Spirit Dwells in the Mind of Man
by Rebecca Bynum (August 2012)
In a recent essay, I bemoaned the reticence of my fellow conservatives to employ the word spiritual. The reason for this, or so I am told, is that when someone says, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” that person actually means, “I am a political liberal.” He identifies himself as belonging among those who display a “non-judgmental” attitude toward his fellows (in most circumstances) and regards this attitude as the highest social virtue. He exalts the liberation from moral restraint as being, in fact, the highest morality. To the conservative mind, this signifies the renewal of anarchy and barbarism.
Conservatives, in all likelihood, wouldn’t be caught dead in a New Age bookstore. But in between the incense, the crystals and the dreamcatchers some books may be found which are in fact valuable to the personal life of the spirit.
The problem with both sides, the one using the word “spirit” in error and the other refraining from using it at all, is that a word symbol which denotes an entire level of reality has essentially been flushed down the drain. It signals the ultimate triumph of nominalism, for aspects of the spirit are first deemed to be nothing more than mental categories for descriptive purpose and eventually have been deemed altogether illusory. Both liberals and conservatives buy into this paradigm. Love is now routinely described as a chemical reaction in the brain, not as anything real in itself, much less as an aspect of reality, let alone the source of reality. Beauty, deemed to be found “in the eye of the beholder,” truth to be subjective, and goodness nothing more than a relative description. A good movie may be worth watching, but it is not good in the same sense St. Francis of Assisi was good. The latter meaning is gradually being lost.
Nowadays, people strive to be successful or to be rich or both, the latter being seen as the measure of the former, but they seldom strive to be good. “That and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee” was how the cynical pre-inflationary saying went. Words like grace and dignity and the states of being they describe are simply swept away – they won’t heat the house or keep the lights on, so where does their worth lie? The act of storing treasure in heaven is seen as a harmless illusion at best, or the mark of a sucker at worst.
Be that as it may, if there were not “something other” operating in the mind of man guiding him toward higher moral aspirations, he would calculate his self interest down to the half-penny in a way even the most ardent evolutionists do not imagine. But that is not the way normal minded people are. Moral feeling goes all the way down to the essence of what it is to be human.
Those who are spirit-led are not necessarily, or even usually, religious conformists. And therefore it is not the decline of religious institutions that explains the general decline in morality. It is rather the reluctance to acknowledge, much less explore, that realm of reality broadly described by the word “spirit.”
Spirit cannot be quantified, because it is quality. It cannot be perceived by the senses, and yet it is sensed. It can be described using the words, beauty, truth, goodness and love. All those who take part in the mystery of existence, perceive the reality described by those words. It is that inner perception which allows us to measure those qualities in the outer world; and it is spirit that breathes creativity into the human mind.
There is an innate goodness within human beings, but it must be acknowledged, cultivated and acted upon to become a living part of a man. He is ever free to reject the guidance of the spirit and to cultivate selfishness to the point of iniquity, to seek fame by shooting up a crowded movie theatre, perhaps, or to strangle a child because his crying has become too bothersome. To become evil is easy, but to become good requires an eternity of effort and determination to substitute a higher will for one's own. It requires constant striving to live in the presence of higher reality. True religion seeks to perfect man, to make him better and nobler than he is. False religion molds itself to man’s lower nature and indulges his appetites. True religion calls man to be more than he is, false religion tells him he’s already perfect and it is the outer world, rather than the inner life, which much be altered.
Man is a finite, mortal creature living within a finite and time-bound creation, but that does not mean he cannot glimpse that which is eternal and infinite through spiritual experience – living religion. Conservatives should think twice before substituting religious cultural forms for that living experience and liberals should think twice before throwing out the living truths contained within those ancient forms by focusing exclusively on experience.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of difference between knowing God and trying to work out all the whys and wherefores about God by using reason. Many people, perhaps most, are too busy to bother with God, because to know God requires spending time with him, but it is certainly no more a mystery to know God than to know any other personality. He is as available to the humble and unlettered as he is to the intellectual and learned. The experience of God’s presence is solely dependant upon spiritual capacity and this is entirely separate from intellectual capacity. God is no respecter of persons – a fact which should give all sincere seekers pause.
Once God’s presence is known, however, then his omnipresence becomes self-evident. The God knowing person sees God everywhere. Truth, beauty and goodness become part of life’s everyday experience and one may be said to have entered the kingdom of heaven or to have experienced Nirvana at least temporarily. There is nothing left-wing or right-wing about this. Religion and religious concepts must not be enslaved to mere political ideas which are as changing as the seasons. Religion is the property of all mankind.
A commentator in Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, suggested that humanity would be better designated as Homo spiritus rather than Homo sapiens because it is evident that early man was at least dimly aware of a reality greater than himself and was inspired to create art and religious forms.
This fine drawing was completed some 30,000 years before Christ walked the earth. The man who drew it was forced to contend with lions, woolly rhinoceroses, wild horses and mammoths from his cave in ice age southern France. The cave where this painting was found also contained a bear’s skull carefully placed on a kind of altar and the footprint of a wolf or dog beside the footprint of a boy. There is no doubt these people were transcendent over their environment, not simply functioning as part of the ecosystem like other animals. They were evaluating their reality and thus demonstrating transcendence operating in the mind of man. That transcendence is referred to as spirit and it is spirit which makes us human.
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