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by W. John Green

Recent press and personal correspondence regarding the appointment of a Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality has roused curiosity as to the definition of “Spirituality”. The following paper has been written whilst trying to treat objectively traditional Christian, or indeed any other religious beliefs, either those of the writer or of those of other disciplines. It is suggested that when observation seems to be in conflict with faith or with widely held opinions, then both should be examined in closer detail and the unprejudiced examiner will be prepared to allow for faulty observation and/or be ready to modify a creed. It is on this assumption that all genuine science is based.

It is a characteristic of many, if not all study disciplines, that they are divided into convenient sections, or ‘files’ as present day technology might have it. One recalls from school-days, for example, that Mathematics was divided into Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry; Science into Chemistry, Physics and Biology, English into Language and Literature. Higher studies lead to more and to more complicated divisions such as quantum physics, pharmacology, cosmology, semantics and philology as well as the multiple divisions of medical science. The list is extensive. This is reasonable, since a comprehensive knowledge of everything is probably beyond the capacity of any human brain, and the desire to acquire information in as much detail as possible and then to apply it, compels intensive study but within the parameters of ability and available time. It is essential, nevertheless, for each ‘file’ to be seen as complementary to others, both those of the same discipline and to the corpus of total knowledge. For example, a knowledge of Chemistry is superficial if it is not linked at various levels to particle physics as well as to the practical applications of biochemistry and industrial research. Skill in ‘language’ is equally superficial if it is not linked to literature, and to the communication of knowledge.

It not surprising therefore that mankind’s thinking about himself has traditionally been put into similar ‘files’ which can be studied separately and within accepted parameters..

Some of these have traditionally been called ‘body’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and perhaps others.

The difficulty seems to lie in deciding whether the ‘person’ consists of a material body which is somehow energised and controlled by immaterial or metaphysical forces, or whether the ‘person’ is a metaphysical entity using a material body as a means of expression and communication with similar entities.


In this twenty-first century, the physical and chemical make-up of the body is probably better known than at any time, but it will be admitted by medical science that there is still much to be learnt. A recent television programme dealing with the functioning of the human brain made this apparent. The suggestion that the brain retains memory after clinical death, coupled with reported ‘death experiences’ sheds a glimmer of light on the nature of consciousness hitherto unknown. The possibility that the bodily brain may be a receptor of information from an external source or sources, as well as a processor of genetic development and of information received by way of the senses, is an interesting one, especially when it is suggested by the scientific world and even more when the question is asked, ‘From what source(s) ?’

Within the author’s lifetime tremendous advances have been made in the science of recording information. We can now collect information from all over the globe by way of a few aluminium tubes on the roof and record them on magnetic tape or a DVD. The day is nearing when a vast amount of information will be able to be transmitted with no human senses being aware of it, collected, and stored on a small silicon chip. It is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that the human brain is already able to store information in a similar way. That it does, is suggested by a multitude of phenomena described as ‘psychic’ or ‘metaphysical, and which cannot yet be explained by current experience of the physical body.


In many, if not all religions, there is at least an underlying suggestion that the body per se is essentially corrupt and therefore unclean. This thinking probably originates in the observable body being seen as deteriorating with time, and finally dissolving into a ‘mass of corruption’. Furthermore it is noticed that the body is often afflicted by illnesses which, at least until very recent times, caused incapacity and intense suffering, in many cases seen as undeserved. The body was thus seen, if not itself essentially evil, then as having within it at least the seeds of evil which placed severe limitations on what the inhabitant of the body could do and more so on what he/she wished to do.

The principal characteristic of a body, and uniquely of its zenith of development which is the human body, is that of consciousness and particularly of its self-consciousness. Self-consciousness means that the body is inter alia aware of its deficiencies, actual or imagined. The body is deficient in that it is not permanent. It changes with the passage of time, and then dies. It is considered by individuals in varying degrees to be deficient in form and appearance. Huge amounts of money are spent on cosmetics, adornment, plastic surgery, medicines and health foods in an attempt to modify the body’s appearance, and if not to delay its changes, then at least to conceal them, and to defer its final death.

It has been said that the human body starts life in this world as a somewhat formless bundle of cells, comes as near to perfection as it will ever get at the age of about nine to eleven, transmutes at puberty to its breeding state, and then starts on a decline towards death. This can been seen to apply to other life forms, but on different time scales. Modern man’s ‘decline towards death’ is probably longer than most other animal species.

