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.


11 Responses to “Can “Spirit” Be a Verb?”

  1. Tom Ford July 21, 2013 at 1:31 am #

    In the South, where English is closer to Elizabethan English, I heard more than once said by someone experiencing a stinging sensation to the application of alcohol to a wound, “That really spirits!”

    • philnevahefner July 21, 2013 at 1:35 am #

      Thanks, Tom! In all my years, I never heard such an expression. Apparently, Paul Tillich didn’t either, because my lament is his, as well. But, as far as I know, he never suggested making a verb. If you recall other such expressons, please send them my way.

  2. Esther July 21, 2013 at 2:55 am #

    I like your notion, Phil and have come to appreciate the embodied spirit of the Hebrew scriptures a great deal. The so-called mind/body split has caused no end of trouble (esp for women!) Thanks a lot!

  3. EllenNoth July 21, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    I have heard expressions like “he spirited her away from the group” (or somlace)

    • philnevahefner July 21, 2013 at 4:39 am #

      Thanks, Ellen–I’ve heard that, too, but it didn’t occur to me. Tom Ford also noted another usage–2 new ones to add!

  4. Doug Larson July 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    I agree that “spirit” needs to be “verb-alized” whether as ‘I love you’ or through loving action in order to be realized. I believe that this was very well illustrated in the movie The Sessions in which three of Mark O’Brien’s caregivers experienced a relatedness that they couldn’t understand and bailed out on him including the sex therapist who initiated cutting there sessions short from the originally agreed upon six to four. Only the fourth caregiver allowed her experience of their relatedness to grow into a relationship and realized the unconditional nature of this relatedness (love). However, I will suggest that all the caregivers were ultimately spirited into action by the end of the story.

    • Phil Hefner July 30, 2013 at 3:38 am #

      Doug–Thanks for the references to The Sessions–from what you say, I wonder how Bruni could read the dualism into his interpretation.

  5. Rick Deines July 30, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    “Long time listener, first time caller.” Thanks, Phil, for opening up the subject (oops the verb) of ‘spiriting.’ George Lakoff in “The Political Mind” is working to shift us from ‘Old Enlightenment’ to ‘New Enlightenment’ thinking and acting especially politically. He cites recent scientific discoveries about how the brain works as evidence, I think, of the integration you describe: “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.”

  6. Rick Deines July 30, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    That was then, this is now. Again, thanks, Phil for this conversation on ‘spiriting.’ While walking our Charley (standard poodle) this morning, the ‘spiriting’ image kept popping into consciousness. Like this:

    The Spiritual as music (certainly not Western rationality) “Every time I FEEL the spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray……”

    My exposure to Native American thought and practice makes me think that ‘spiriting’ is alive and well there.

    On inventing words: Remember when strategy was a noun (then ‘strategizing’ took over)
    More recently in my reading incentive as a verb is ‘incentivizing’ (you have permission)

    • philnevahefner August 1, 2013 at 2:44 am #

      Thanks, Rick, for adding to the words we can use to express what we know as spiriting.

  7. tomuytt December 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on Evolution, Culture and Meaning and commented:
    I have been reading Philip Hefner’s work for a while now – not a big surprise, since his work is a major part of my dissertation – but until now I did not know he had his own WordPress blog. So I am reblogging this just to share my little discovery in the first place. But also because his writing can be very – no pun intended – inspiring. See for yourself in this post on ‘spiriting’.

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