Archive | July, 2013

Can “Spirit” Be a Verb?

21 Jul

Can “Spirit” be a Verb?


I want to float an idea—the idea of “spirit.”  The English word “spirit” is not very versatile.  It’s almost exclusively used as a noun, most often referring to a supernatural power or presence, although we often speak as well of the human spirit.  Once in a while you will run across spirit as an adjective as when we speak of a spirited horse.  I want to raise the question whether spirit can also be a verb—an action word.


Let’s go further: if spirit is a verb, who or what is the subject of the verb?  Suppose the subject is my body.  I want to go beyond that and say that “my body spirits.” Yes, there’s a certain amount of linguistic acrobatics going on here, but then new ways of thinking often require that we do new things with our language.


Before I go into more detail, I want to describe another perspective on spirit and body that stands in contrast to the idea I have in mind.  Last December, the New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, wrote a classic column in which he laments that so many of his friends are obsessed with the imperfections of their bodies and devote themselves to the quest for perfect bodies.  I say “classic”—not because I agree with him–in fact, I almost totally disagree with him–but because it is such a vigorous and crystalline expression of an idea that it certainly belongs in a textbook of essays on the subject of body and spirit.


Bruni—like most people I know–puts body and mind, body and soul, body and self in two completely separate worlds.  His very title illustrates this chasm between body and self: “These Wretched Vessels”—referring to our bodies.  His aim is to reject the notion that we are defined by the shape and condition of our bodies.  So far, so good, but he thinks of body in a way that wholly excludes brain, mind and soul from body—as if they are some spiritual alternatives to body.  “Our bodies are not ourselves,” he writes:


we can be dealt a set of imperfections — of crushingly severe limitations, in fact — and nonetheless transcend them, with some help and some luck and, above all, some grit. That we can look as far beyond the flesh that we’ve inherited as we resolve to. . . . We’re so much more than these wretched vessels that we sprint or swagger or lurch or limp around in. . . .


The centerpiece of his column is eight reprise of the movie, “The Sessions,” in which paraplegic Mark O’Brien succeeds in fulfilling his desire to have sex with a woman.  He writes, “What ‘The Sessions’ illuminates is. . .an individual insisting on experiences and pleasures outside the limits of what, because of his physical form, he’s supposed to envision for himself and others envision for him.”


Judging from the 175 responses to this article, agreement with these opinions among “elite” readers is overwhelming.  The columnist has expressed a basic attitude that pervades our culture.


What’s wrong with this picture that Bruni presents?  Of course we can transcend our bodies in the ways this article describes, and we can indeed see far beyond the flesh of our bodies.  The issue is, as I see it, two fold.  For one thing, Bruni is confirming a dualism between spirit and body, mind and body, humans and nature—a dualism that has been fundamental to western culture almost since the beginning and which has resulted in an overall diminishment and lack of appreciation for nature and our bodies.  In Christian piety, for example, Saint Paul’s discourse on spirit and flesh has been largely interpreted to emphasize the superiority and dominance of spirit over the body—even though three generations of scholarly interpreters have insisted that Paul intended no such dualism (Gal. 5:17).  The last century or more has seen a steady attack on this dualism and many attempts to underscore the wholeness not only of human beings but of the entire created world.  Holistic practice of medicine is a prominent example of this effort.   The effort to banish this dualism has found resources in the worldview that is embodied in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Even the most ancient Hebrew sources depict a soul or spirit that is embodied, not otherworldly.


The dualistic perspective also flies in the face of contemporary science.  One of the most important developments in what I like to call the “sciences of the inner life” is that what we designate as activities of the mind and spirit are thoroughly embodied in the physical processes of our bodies, which includes our brains.  These sciences include biological anthropology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, the neurosciences, cognitive psychology, cognitive science as such, and the many branches that these sciences lead into.


A huge body of scientific research is making it clear that what we call mind and spirit are components of our bodies and thoroughly bodily activities.  This bothers many people—even threatens some of them—because they hear this scientific word has a debasement of spirit, reducing it to “nothing but” physical processes.  If this were in fact the case, I would join the dualists.  But we really need to turn this argument on its head and recognize that science today, far from debasing spirit, is deepening and enhancing our view of our bodies.  The old dualistic perspective must consider any elevating of the body to be at the expense of spirit and mind, but this simply is not the case.


