Saturday, June 30, 2007

What Is "Spirit?"

Only God can transform us. To be transformed by God we must enter and live in his presence. But what is it in us that gets transformed? The biblical answer is: “spirit.” Here I will present an understanding of “spirit” by using what I refer to as biblical metaphors of spiritual transformation.

David cried out to God, "What is man that you are mindful of him?"[1] While the emphasis in this verse is on God's loving care for persons, David wonders, anthropologically, about the meaning of persons: "What is man?" To ask the question of our self-identity is to be in a bathysphere floating towards the ocean’s floor. Simply put, it’s a profoundly deep question. Many claim that gaining a biblical answer to this question takes us a long way towards spiritual and emotional stability.[2]

Christian theists believe that, as persons, we are qualitatively different from the rest of God's creation.[3] Scholars have written volumes attempting to identify the exact nature of this qualitative distinction. We will say that persons are spiritual creations. "Spirit" is that which separates persons from plants and animals.[4]

This question of our spiritual nature is not merely academic. When we pray we may find the question rising in our hearts, "God, who am I?" For this reason Thomas Merton felt that developing a theological anthropology was important for a life of prayer.[5]

If persons are essentially spiritual creations, what is "spirit"? The Bible provides us with many "metaphors of spirit." These metaphors do not give definitions or point-for-point descriptions of "spirit," but rather gesture towards the nature of persons as spiritual creations. A "metaphor" is the use of a word, phrase, image, or object to create a framework through which we express or view some aspect of reality or experience.[6] Metaphorical description is necessary because most, if not all, of our common experience cannot be captured in the steel nets of literal language.[7]

To refer to spiritual experience we must often speak metaphorically. Consider, as an example, this metaphorical description of the spiritual life from Thomas Merton: “I consider that the spiritual life is the life of man's real self, the life of that interior self whose flame is so often allowed to be smothered under the ashes of anxiety and futile concern.”[8]

Here Merton uses three biblical metaphors:
1) The spiritual life is that which is most real about persons.
2) The spiritual life is something interior ("below the surface"; "deep inside").
3) Spirit is "energy," "fire." Thus it can be "smothered" or "quenched."

This brief metaphorical description of the spiritual life issues an invitation to consider viewing one's life through its lens.

The biblical metaphors of spirit, while not providing exact definitions, gesture towards the life of the spirit and invite us to participate in this life. They are all grounded in a common understanding of spirituality, which is: To be "spiritual" is to be in God's presence; to be "unspiritual" is to be apart from God.[9]

We can further categorize the biblical metaphors of spirit into types. Our first example is a type of volitional metaphor and is found in Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God." To "be still" means, literally, to "cease struggling." This means that if we are to be transformed we must surrender to God. Therefore, spirit is something that can either surrender to God or resist God.

Our second metaphor of the spiritual life is a type of activity metaphor: "Rest in the Lord, O my soul." As Hebrews 6:19 says, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure." To be in God's presence means to cease from certain activities so our spirit, like a ship, might be anchored to God who is the dock. To be spiritual is to live securely anchored to God's Holy Spirit. Conversely, our spirit is lost when it becomes a "restless, drifting, wandering soul." This is spiritual insecurity. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either securely anchored or drift.

Our third metaphorical description is a type of part/whole metaphor, and speaks of having an "undivided heart" or a "whole heart" (Psalm 86:11). The implication is that we cannot both be in God's presence and simulataneously attend to someone or something else. I believe this concerns who or what we love. As Henri Nouwen has said, the basic question of the spiritual life is: Who do we belong to? To live out of God's presence is to be, as James 1:8 says, dipsuchos. It is to have "two psyches," or be "two-hearted." In such a condition the spirit is divided regarding its allegiance, and is said to be "fragmented." In a state of spiritual dipsuchos the human spirit has two lovers. I have found it often happens that when we go alone to a quiet place to pray we are shown how divided our spirits are. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either whole or divided into parts.

Our fourth metaphor of spirit is the central biblical one of energy. "Spirit" is fire. When in God's presence there may come "tongues of flame." We can be "on fire" towards God. Nouwen often speaks of our need, therefore, to "tend the fire within." Conversely, spirit can be "quenched," or it can "burn out."[10] A colleague in ministry, speaking of his need for spiritual renewal, once said to me, "What I feel I now need in my life is a burning bush." Spirit burns, therefore we must tend it to keep it from burning out and guard it so it will not be quenched.

Our fifth example is a type of cathartic metaphor: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow."[11] The implication is that we truly dwell in God's presence only with pure hearts. To have a pure heart, as Kierkegaard wrote, is "to will one thing." Conversely, our hearts can be "stained," "blemished, " and covered with "blots," thus "impure."