It is easy to go on to associate deterioration, illness and final death and corruption* with evil, in the sense that without these deficiencies life would be ideal and everlasting. Evil is seen as that which appears to fight against the ideal state and which is manifestly inherent in the body. The instinct for self preservation, which is a built-in property of the individual, seems to be at war continually with forces which threaten it, and which eventually overcome it. Bodily life seems to be a continual conflict between the yearning for a permanent ideal state and the processes which are characterised by “change and decay in all around I see”. This may be what theological jargon calls “original sin”.

Faced with this conflict and the ephemeral nature of the human body, mankind has looked for signs which would indicate that there is within the individual personality, something which is permanent or eternal, and which therefore is not subject to the deterioration and disintegration of the body. So the ideas of mind, spirit and soul have emerged.

* The word “corruption” is a pejorative term, implying in common and biblical usage a sense of revulsion. In this context the term “disintegration” might be more suitable.


It seems to be generally agreed that the mind is a term for that which deals with the results of stimuli received by the senses and delivered to the brain. This was not always so, hence the use of the word heart and even bowels in biblical and other ecclesiastical literature to describe the effects of such stimuli. Familiarity with the physical effects of adrenalin release on heart and gut nevertheless allows a good deal of sympathy with this deduction.

The mind may be defined as that property of the brain which, having received an impulse, proceeds to process it, sometimes under the close conscious control of the individual but often not. If the latter, the processing is regarded as being the action of the unconscious or the sub-conscious part of the mind. To put this into modern computer language, the brain is comparable to the hardware, whilst the mind is the software which allows the hardware to function as an information processor. Some of the results of this processing become visible on the “monitor” i.e. in the behaviour of the body, but most of them are not seen and not normally communicable. It is the function of the psychologist to study this processing.

By the operation of the mind, the body responds to stimuli in ways which vary over a wide range from violent action to quiet meditation. In the absence of knowledge of how the brain works, it is appreciated that the mind can be regarded as a separate substance or entity, the active part of consciousness, but still therefore, a part of the body. In examining mankind’s search for, and postulating about, the possibility of “life hereafter” or “eternal life”, it is difficult to find reference to the mind as being eternal or of having any sort of existence outside the body.


The conflict between the observed evanescence and degenerative nature of the body and the strong instinctive desire for permanence of the consciousness in an ideal state has led to the conception of “The Soul”. The Book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha provides an interesting thought when the writer says, “As a child, I was by nature well endowed, and a good soul fell to my lot.” (8.19) He then goes on to contradict this :- “Or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body”. (8.20)

These two contradictory statements illustrate the writer’s dilemma in deciding the location of the fundamental ego. Am “I” a body for which a soul is provided, or am “I” a soul injected into a body ? It will further be noted that the quality of each must be compatible! Are these two essential components of the personality separable, and if so, is one, the body, subject to degeneration and the other not? Is the body temporal and the soul eternal?

In religious parlance, the soul is sometimes conceived of as that part of the individual which is neither evanescent nor corruptible. Death is often described as the instant when the soul leaves the body, making its escape from the disintegration of the body. Ancient and modern art has depicted this phenomenon, often as a dove, or other bird, flying out of the dead body and ascending to “heaven”.

What then are we to make of the concept of the “saving of the soul”? This has traditionally been both the offer of so many preachers of religions, and put forward as the essential aim of our bodily existence in this world. We are led to infer that should the soul not be saved, then a conscious existence in the bliss of a future world will not be possible.

The soul, we are told in various contexts, can be “lost” and so we must ask in what sense it is lost. Does this mean a permanent separation from the body which has thereby “lost its soul”, and if so what happens to the soul? Or has the soul itself been corrupted by evil to a degree whereby it, like the body, is condemned to oblivion, or even more inexplicably, to eternal punishment?


The line between soul and spirit is not, in much religious writing, clearly drawn. In the languages of the Bible, however the words used for soul, nephesh and anima in many references, refer to something which is personal to the individual. “I will say to my soul….” (Lk.12.19) is typical, whilst different Hebrew and Greek words, ruach and pneuma, are used for “spirit”

The translations of the Hebrew “ruach”, the Greek “pneuma” and the Latin words “spiritus" and “anima” all have a connection with “wind”. Unless one has some knowledge of modern physics, wind appears as a movement, often a violent movement, of something invisible and therefore mysterious. Wind can only be appreciated by observation of its effects which can vary from the gentle cooling of a breeze to the violent destruction caused by a hurricane. The characteristic of wind is the invisible power which it exercises. Its mystery lies in its changes of direction and that it appears to come from nowhere and without visible cause. It is certainly uncontrollable, but its power can be tapped by the windmill and in latter times by the power generator.

