Saturday, September 29, 2007

Souls, Spirits-What's the Difference?

I used to think there was no reasonable distinction between the words "soul" and "spirit." I'm still unclear on how the two connect, but in the course of trying to read a newage version [bleh!] of St. Theresa's writings, I finally saw the issue involved.

One thing a soul is not... is our ticket to a cushy place in the Afterlife (Let's see, in which pocket did I leave that pesky thing?!) It is, as a matter of fact, directly connected to both afterlife & currentlife–Because it is, as a matter of fact, eternal. But it is, merely, "you". It is not a function of any of your personal talents, learned skills, ideas or qualities–But when you glare into your monitor and growl, "I don't know what in hell you're talking about!" that's exactly the person I'm talking about!

A "spirit" is something else, something less literally "in our face" while at the same time, much more easily pointed-to. A spirit does have personality, character traits, emotions, habits, appetites & intentions.

A "god" is a spirit. Early Christians called the Greek/Roman gods "demons" because that was the Greek term for "spirit," not necessarily the Wrong Sort of spirit but any type. Like other Jews, they considered that any spirit soliciting worship must be an evil spirit, because human beings should worship only God. And so "demonic" came to be a pejorative word.

You would be as incomplete without your spirit as if something drastic happened to your body. But it isn't you; it's the "psychological" form you take. As your body is the physical form you take.

Imagine some future technology comes along, able to grow a perfect working model of you in a vat. When he/she awakens, someone might mistake her body for yours–And her spirit too would resemble yours, as anyone could confirm by talking with you both. You, however, would be looking at this person from the outside. I see no reason to expect her to lack a soul, but that soul would not be your soul. She would look out at you, recognize you, no doubt feel a remarkable kinship–and know herself as "this" person, here, rather than "that" person, there.

Does "soul," then, mean merely "location"? Well, no, the two of you could certainly trade places without affecting the matter. "Location in space/time"? Well, no–and it's not even our feeling of "identity", or our feeling that we have a location at all. I get to move "these" hands, look out from "these" eyes, but all that's just a matter of the form I take. Looking, thinking, feeling... I do such things, via my body, mind, spirit–and my location here by my computer helps us keep track of which human of many this is–but my "soul" is the person doing these things.

Do I mean "a collection made up of my body-events, mind-events, emotional-events"? Well, no, I mean me. You can't see me. You can get evidence about my body, mind, and feelings. But only I–& God–get to see evidence of my soul. (And for us, that evidence is quite conclusive. People can disagree–& certainly I can be confused–about the relation between my soul & God. But I can't doubt that it's me!)

Those Powers & Principalities that "Paul" wrote about–and several theologians since, notably William Stringfellow and Walter Wink–would be examples of spirits, not souls. So when Wink talks about the word "Power" as referring to "the inwardness of an institution," he's talking about the inwardness of something that doesn't have one. An "inwardness," of you, me, or anyone–would be a soul.


cherice said...

Interesting post, Forrest. I think I agree that the soul is what makes me "me," and that a spirit is something different from that. What are souls and spirits for? What function do they perform in our lives and our world, or in the afterlife, in your opinion?

I disagree about your comments about what early Christians thought about spirits, though. In the New Testament, when someone is possessed by what we call a demon, it says an "evil/bad spirit," and when it's talking about God it says "spirit of God" or "holy spirit." There are places where it just says "spirit," as in "the fruits of the spirit." These are talking about our individual spirits as opposed to other kinds of spirits. So I think pretty much, although I haven't researched it extensively, most places where it's talking about a spirit other than a human's own spirit it specifies whether it's an evil spirit or a spirit of God. I think early Christians were pretty clear that they thought other nations' gods were not good or even indifferent spirits, but were spirits contrary to God's work and plan.

forrest said...

I don't think I understand your question... If a soul is what God is, then it's rather odd to ask: What is it for!

Spirits are elements of the narrative structure of creation. No spirits, no story. No souls, no-one to appreciate it....

No question but that early Christians considered any disembodied spirit (except the Spirit of God or Christ) to be intrinsically bad; I don't know what I said that you're disagreeing with. But these creatures were not considered to be evil by their nonChristian neighbors, not even the Jews. The Jews were not permitted to worship the gods or angels of the nations, but they considered them to be servants, reluctant and rebellious though they might be, of God.

Maybe what you are asking here... is "What difference does any of this make to us?"

I hope to get into that in another post; meanwhile you might want to read (?) what I put together about that on my own site awhile ago...

cherice said...

Hmm...I don't think I agree that "a soul is what God is." I think our souls are created and in some way reflect God's creativity and make us who we are, but I don't think they're the same thing *as* God.

I think my question was more like, what is the distinction between a soul and a spirit in the way they function in our lives? How do we use them (or they use us?)?

I don't have a lot of knowledge about what you said about the people around the early Christians not having a concept of some spirits being evil, but it seems to me that even those who worshipped Greek/Roman gods had a concept that there were gods who could do good or harm, and then there were spirits, some of whom were just bad. They did rituals and stuff to keep out the bad spirits.

forrest said...

"Gods" were heavy-duty "spirits." Whether they were bad or good depended much on your political orientation. On one side of the boundaries between the Middle East & India a devi was a god, and an asura was a demon, while on the other the words were reversed. To the early Christians, all such critters were God's rivals & enemies.

I see God making Adam/Eve "in his own image" and "breathing the breath of life into his nostrils" as different ways of talking about the same confusing truth: The only true life God could put into us was his own. God did that. That's why we're aware (rather than merely responsive.)

Speaking of "responsive"... your question! I'm not sure what "the soul" "does," except to be our very existence. Presumably it's at work in whatever we do, whether via mind, body, emotions... without being reduceable to any of them.

The "spirit" of a person would be more like the "spirit" of a movement or of an institution. It's more than the body of a person or the members of a movement or the rules of an institution... but it isn't a self-awareness (That would be a soul.) What it does... by itself... Again I don't know, but a ghost would be one kind of example. What does "your personality" do? (That isn't just being rhetorical; so far as I understand what "spirit" means, an individual personality (or an institutional one) is roughly the same kind of thing.)