The central biblical image of sin is "stain." Many agree that the first step to spiritual renewal always involves confession, repentance, and receiving forgiveness. Clean hands and pure hearts are necessary preconditions for loving God. Therefore, spirit is something that can be spotless or stained, clean or unclean, acceptable or unacceptable to God.

Our sixth and seventh examples are both types of dwelling metaphors. The first speaks of "remaining in" or "abiding in" Jesus: "Remain in me, and I will remain in you."[12] We can be said to dwell with Jesus if we are branches, connected to the True Vine. To be out of Jesus' influence is to become "disconnected" from the vine, possibly to attach oneself to other sources for sustenance. Therefore, spirit can attach itself to God or be detached from God.
Another dwelling metaphor speaks of God as "our fortress and strength." When we live within the walls of God's protective fortress, "what shall we fear?" Thus Nouwen asks the question, "Do you live in the house of God or the house of fear?"[13] It is in God's house that our spirits find comfort, encouragement, and strength for the journey. But when we dwell outside these protective walls and life's attacks come, fear and anxiety predominate. It is in this light that Nouwen offers his "proof" that prayer works. We know that prayer works because when we do not pray our lives are more filled with fears and anxieties.[14] Therefore, spirit has a home, and is endangered when it makes its home anything but God.

Our last three metaphors of spiritual transformation are spatial, and indicate the "location" of spirit. The first concerns "creating a space in your heart" for God. Jesus said, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (Matt. 6:6). This "upper room" or "secret place" is a heart where Jesus is allowed to live. Our heart is allowed to be Christ's home. As an old hymn asks, "Have You Any Room for Jesus?" But our "rooms" can be "cluttered," with no space for God. Therefore, spirit is a roomy space that can be cluttered with so many distractions that God has no opportunity to enter in.

A second spatial metaphor is found in the Quaker expression "to center down." In both the Old and New Testaments the heart is the "center" or "seat" of all that is unique to persons, to include the will, the passions, thought, and the religious center to which God turns.[15] We are to "love the Lord with all our heart." God, Who seeks out all things, "knows our hearts."[16] The movement of our spiritual life should be "centrifugal," proceeding from the center of our being, rather than a "centripetal" movement that begins with the surface things of life and attempts to move through them to the heart of life. Because we so easily stray from center it is no wonder we often find little meaning in our activity. Therefore, spirit concerns the central reality of persons, and determines all activity and desire. It is the source of being which, in the spiritual life, precedes doing.

Our final metaphor of the spiritual life is also spatial, and speaks of there being "a temple within." Paul tells the Corinthians that, individually and corporately, they are temples of God's Holy Spirit.[17] Paul Tournier refers to this inner temple as "the holy sepulchre within." Tournier refers to this by asking, "What is there then within this sepulchre where all the repressed rubbish of all humanity as well as our own is rotting?"[18] Jesus said we can "whitewash" this sanctuary. To do this would be to live a life of facade, pretense, what Merton called the "false self." Therefore, spirit is a holy place where God's Spirit dwells. To be "spiritual" is to allow God to reign in one's spirit, which is God's rightful dwelling place. To be "unspiritual" is to occupy that dwelling place with our own ego as king, while painting the outside so as to appear to be spiritual.

There are many metaphors of spiritual transformation.[19] Those we have looked at tell us that spiritual transformation comes as we:
- Surrender to God.
- Anchor ourself to God.
- Be whole-hearted towards God.
- Tend the fire within.
- Remain clean before God.
- Attach ourself to God.
- Dwell in God's fortress.
- Make room in our heart for God.
- Center our life on God.
- Walk in holiness.[20]

[1] Psalm 8:4a
[2] See Christ-Centered Therapy, by Neil Anderson,
[3] This is important to state since contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins deny that there is any qualitative distinction between human beings and animals.
[4] Other candidates for the uniqueness of persons include: "reason"; "speech"; "self-consciousness"/"self-reflexivity"; rationality + freedom + immortality (the early church Fathers); a "destiny into which man was created to grow into" (Irenaeus; memory + intellect + will (Augustine, using the 3-fold structure of the Trinity); and rational understanding + moral obedience + religious communion. See also William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). The understanding of "the image of God" in Genesis is more functional than conceptual. As a result of being created in God's image we are to do certain things: e.g., subdue, explore, rule the creation in God's name, etc.
[5] See Higgins, John J., Thomas Merton on Prayer.
[6] See Piippo, John Paul, Metaphor and Theology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University, 1986. Here the nature of metaphor and its use in expressing and describing religious aspects of experience and reality is more fully explained.
[7] Much of our language is metaphorical in origin. For example, when we speak of the "leg" of the table we have forgotten that at some point somebody used the human "figure" to speak of the table's leg. Paul Ricoeur has shown in The Rule of Metaphor that "figurative language" is language which uses the human "figure" to speak of experience.
[8] Merton,
[9] See especially Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians. Fee says that Paul’s basic question for the Corinthian church is, “What does it mean to be “spiritual” or pneumatikos.”
[10] On spiritual "burnout" and ways to rekindle the flame, see Louis Savary and Patricia Berne, Prayerways.
[11] Psalm 51:7, 10.