Observation shows that this invisible phenomenon is sampled by every living person, it being drawn in and blown out of the body several times every minute. It is elementary deduction therefore to suppose that the existence of life within the body depends on the power which is breathed in, a sample, if you like, of the universal invisible power of wind. Modern man will detail this is as being the need for blood to be oxygenated. In the absence of any evidence as to the origin of wind and its power, it is easy to attribute this origin to an over-reaching power which may be called “The Great Spirit” or more simply “God” or gods. Genesis tells us that God breathed into the body of Adam and he became a living creature.

Just as there are changes in the wind’s direction and velocity, some of them corresponding with good or bad effects, the next reasonable deduction is that there are various types of wind. Ancient personification of the ‘four winds’ is well known and has been depicted in literature and art. The next deduction then, can be that there are different types of ‘spirit’, at the minimum ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but developed into varying types to explain all the moods and actions of the person. Alcohol is classed as “spirit” – methylated or otherwise - because of its property of influencing human mood and behaviour.

We read much in the Bible about evil spirits and more so about the Holy Spirit. The Christian apostle is authorised to cast out evil spirits. Change in the personality or variation from usual behaviour could, on this basis, be thought of as the body’s possession (sic) by an evil spirit. In past times, this has been accepted as the cause of many types of disease which can now be cured by medicine and/or surgery. Then, again, there are many sincere Christians who attribute a change for the good (or to the unorthodox!) in personality and behaviour to their having received the Holy Spirit.

Opinions seem to vary as to whether a ‘spirit’, be it evil, good, or holy, can be received involuntarily by the recipient, or whether some sort of awareness or open-ness is necessary on his/her part. In so-called “evangelical” gatherings the raising of the arms in a manner preparatory to an embrace is probably motivated by a desire to be possessed or infiltrated by the Holy Spirit.

The weight of evidence, however, would suggest that in contrast to ideas of mind, and soul, ‘spirit’ is not wholly identified with the individual, the closest to this being illustrated by Elisha’s request to Elijah that he receive a ‘portion of thy spirit’, i.e. some of the ‘spirit’ which had been allocated to his mentor. This is echoed in an old rite of Baptism when the minister was enjoined to breathe on the candidate so that the latter would receive some of the “spirit” allocated to the minister at his ordination.

Unless drastic contradictions of and/or additions to the above can be put forward and shown to be valid, the very fact that so many questions are left unanswered would indicate that the dividing of human personality and consciousness into the “files” of body, mind, soul and spirit is no more than a means whereby certain aspects of otherwise unexplained characteristics may be examined in detail. If, indeed, this is the purpose of the classification, then it is indeed valid – as a tool. The thinking that such and similar classifications can be regarded as separate essences which together make up the person owes much to Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and logic. It is, however, pure thesis and its acceptance depends on rejection of much observational evidence.

This is one of the major difficulties which modern man has in accepting the traditional tenets of religion. Religion, in the word’s most comprehensive sense, calls for an a priori acceptance of the traditional divisions of personality and of metaphysical phenomena for which there is no observational evidence. True there is ample claimed individual experience, but unless this can be shown to be universally available and repeatable, the degree of subjectivity leaves it always open to question.


As stated in the introduction to this paper, thoughts on these matters have been sparked recently by the announcement of a “Diocesan Spirituality Adviser”. The questions asked as to the job specification have been inadequately answered. The writer of this paper has been privileged over many years to be able to call on the wisdom of various associates in matters of the ministry of the Church and in personal life, not only in matters which could possibly be classed as ‘spiritual’ , but also in some which could be classed as ‘corporeal’ or even ‘carnal’ An official adviser on Spirituality is a concept new to the writer. With the concept of ‘The Whole Man’ one cannot help wondering if the separation of what are commonly known as ‘Spiritual’ matters from any other aspect of humanity is a valid one. One recalls a fellow priest who, having written to the press regarding some political or social controversy, received a letter from his M.P. telling him to “stick to spiritual matters and not dabble in politics”. The priest wrote back thanking the M.P. for his advice which he said he would bear in mind when canvassed for his vote at the next election.

The word “spirituality”, if valid at all, would appear to be an envelope term covering those aspects of human behaviour, belief and motivation which cannot be explained by anatomy, physiology or psychology, all in their broadest meaning. Whether or not its use can be justified as a separate ‘envelope’ at this point of history is at least debatable.

WJG. February 2003

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004