Monday, October 30, 2017

Pondering the Human Spirit

Do human beings have an indwelling spirit, or do they have spirit? Answering affirmatively to the first question (i.e., humans have an indwelling spirit?), then one seems to be thinking dualistically. That is to say, human beings possess an inner ethereal spiritual "essence" that is distinguishable from the "stuff" of the material body.
            In the Western literary tradition the idea that human beings are dualistically comprised is found as early as Homer (8th century BCE?): "In Homer, the psyche [soul] is what leaves the body on death (i.e., life, or breath?), but also [it is]an insubstantial image of the dead person, existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body…is well-established by the fifth century…"1 In the Western Philosophical tradition the survival of the soul (psyche) is well established in Plato's writings (5th century?): "Throughout the dialogues Plato expresses that a person's soul is an entity distinct from the living embodied person, attached to it…"2
            Among the Greeks this survivable essence of human beings was also described as spirit (pneuma), a term coterminous with psyche (soul): "[a]t death it (pneuma/psyche) is separated from [the body], for, breath-like, it escapes with the last breath, returning to fulfill its higher destiny in the element from which it came or in the upper region to which it is by nature related, in the atmosphere of heaven or the aether…"3
            The Apostle Paul used similar language (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23) and embraced the idea that after death there was still a future for a regenerated human being (Phil 1:19-24). Nevertheless, Paul did not share the Greek idea that the human body was a perishable shell housing an eternal spirit or soul; rather, Paul shared the Hebrew idea (Gen 2:7) that people are living beings whose perishable nature in the end will become imperishable, immortal, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:35-57; what is transformed is the whole person not an ethereal spirit or soul that indwells the body and leaves the body behind at death. Although at times he certainly sounds dualistic (2 Cor 5:1-10).4
            In a secular modern sense, however, the human spirit is regarded as "an attitude or principle that inspires, animates, or pervades thought, feeling, or action."5 To judge from human behavior the human spirit can be either evil or idealistic—that is, it can inspire actions that are either egregiously harmful or inspirationally helpful to the human situation. The seat of attitudes lies in the mind, and arises from our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, creativity, and will, and is conditioned by our nurture and personal experiences.
            Hence, if the Greeks are correct, human beings are dualistically conceived; they are comprised of an eternal spirit/soul housed in a perishable body. If Paul is correct, human beings do not house either a spirit or a soul but are living beings. If current secular sentiment is correct human beings have spirit, that is to say they have attitudes that excel, flounder, or lie somewhere in between. How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Christopher Rowe, "Soul," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1428.
2Kenneth Dover, "Plato," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1192.
3Hermann Kleinknecht, "pneuma," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6.336.
4For a discussion of Pauline anthropology see Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 203-10.
5Random House Dictionary, s.v. "spirit."


Elizabeth said...

Good chilly morning Charlie,

What is the difference between the human spirit and the human intellect? And- which exerts more influence over a person's behavior? If one cannot prove we have a human "human spirit," I don't see how one could prove we have a human intellect either. They are both abstract concepts.

Many thanks from frosty St. Louis! Elizabeth

Community Christian Church said...

It seems to me that the notion of an eternal soul that survives the death of our body is an expression of human narcissism that cannot conceive of a universe existing without us… or that cannot bear the thought of ceasing to exist. However, there is no evidence for such a belief beyond the fact that we wish it to be true. I wish Bernie had won the election but my strongly held beliefs and desires did not move the needle of reality.

Jim said...


I agree with Roger about an eternal soul being only a thought. The answers to questions about the operations of our universe are best determined by Science- not ancient Greeks, Reformation religious leaders, or present day political and religious charlatans. Science has discovered the operation of the natural world have produced humans with both physical (body) and spiritual (brain) capabilities.

There is no scientific evidence to date the human spirit survived the body/brain demise. It is clear that the human bodies and minds have produced spectacular things-the most awesome being other humans!


Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I understand the intellect to be the power to know as opposed to the power to feel. Hence the intellect is the capacity for rational or intelligent thought. While one cannot put a thought on a scale and weigh it, one can certainly see the results of it in human behavior, which I suggest is proof of the intellect's existence in some human beings.

Anonymous said...

"Soul" is the creaky machine rolled to the stage as the play reaches the climax and the gods appear in the role of deliverer.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Jim,
The issue of proof works both ways, it seems to me. Just as there is no proof that the spirit/soul "exists," there is also no proof that it doesn't.

