Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Soul, spirit and will

Watchman Nee described humans as "tripartite", consisting of spirit, soul and body.

This is a particular framing of the human condition, a way of thinking about and understanding ourselves. There are many other alternative (or complementary) ways of framing the human psyche: Freudian psychology, Myers-Briggs, the four humors and so on. Their value is in how useful they are, do they help us understand ourselves? Any particular framing may be more or less useful than another, at best they're all approximations of the truth rather than "truth" themselves.

The division of psyche into soul and spirit is an understanding I find genuinely useful. Your spirit is who you really are. You are a living spirit, you have a soul. To understand that things like memories and emotion are part of us, but they don't define us both helps explain who we are and can be freeing. Your memories, your past, don't have to define you - you have memories but they aren't "you". In pyschological speak the soul is closely related to the ego, your conception of who you are and your worldview. They colour your perceptions and shape you, but they aren't you.

Watchman Nee puts "will" as something of the soul. In my search to understand myself and the world (we're so intimately connected to the world - indeed we're the product of the world) I've come to the conclusion that this isn't the most useful understanding.

Will is our capacity (ability) to effect change. I don't think will is a separate thing in itself, it isn't a "region of our soul". The strength of will you can exert in any situation is how much of yourself can you bring to bear on it. How freed are you? So, in fact will is spirit - it's merely a way of describing spirit (who you are) as a force of action (rather than being).

The more natural (more common) situation, and the one faced by us all, is that our spirit is submerged in our soul. Who we are is buried in our habits, routines, memories and aspirations. We tend to live in the past or the future rather than the present. So the task of developing a strong will, a strong capacity for action and change, is to free who we are from the grip of our soul. To divide between soul and spirit.

Tangentially I think a similar thing is true of conscience. Conscience also doesn't seem to be a particular "region" of who we are, but as we are more aware of goodness we will be more sensitive to not doing bad things. Conscience is a description of the right operation of spirit, rather than a thing in itself.

Our daily experience of what we think of as conscience however is likely to be different this. There is a "counterfeit" conscience, a conscience of the soul, which pyschologists call the "super-ego". This is a part of the ego and is your idealised conception of self, the you that you think you ought to be. Guilt and shame often come from the promptings of the super-ego telling us that we're not living up to what we think we should be. Discerning between our real sense of how to live and the prattling of the super-ego is the same task of discerning between soul and spirit, and is the journey of a lifetime.

Talking of spirit raises the interesting question of what is spirituality? In popular opinion it's a word with no real meaning at all, and even amongst Christians there's a very hazy understanding of what it might mean. My current thinking is that spirituality and goodness are two different axes. You can be good without being spiritual and spiritual without being good. Best of all of course is to be both.

Goodness is to love.

Spirituality is self-awareness and understanding (and therefore understanding of the world around us). Spirit is who we are, and spirituality is "of the spirit", so we are more in touch with ourselves we are more "spiritual". There are some outward signs of this, freedom and an ability to flow, that can be superficial and mistaken for a genuine spirituality. As with everything the search is for real depth, in spirit and in truth.

“Each must become God-like and beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty” -- Plotinus

It's alright to be you

There has been a lot of exploration and rediscovery of God as father in my church recently. I've had my own experience of this and, as the cliche goes, it came through observing my own children.

A few days ago I was at the dentist and standing outside watching my son, Benjamin, bimble around. I know my son, who is just over one years old, and I know that his heart is full of malevolence. I know just how wilful and naughty he is, just how much of a handful he is going to be in the coming years.

Despite knowing all of this I delight in him. Watching him potter around fills me with delight, the mere fact that he exists makes me happy. I love him just as he is, just for being him.

It struck me that this is what it means that God delights in his children. I often experience God as love, as a fierce and strong love, but to feel personally loved by God is a bit different. I've often suspected that although I know God loves me, really he loves some perfected version of me - loves what I can be, or perhaps just the good bits of me. As I watched Benjamin I realised that God loves us, me, in the same way. We're God's children, and the mere fact that we exist fills him with delight. He's not waiting for us to become perfect before he loves us, he knows exactly what we like and he loves us. He loves us just as we are.

This moment of realisation has come alongside a deepening self-acceptance, a realisation that it's alright to be me. I can't be anyone else or anything else other than what I am. As much as I have failings and weaknesses, as much as I need and want to change, all I can be right now is what I am right now. God doesn't expect or demand us to be anything other than what we are. Sure we need to change, but that's all in his hands too. God loves us, takes delight in us, just as we are. Just for being us.

The more I explore who I am the more convinced I am that guilt and shame are the power of sin. The danger is that because we know how far from what we could be we are that we think we're supposed  to feel bad about it. The very opposite is true! Forgiveness means that we don't have to feel bad about who we are or what we've done. The past and the dark parts of our nature are all dealt with, God doesn't hold them against us. This is the central theme, the whole point, of Christianity. Yes we need to face the reality of who we are, take responsibility for who we are and deal with the consequences of anything we've done, but we don't need to feel bad about it.

Perhaps one of the hardest of ironies of life is that it's only as we're able to accept ourselves as we are that we're able to change. It's only as we can face what we are, our memories and the past, without flinching that we can let go of it and it loses its hold on us. Memories don't disappear, but the power they hold over us can. Guilt and shame are what stop us facing who we are, but we can choose to let go and refuse to feel bad about who we are.

It's alright to be me and it's alright to be you.