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What exactly is meant by the word ‘spiritual’?


Question & Answer

Q: By Jeff

What exactly is meant by the word ‘spiritual’? If it only refers to ghosts, angels, (theistic) gods, demons and such then it’s clearly just a metaphor for the unexplainable aspects of life. In what way is ‘spiritual’ different to emotional, psychological or even just our individual ‘personality’? We refer to body, mind and spirit – but aren’t mind and spirit just the same thing? Is the term ‘spirituality’ an outmoded concept?

A: By Rev. Matthew Syrdal

Great questions Jeff!

Unfortunately, the word ‘spiritual’ is often used as a sort of catch-all for a lot of different meanings. For example, a First Nations person or a traditional Hindu might have a very different sense of what ‘spiritual’ means than a contemporary Western person like myself. In the West, the word ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirit’ derives from the Latin which is a transliteration of two Hebrew words ruach and nepheshRuach means ‘breath’, ‘wind’, and ‘spirit’. It is not differentiated from the Creation, the invisible not yet differentiated from the visible. The Spirit is the animating and animate living presence of the divine in and through the creation, which is consequentially closer to many indigenous and animistic understandings of the cosmos and the Creator. An orthodox Judeo-Christian view would be that humans participate in this life-breath as does the more-than-human world. We derive the word ‘inspired’ from this sense of being in-breathed by the presence of divinity that fills the whole world.

In the Old Testament the inspiration of the Spirit of God contributed to master works and the craftsmanship of artisans, as well as the oracles of the prophets. The Roman sense of ‘genius’ or the Greek ‘muse’ would be somewhat close to this understanding of the inspiration of the Spirit. Nephesh on the other hand, often interpreted, ‘animated being’ or ‘living soul’ is the psycho-spiritual mysterious ‘personhood’ that transcends and includes our physical body. This term is closer to the animistic vision of animal guides and spirit beings of the otherworld who traditionally were associated with sacred places.

When you refer to ghosts, angels, gods, demons and heavenly beings and the like, this sounds to me closer to a sense of the ‘spirit world’ or ‘spiritism’ than how many people use the word ‘spiritual’ as our personal transcendent function. This is significant, because we have a tendency in the West to psychologize the spiritual mysteries in a way the indigenous do not. The animistic view of the spirit world maintains the autonomy and freedom of spiritual realities and powers in themselves, without resorting to contingency or fabrication of the human mind or ego.  I do not believe the study of ‘spirituality’ and the importance of it for our age of climatic transformation is outmoded in the least. The reason is because we stand at a threshold in ecological history. We are summoned to undergo a major collective shift in consciousness. Any exploration of spirituality must be experiential, and we must ask the double edged question: what is the Earth/cosmos really? And in light of that question, what does it mean to be truly human?

Thank you for your question.

~ Rev. Matthew Syrdal

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Rev. Matthew Syrdal M.Div., lives in the front range of Colorado with his beautiful family. Matt is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian church (USA), founder and lead guide of WilderSoul and Church of Lost Walls and co-founder of Seminary of the Wild. Matt speaks at conferences and guides immersive nature-based experiences around the country. In his years of studying ancient Christian Rites of Initiation, world religions, anthropology, rites-of-passage and eco- psychology Matt seeks to re-wild what it means to be human. His work weaves in myth and ceremony in nature as a way for people to enter into conversation with the storied world in which they are a part. Matt’s passion is guiding others in the discovery of “treasure hidden in the field” of their deepest lives cultivating deep wholeness and re-enchantment of the natural world to apprentice fully and dangerously to the kingdom of god. Matt has been coaching, and guiding since becoming a certified Wild Mind nature-based human development guide through the Animas Valley Institute and is currently training to become a soul initiation guide through the SAIP program.

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