Elizabeth said...

A few more questions, Charlie, if you don't mind:
I fail to understand your assumption that Paul is saying human beings don't "house" a spirit or a a soul... What do you mean by "house?" How is that distinct in any way from a "living being?" I don't understand your terminology and see no difference between Paul's view and the Greek view that the human body was a perishable shell... Where does it state the difference between a living being and a perishable shell as you put it? Doesn't Paul clearly state that the body is a "tent" in 2 Cor. chapter five?

You state that the intellect is the power to know- so what represents the power to "feel?" One cannot put a feeling on a scale and weight it- but one can certainly see the results of it in human interaction and expression.

Thank you as always, Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
Thanks for pushing back. "House" was a poetic way of trying to say that the soul/spirit was a distinct entity so that when the body died the spirit/soul that occupied it would continue. The body was only a temporary abode of the eternal spirit/soul.
"Living being" tried to express that in the Genesis account of Adam's creation the "breath" merely animated the creature's body; hence there was no spirit/soul attached to it.
Note that in my 4th paragraph I called attention to the problem that 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 presented to the view that Paul held to the Hebrew idea that human beings were a psychosomatic unity (there are other passages similar to 2 Corinthians 5). See Walter Taylor's summary of Pauline anthropology in the Anchor Bible Dictionary 3:323. At that time (1994)the general view of NT scholarship was that Paul's view of the human being was that he/she was a psychosomatic unity.
Finally, the power to feel, I would say lies in the seat of human emotions.

Albert said...

1/ Many years (1960's)ago my aunt woke up from her sleep and saw her best friend standing at the foot of her bed. They had a conversation in which he was saying that he was departing from this life. A week later she received a letter from her friends relative, saying he had passed away on the date my aunt spoke with him.
2/ A few months ago my wife and I were talking about the mystery of what happens after we die. So we decided to watch a few TED talks and YouTube clips about this topic of the afterlife. We chose only non-Christian medical doctors who worked with people who have died and come back to life. To our surprise they all said that the majority of there patients had seen themselves leaving their bodies and eventually many were temporarily united with loved ones, some even meeting with those they never knew had died. There was no mention of meeting with God, although one person said he met with Jesus who told him he had more to do in life.
So I tend to believe there is a soul that leaves the body when we die and meets up some where with others.
All the of these doctors basically said that death seems to be a good thing for those who reach that stage and not to be afraid of death.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Albert,
Thanks for sharing these two experiences: your family story and your own experience on TED talks.
I have read numerous such anecdotal testimonies. From my perspective they do not add up to what I would consider evidence for continued "existence" (in some form) of life after death. There is no way to verify them concretely except to collect them.
In my own case I hope that death does not bring a cessation of consciousness, and from such accounts as you mention I gather that others have the same hope.

Unknown said...

Charlie, greetings from the Golden State. Just asking, doesn't the argument that "just as you cannot prove it true, equally one cannot prove it false" let a person believe a thousand whacky ideas? Something about not being able to prove a negative? My personal feeling is that the idea of an afterlife is for the comfort of the oppressed or the amusement of the idle. What's the point?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Wayland,
Thanks for posting and pushing back. From my experience people do not need permission or encouragement to "believe a thousand wacky ideas" about religion or for that matter about the nature of the universe. What I was trying to say is this: that debating whether human beings do or do not possess a soul/spirit is like the middle ages conundrum: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? That humans have a spirit/soul can neither be proven or disproven, so there is little room for arrogance on either side of the issue. Thus the point is: we are debating something that is unknowable, and if that is the case we should at least be honest about it.

Unknown said...

Charlie, if we are "debating something that is unknowable," how about being honest and not debate it any more? Is it for mental exercise? I still do reps, but am much less enthusiastic about it now than I was when I started exercising 8 or 10 years ago. I went to the gym yesterday, but today I'd just like to crawl back in bed and nap. The crawl instinct is very strong. Have a good day!

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Wayland,
I suppose all parties could simply ignore each one another, but neither side of the issue is willing to admit the existing stalemate. The issue is simply too important to the pro-spirit folks (and to a majority of the population of the country) and the no-spirit folk have too much fun puncturing the balloon of the pro-spirit folk. If you are asking me personally why I am interested in the subject (and I am), my answer is: it is simply the kind of thing that I do as "Reason's child" (see "Who am I" published on this blog on 6-26-2013).