[13] See Nouwen, Lifesigns; A Cry for Mercy. No one is better in articulating the emotion and spirit of fear than Henri Nouwen.
[14] See Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal, p. 44.
[15] See Geoffrey W. Bromily, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 416.
[16] Luke 16:15.
[18] Tournier, Paul,
[19] Another metaphor is: To be in God's presence one must have a "quiet heart." To be out of God's presence is to "have ears, but not really hear." When the human heart is filled with many voices and noises it is difficult to hear the single voice of God. Heart-stillness is the condition where only God's voice is attended to. "Spirit," therefore, is something that can be either quieted or chaotic.
[20] When we reverse the positive biblical metaphors of the spiritual life we see those spiritual conditions which will render prayer-as-relationship-with-God less effective. Relationship with God is blocked when our spirits are...
...focused on life's peripheral issues
...stained (by sin)
...disconnected from the Vine
...dwelling out God's fortress.
...and so on...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Biological Dreams of Darwinian Paradigm Shift

This week Linda and I are in Green Lake Wisconsin where she and I are on the worship team for our annual HSRM conference, and I am speaking and teaching.

It's the first time all week that I've fired up my laptop, and just read this interesting essay in on scientists who are envisioning a paradigm shift in Darwinian theory. It's interesting. And, more to come, since scientific theories like Darwinism are in flux.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Atheist's Bible is Published

The Atheist's Bible, edited by Joan Konner (ed-Dean of Columbia University's Journalism Department), has been published and is reviewed in the Philadelphia Enquirer here. From the review: "The Atheist's Bible organizes hundreds of aphorisms and excerpts to sway an uncertain mind - that is, a mind uncertain about both God's existence and whether it wants to spend valuable summer time plowing through Dennett, Dawkins or Hitchens. So consider The Atheist's Bible your atheism beach book, your big-A graphic novel, your Atheism for Dummies, a slim book that permits you to feel like a high-achieving apostate every 20 seconds while you build up strength for serious blasphemy when cooler weather returns." gives us some juicy sample quotes, with my rejoinders in parentheses:

"All thinking men are atheists," Ernest Hemingway famously wrote. [Which means Kant, Descartes, Alvin Plantinga, Francis Collins, Barack Obama, Marilyn McCord Adams, William Lane Craig, Peter Kreeft, Alasdair McIntyre, Flannery O.Connor, John Updike, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Swinburne, William P. Alston, Miroslav Volf, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Kierkegaard, Alfred North Whitehead, John Polkinghorne, Robert Coles, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Craig Keener, N.T. Wright, ... etc. etc. ad nauseum... were not "thinking men?" And, Hemingway was?]

"When I think of all the harm [the bible] has done, I despair of ever writing anything to equal it." Oscar Wilde [Wilde himself "lived a life of deceit to his wife, family and friends." So how did his a-religion help him from not harming others? And, for me personally, the Bible has done much good.]

"SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited." Ambrose Bierce [Funny. But adds nothing of substance.]

"There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." Gertrude Stein [Funny. But self-contradictory.]

"Do not let yourself be deceived: great intellects are skeptical." Friedrich Nietzsche [If true, so what? There are great intellects who are skeptical of atheism.]

"Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." Susan Ertz [And atheists have no real purpose, no telos, in life. Their Sunday afternoons are spent in absurdities according to Sartrean existentialist atheism. "Existentialism describes a being who means nothing and is utterly alone in the world, save his other empty compatriots." Ever read Nausea, or "The Wall?" Antoine Roquentin would surely struggle to find something meaningful to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.]

"God is love, but get it in writing." Gypsy Rose Lee [On Christian theism, we do have it in writing. See N.T. Wright's The Last Word.]

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind." Ralph Waldo Emerson [False. On atheism nothing is sacred, period.]

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." George Bernard Shaw [But of course. C.S. Lewis made this point. Lewis said he did not come to Christianity because it made him happier, but because he thought it was the truth. Lewis said if he wanted to be "happy" he would have picked up a bottle of wine.]

