Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spirits in a Material World

Eugene Peterson always helps me see in a new way…

G.K. Chesterton once said that there are two kinds of people in the world:  When trees are waving wildly in the wind, one group of people thinks that it is the wind that moves the trees; the other group thinks that the motion of the trees creates the wind. The former view was the one held by most of humankind through most of its centuries; it was only in recent years, Chesterton said, that a new breed of people had emerged who blandly hold that it is the movement of the trees that creates the wind.

The consensus had always held that the invisible is behind and gives energy to the visible; Chesterton in his work as a journalist, closely observing and commenting on people and events, reported with alarm that the broad consensus had fallen apart and that the modern majority naively assumes that what they see and hear and touch is basic reality and generates whatever people come up with that cannot be verified with the senses.  They think that the visible accounts for the invisible.

Having lost the metaphorical origin of “spirit” we operate, in our daily conversations (in the English language at least), with a serious vocabulary deficit.  Imagine how our perceptions would change if we eliminated the “spirit” from our language and used only “wind” and “breath.”

Spirit was not “spiritual” for our ancestors; it was sensual.

It was the invisible that had visible effects.

It was invisible but it was not immaterial.

Air has as much materiality to it as a granite mountain: it can be felt, heard, and measured; it provides the molecules for the quiet breathing that is part of all life, human and animal, waking and sleeping—the puffs of air used to make words, the gently breezes that caress the skin, the brisk winds that fill the sails of ships, the wild hurricanes that tear roofs of barns and uproot trees.

It would clarify things enormously if we could withdraw “spirit” and “spiritual” from our language stock for a while.

Superficial misunderstandings can be easily disposed of: Spirituality is not immaterial as opposed to material; nor interior as opposed to exterior; not invisible as opposed to visible.

Quite the contrary; spirituality has much to do with the material, the external, and the visible. What it properly conveys is living as opposed to dead.  When we sense that the life has gone out of things and people, of institutions and traditions, eventually (and sometimes this takes us a while) we notice the absence.  We look for a file-drawer kind of word in which we can shove insights, images, and desires that we don’t have a precise name for.  “Spirituality” works about as well as anything for filing purposes.

The frequent use of the word as a catch-all term is understandable in a society in which we are variously depersonalized, functionalized, and psychologized.  The particularity of each life is obscured by reductionizing abstractions. 

Life leaks out of us as we find ourselves treated as objects, roles, images, economic potential, commodities, consumers. 

Even though daily life is much simplified and made easier by these various reductions, something in us rebels, at least in fits and starts.  Most of us, at least at times, sense that there is something more, something vastly more. We need a word, any word, to name what we are missing.

(Eugene Peterson, Christ Play in Ten Thousand Places)

There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution

We are spirits in the material world

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure

We are spirits in the material world

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it's something we can't buy
There must be another way

We are spirits in the material world...

(The Police/Sting from Ghost in the Machine, 1981)

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