What is the nature of spirit?

monika pudlovskytė, “Forest Spirit”. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Different religions, spiritual traditions and cultures have had different images the nature of spirit. Indeed, some religions have, at times, taken it upon themselves to take on remarkably precise definitions of the spiritual world (for example, the notion of a Holy Trinity in Christianity) while also usually allowing for the notion that the spirit world, or God, is ultimately unknowable to mortal human beings.

The majority of the people of the world are used to looking upon the divine as a monotheistic deity, as evidenced by the fact that the two largest religions in the world combined–Christianity and Islam–account for 4.2 billion people—more than half of the world’s population The idea that there is only one God, an omniscient God is taken as a given in these religions.

The next largest religion is Hinduism, with 1.15 million followers. Hinduism allows for a wide diversity of thought, embracing aspects of the following:

  • Monotheism—the belief in one universal God.
  • Polytheism—the belief and the worship of multiple gods.
  • Pantheism—the belief that God is the same as reality, and that all things in the Universe compose an all-encompassing God and vice versa. It does not allow for any spiritual essence or beings distinct from what is already in the Universe.
  • Panentheism—the believe that God/the Divine interpenetrates everything in the Universe. Some panentheists believe in the Universe being but one aspect of God.
  • Pandeism—the belief that a Creator God created the Universe but no longer exists as a conscious and separate entity.
  • Monism—the source of everything in the Universe arises from a single origin
  • Animism—the belief that all creatures, places and objects have their own distinct spiritual essence.
  • Atheism—the non-belief in God or spiritual phenomena.

It is worth examining these beliefs and determining what to be true, as that would also help determine the validity of religions that we were raised with. To do so, we need to take a step back and determine what is most likely to be true based on our own experiences.

Pantheism is the belief that everything in the Universe is God and vice versa. Pantheists consider the Universe to be so full of wonder that there is no need to focus on a separate God or spirit power. Modern pantheists believe in the primacy of the scientific method for determining what is in the universe and how it operates.

One of the failings of the Industrial Age, however, is a certain extreme belief in materialism that is quite dominant. This belief states that if it hasn’t been found by science, it doesn’t exist. While most scientists—particularly astrophysicists—understand that “not yet discovered” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-existent,” many people use this unstated belief is used to disparage any sort of spiritual experiences or experiences with the paranormal.

One example of the paranormal is ghosts. The presence of ghosts have been reported in folklore from all around the world for millennia and amid remarkably different cultures that previously had little contact with each other. Other people have had experiences where they see an apparition of a loved one, only to realize later that the loved one died right around the time of seeing that apparition. Still others have instinctively known that a loved one has just died, and then find out later that their instincts were accurate.

Yet many materialistic believers in science believe that such experiences with the paranormal cannot be real, that they are only an illusion or a product of the brain, or only exist because people believe they exist. While this could, in fact, be one of many possible explanations for this phenomenon, logically, there is no more proof for this assertion than there is for the assertion that the ghost is real. A lot of times an atheistic or anti-spiritual mindset insists on the non-existence of ghosts, without considering the possibility that if such a broad swath of people on this planet believe in the existence of ghosts of some sort, it might be because there is something to this phenomenon. It’s worth noting that atheism, unlike agnosticism, is a religious belief because it denies the existence of God or spiritual phenomenon solely based on belief. Atheists have been quite correct to point out the way people have been manipulated by religion, but in my view carry it too far when they insist that all spiritual beliefs and experiences are illusory.

My life experiences have unequivocally convinced me that ghosts and other spirits exist, that spirits that many people regard as gods exist, and that some kind of greater overarching spirit exists.

In regard to ghosts, my sister and I discovered some years ago that we had had separate encounters with ghosts in the house we grew up in. We found this out by exchanging stories more than a decade after we moved out of the house.

As a former pagan, I did sometimes feel the presence of gods and goddesses during pagan rituals. Whether these were, in fact, the actual presence of Aphrodite, Hades, Hermes, Demeter, or other gods, goddesses, or spirits is difficult to say, but I definitely there is some aspect of these deities that are real outside of their anthropological or literary value. But did these deities create us or did we create them?

One clue to this comes from my observation that the Mercury Retrograde phenomenon is real, even though the logic behind the phenomenon of Mercury Retrograde is ludicrous. Mercury, being the closest planet to the sun, appears to go retrograde every 88 days or so. Because the Roman God Mercury (or the Greek god Hermes) is the god of communication and transportation, Mercury going retrograde is supposed to lead to disruptions in those two areas. My observation is that such phenomena seem to be real, but are caused by phenomena other than the planet Mercury.

Let’s think about this a second. It makes no sense that a planet that is millions of years older than the Greeks or Romans would taken on qualities assigned to it by a small assemblage of people in a culture occupying a tiny part of our planet that thrived for less than a thousand years. Why would the planet closest to the sun give two shakes about the Greeks and Romans? Furthermore, we now know that the “retrograde” motion is an illusion caused by the fact that both Earth and Mercury revolve around the Sun, which the ancient Greeks and Romans did not know. Modern astrologers respond to this discovery by insisting that it’s actually the movement of Mercury and Earth relative to each other during this illusion that causes the retrograde events. Yet for many people including myself—a large percentage of whom are not astrologically inclined—the Mercury retrograde phenomenon is very real. I have learned to anticipate it and try to benefit from its more benign effects. It’s real because so many people believe that it’s real, and this power of belief, as such, acquires a certain power of its own that some people cannot dismiss simply by not believing in it.

For that reason, I believe that all of the gods that human beings have imagined over the thousands if not millions of years do exist. They do so because spiritual energy has been generated by people worshipping them. Since so many of these gods might be considered good, evil, or somewhere in between, they actually take on some of those characteristics. And in pagan rituals that I participated in when I was in my twenties, I would sometimes feel the presence of these deities.

Mercury retrograde is itself not a personification of a god, it is just a phenomenon. But belief in and worship of gods can cause these deities to take on the qualities that people visualize them having. I have no way of knowing whether it is possible to know all of Aphrodite’s attributes, or whether there are other attributes and intentions independent of what we humans conjure. In fact, for all I know, Aphrodite can be a spirit that decided to trick humans by responding in a way that humans felt she should respond, and therefore make the spirit “real” when it was not.

Because we don’t know the intentions of these spirits or gods, it makes no sense to invoke or worship them, and the same can go for ghosts. People who impress audiences by engaging in channeling of spirits don’t know who they are channeling or why. Such ability should be pitied , not envied. Maybe there are people in this realm wise enough to walk in those spirit worlds, but how do we really know?

Confucius said it best when he said, “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.” This is completely rational. It would be like picking up a hitchhiker in modern times—you don’t know what their intentions are and what they are capable of. It’s inherently risky, even if the vast majority of hitchhikers, ghosts, and gods mean no harm. I once saw an updated version of Confucius’s sage advice on a bumper sticker. It said, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.”

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