The human spirit is indeed an awesome thing.  Science now tells us that it is an embodied awesomeness; and this means in turn that are our bodies and our evolutionary past are also awesome.


In the 1950s, when I was in seminary, J. B. Phillips wrote a popular book with the title, Your God is too Small!  Today, we need a comparable admonition, Your Nature is too Small!  Science calls out for a big picture of nature.  It cries out as well for the dimension of depth—where both science and religion come into play. Our times call for large concepts of both God and nature.


I am beginning to understand that my body engages in spiriting.  Spirit and body are not two separate entities; my spirit does not enter my body from the outside, nor does it overwhelm my body as a superior power.  It’s all verbs, not nouns bouncing from one place to another.  Rather, my body engages in activity that we call soul or spirituality, even though it really defies capturing in concepts and words.  This ensouled flesh of mine is a thinking body and a spiriting body.  It is that spiriting body that explores my world and imagines what I might do and be in this world.


In Frank Bruni’s context, it is a case of his friends’ thinking bodies engaging in self-critical reflection on their own bodies.  It is Mark O’Brien’s thinking ensouled body directing itself—against great odds—into sexual activities he has decided to pursue.


I hope this gives an idea of what I mean by the strange terms “spiriting bodies” and spirit functioning like a verb.  You can see that I am struggling with this idea (that’s why this installment is so long!), an idea that is emerging from my own experience.  I welcome your dialogue, and I welcome you aboard explore this idea more fully.



See Frank Bruni, “These Wretched Vessels,” The New York Times, December 25, 2012, page A27.


Bare Abundance

12 Jul


Bare Abundance

            I’m letting three images carry the idea in this installment, with a minimum of commentary.

Image One:  “So great is my hunger for you [God] that I seem to see you in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow”—so writes Christian Wiman.

Image Two–from a sermon by Kim Beckmann:  “There’s a birch tree, felled by spring winds over our ski trail.  We stepped over its branches the first day.  The second day, it was budding.  So I looked again, and yes, it was clean cut off.  The third day, it started gaily leafing out.  I looked again.  The tree didn’t even know it was dead, so full of sap it was, so full of the desire to continue its life-giving rhythms that it flowered anyway.”

Image Three–a poem of mine:

Youth beyond Its Prime

What’s it

worth to create

when life’s door

is closing

Poems emerge whole

from my head

where before the muse

was mostly dumb

Why should this be?

Why does the new hold such allure

why not rest in what is

familiar known old

Can I be reborn

come to life again

when so many years have flowed away

and so few remain in view

Jesus’ answer does not

lock on to my question

The spirit blows where it will

Jesus said

I ask why it blows at all

In youth it blows

toward what is to come

what is the worth

of youth beyond

its prime

What is the worth

of old age

gone young

Is young/old

not the proper gauge

not a younger juice that flows

but age’s very own

Not a youth transposed

but the old come

into its truly

proper flow

These images—the bare tree in winter that brings abundance, the dead tree that won’t die, the creativity of old age—emerged in their own contexts.  Wiman is reflecting in the aftermath of devastating cancer that is now in remission; Beckmann is preaching on the Easter resurrection; I am responding to the poetic urge of creativity that has only recently blossomed in my own octogenarian life.  In each context, the image points to larger meaning.

Each image is in fact a double image, each processing a shadow image, and this double-image-character is what carries the impact.  Wiman is able to shape the impact in just two words—whose coupling is stunning: “bare abundance.”  Each word by itself is a vivid picture; together they provoke and shock our imagination, because we are confused by the notion that abundance and bareness can belong together.  This challenge of images that are vivid and yet incongruous happens when we think of a branch cut off and yet blossoming as well as the coexistence of youth and old age in a single person.  These apparent contradictions set up an inner tension that is essential to the experience and the meaning of these images.

In, with, and under these images lies an insistence that our moments contain eternity, but eternity that we access only through the concrete contradictory materiality in which we live, with all its consternation.

Eternity is beyond us, not ours to control.  The material concreteness of our lives crying out: “There is more to us than appears on the surface.”  Beneath the contradictions and consternation.

How does eternity surface in your life?

Phil Hefner—11 July 2013