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jurgen Habermas and the Necessity of Christianity

When I was studying philosophy at Northwestern University the department had some incredible scholars. I took a doctoral seminar on Aristotle's metaphysics, taught by arguably the then-world's greatest Plato scholar, Reginald Allen. There were about 6 of us in his seminar. Allen was so brilliant that occasionally another professor would come and sit in on his lectures. For example, one day Edwin Curley came and listened. Listen to this. Allen would arrive in class, usually just a bit late. Often, as I remember, he would not even bring the text of Aristotle's metaphysics with him. It seems that he knew the entire text by heart, in the Greek language. That, to me, was very cool. And, intimidating. But Allen was a good guy, and had grace (as I experienced him) towards us.

Now I feel jealous when I see who's teaching in NU's philosophy department. None other than Jurgen Habermas. Incredible! You either drop your jaw at the thought of being taught by Habermas in the flesh, or you don't know who he is. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy rightly says that "Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world."

So tonight I'm reading an essay by Philip Jenkins on the myth of the death of Christianity in Europe, and he quotes Habermas. Jenkins writes: "J├╝rgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”"

I think I'm going to memorize that statement, ingest it for a while.

Jenkins uses it to illustrate his scholarly opinion that Christianity is not laying down and dying in the face of "Islamification." As Jenkins writes, "Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jerry Coyne "Reasons" About Spiritual Truth

University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne concludes there are no such things as “spiritual truths” because, he seems to say, such truths are wholly subjective and relative. But Coyne uses some very poor reasoning to argue this.

Coyne asks: “But what is "spiritual truth"? It is simply what someone believes to be true, without any need for evidence. One man's spiritual truth is another man's spiritual lie. Jesus may be the son of God to Christians, but not to Muslims. The Inuit creation story begins with a pair of giants who chopped off their daughter's fingers, which became seals, whales, walrus, and salmon. There have been thousands of religions, and thousands of religious "spiritual truths," but many of them conflict with each other, and some of them conflict with science.”

[Surely this is fallacious reasoning. Look at this:

1 - Belief A is true.

2 - But some other person believes Belief A is a lie.

3 - Therefore, Belief A is a lie.


1. Religious Belief A is true.

2. There are thousands of Religious beliefs in conflict with Belief A.

3. Therefore Belief A is false.

Now try this:

1. Coyne's beliefs about science are true.

2. There is another scientist who believes Coyne's beliefs are not true.

3. Therefore Coyne's beliefs are not true.

On this kind of reasoning, one man’s view of “science” is another man’s “lie” as well. Not every scientist believes as Jerry Coyne does. Richard Dawkins did not agree with Stephen Jay Gould in all things evolutionary. Surely Coyne believes his view of “science” is “true.” Scientists who do not agree with Coyne would then be “wrong.” My point is: to say that “one man’s spiritual truth is another man’s lie” is, I am sure, correct. But so what? The same can be said for Coyne vs. __________. This point is a mere sociological datum. Beyond that it is a leap of logic to conclude something like: there is no spiritual truth, at least using Coyne's kind of "logic." If that were so, one could just as well conclude that there is no such thing as "scientific truth." Coyne has not demonstrated his point.]

Coyne, criticizing Senator Sam Brownback, asks: “Who is "we", and where did "our" conviction and certainty come from? Would Brownback believe these "spiritual truths" if he hadn't been taught them as a child, or brought up in the United States instead of China?”

[But this is the good old genetic fallacy. Such reasoning is logically fallacious. For example, Coyne would never have learned his particular version of biology had he not been raised in an environment that taught it. So? The issue is not how did a belief get taught to you, the question is is that belief true or false? And the truth or falsity of a belief, at least in logic, has nothing to do with the origin and transmission of such belief. It simply isn't true that the origins of an idea have any inherent bearing on its validity. Or: Difficult as it may be, it is vitally important to separate argument sources and styles from argument content. In argument the medium is not the message.]

Coyne writes: “Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism—none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota.”

[The first sentence in this statement is a classic example of methodological naturalism and, as such, reflects a metaphysical point of view.

Secondly, a common position among scientists who are theists has always been this: the supernatural hypothesis may or may not tell us about the natural world, but the natural world tells us about God. Such is, e.g., the point of biologist Francis Collins’s The Language of God (DNA = “the fingerprint of God”). And this, for some such as Collins, “gives evidence” for the existence of God.]

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Discovering the Real Jesus in Monroe

I met this last Thursday with Dan Shaw, who is the Managing Editor of the Monroe Evening News. Dan is forming a blogging community on the paper's website. He invited me to blog representing an evangelical Christian perspective.

I'm calling my blog Discovering the Real Jesus in Monroe. I intend to write about the Real Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Some of the Monroe News blogs had as many as ten thousand hits last month. I'm hoping, over time, to get a lot of hits, get into some discussions, and introduce people to the Real Jesus.

You can see the whole list of blogs here. Or you can go directly to my blog here.