Sunday, 20 November 2011

"What Spirit is Man Can Be"

“What spirit is man can be”

For most of my life I would have said that this was utter nonsense. I was for most of my life a more or less convinced atheist, certainly agnostic. I would not or could not believe in any concept of God, or Spirit or even Soul. They all seemed unfathomable or unknowable and certainly unreachable. This though is no longer my truth. I believe in Spirit and God and Soul. I’m not overly sure how I articulate any or all of these, or for that matter what the difference is. To be honest I don’t really see the difference, they seem the same to me.

A few years ago, I began to connect to that which is described by these words that are often spoken but never really understood and began exploring religion. It is always interesting to me that the changes and experiences occurred before I began the exploration not after. Exploring religion was really about trying to make some rational sense of my experiences. I’m told that this is classic liberal religion of the old school type and not how people are supposed to do things today. While I accept that this may be true in theory it is not what happened to me in practise. I experienced first and then I sought an explanation. To be honest I’m not wholly sure how much this has helped, it has not provided me with the answers, just more questions. I’m ok with this today. I do not expect to get a full answer
Around this time I was working near Manchester University across the road from the Holy Name church on Oxford Road and every lunchtime I would go there, primarily to pray and sit quietly. I was attracted to one particular figure of Jesus, a “Sacred Heart” Icon. It was the glowing heart at the centre of the icon that I became fixated by and I would meditate every day on this. It brought me an incredible sense of peace and connection.

At the same time as I was experiencing this I was also meditating on the following paragraph in the Chapter “We Agnostics” in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”.
“We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.”

The Great Reality deep down within problem was that for so long I could not believe that this was deep down within me. That said I could see it in someone else. I could see it in my friend Claire’s son Ethan. From this I reasoned that what was in him had once been in me. Today I understand this to be the soul that has been spoken of through the centuries.

Classic Christian theology sees the soul not only as eternal and immortal; it also sees it, following the teachings of the Greek Philosopher Plato, as unchanging and separate from the body. This is distinct from the Jewish understanding, if there really is one. What they would refer to as soul is really spirit or breath of life that is bestowed on creation by God. There is no concept of a separate soul in Judaism. Genesis 2 vv 7 says “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is spirit that is really being talked about here, ruach, meaning breath of life, wind, spirit. It is this that creates all life, including human beings. It is important to realise here that this is not unique to humans; it is stating that all creation is formed from spirit

In Hinduism the soul, Atman, is understood to live many lives. The purpose of these lives is to unite the soul with the one God, the Brahman, this is known as the Brahman Atman synthesis. It is generally thought that Buddhism rejects the concept of the eternal soul. During his long night of meditation under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha found no evidence for the basic Hindu doctrines that he was taught.  Through his ESP vision the Buddha looked high and low for the Hindu Godhead Brahman and the eternal and unchanging soul that was our share of the Brahman.  What the Buddha discovered has been confirmed by contemporary physics: nothing, not even an atom, endures; all things come into being and then go out of being; all things flow like a river.

Many later Buddhists assumed that because Buddha did not find the Hindu immortal soul that he did not believe in a soul or even a self.  But this is correct only if you define the soul as eternal, immortal, and unchanging.  While the Buddha rejected this idea, he still believed that every human and animal were "living beings". I believe that this is similar to the Jewish concept described in Genesis.

Personally I cannot separate Soul, Spirit and God for me they seem one in the same. I don’t believe anyone has discovered an adequate explanation for this essence, which comes into being, and yet is so much more than mere material existence, whatever name we give it. Any reductionists arguments I have heard seem wholly inadequate and fail explain many of my own personal experiences.

 I find myself drawn to what Emerson understood as “The OverSoul”. He saw God as spirit which can be found within each of us but at the same time was greater than any of us. He saw “The Oversoul” as the great sustainer that holds and supports us "the Earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere." If we allow it to have its way with us, he said, the Oversoul will animate our being with compassion and love. So it is not just there forming life it can be ever present if we allow it to have its way with us.

The “Oversoul” to me is spirit. If the soul is spirit then it must be in all life and beyond all life or not at all. Therefore it can and is experienced in life itself; it is more than just a life giving force. The soul is experienced in the very reality of life itself and not by fleeing from it.

This is also how the soul is fed, in life itself. Yes it is fed in worship in words in silence, in music in prayer and in the images all around us. It is fed in ordinary human interaction. At meal time, during conversation, walks in the park and listening to people coming to terms with life’s struggles. It is fed in political and social action. I know my soul was fed when I marched with other Unitarians at the Manchester Gay Pride parade recently, carrying that banner proclaiming that “Unitarians Welcome All God’s Children”.

I am grateful that I found my soul, what animates my life, because without it my life seemed devoid of meaning and purpose. I’m also glad I am able to feed and nourish it and that by doing so I am able to help and perhaps inspire others to do likewise.

“What spirit is man can be”


  1. Emerson's idea of the Oversoul was inspired by reading the Upanishads translated by Rammohun Roy - the Oversoul is Brahman.

  2. Ever since I first came accross it the concept of the Brahman Atman Synthesis has spoken very powerfully to me. When self trenscendence is achieved the true self is revealed and oneness is achieved. I have tasted this bliss through self giving love...This is in some ways why I relate very strongly to Gandhi's Jesus, as the example in flesh of how we can achieve this...he showed the way...