractured and decayed. Weakened, disintegrating, the body can no longer support the indwelling of the soul, which then departs, resulting in death.

While I think there is some truth to the latter part of this argument, it does, in my view, depart from a false premise. The soul does not inhabit the body, I now think; rather, the body inhabits the soul.

I have said elsewhere that we live in a "sea of spirit." It seems to me now that that may be something more than a fanciful phrasing - more than just a metaphor. Tolstoy says, "That which gives life is the same in all things." With this I emphatically agree. The animating force, or spirit, or soul which gives life to me, to animals, to plants and fish must be the selfsame force in all living things. Life is variegated; spirit is not. Life is manifold in its forms; spirit is a single, undifferentiated entity. The search for the relation of the one to the many which was the preoccupation of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers was the same as our question of what constitutes the relation of body to spirit: How do many living forms emerge from a single, unified spirit? How do lives come from life itself?

It seems to me now that spirit, or what we in the context of corporeal existence call the soul, is universal; that it is an essential aspect of all that exists physically without itself being physical. It is the first principle - the implied but ineffable origin of Russell's paradox - that which enables all to exist but is itself not part of existence. It is the first necessary condition for life to exist in any and all its forms.

Without such generative force (which lies outside of existence) nothing that lives could have life; and once it is gone, all that lives dies. It does not "inhabit" us; rather, we as corporeal beings intersect it on the plane of existence, dwelling together for a time, generating life and raising consciousness, in somewhat the same fashion that television waves or radio waves give rise to coherent signals in appropriate apparatuses. We are not so much vessels of spirit as we are vessels immersed in spirit, which contains us and penetrates our being, and vivifies us for so long a time as our physical bodies are capable of surviving immersion within its life-sustaining environment. We are, in a sense, fish in the sea of spirit.

Precisely because spirit is so much a part of our existence - because it is the medium in which we move, and breathe, and express and experience ourselves - many very intelligent people do not recognize it, or they deny it altogether. It is not that spirit is too close to our senses - it is our senses; it is not that spirit is too much a part of us - it is us in the most essential way. We are spiritual beings; our spiritual essence is our very nature, enabling us not only to realize its presence in us, but also, ironically, to deny it. It is for this that I have said elsewhere that the very act of denying our spiritual nature is, in effect, an affirmation of it.

On this planet the preconditions for organic life occurred, and as life itself evolved, the measure and meaningfulness of spirit likewise evolved. Our consciousness of the presence of spirit developed as its ability to express itself through us enlarged and deepened. But does this mean that spirit had a plan for us, and possesses a will and desire for us? I do not think that this naturally follows. The question of the "intent" of spirit for sentient life is quite another matter, and one on which my thinking is still divided.

To suggest that the animating spirit which exists as an integral part of the physical universe is itself conscious and has will and desire for any living creature is farther than I am prepared to go at this point. And yet that it should possess such intent seems irresistible if we are to impute meaning and purpose to life. That would be the easy way of ascribing meaning - to locate it simply but exclusively in the realm of spirit, and to argue from that assertion to an operational meaningfulness of life, with its attendant moral codes and religious implications. And this I am not yet willing to do.

If life does have meaning, then I continue to think that such meaning arises from the fact that the experience of sentient life somehow moves forward the nature and destiny of man and of spirit. That their destinies are, in fact, linked by their very natures. That, as Kazantzakis said, man is, in an important sense, the savior of God, every bit as much as God is the creator of man. The two have neither meaning nor purpose without each other.