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Spirit, Soul and Mind

Posted on: April 16, 2017

Category: Theology

Spirit, Soul and Mind

The ancient Greeks had three words to describe human psychology: the spirit, the soul, and the mind. When I first engaged in the academic study of philosophy, I could never tell the difference between them. The spirit and the soul often seemed to be the same thing, but the Greeks had two words to distinguish them. The mind was clearly about knowing, but how did that relate to the spirit and the soul?

Over time, I came up with this way of thinking about it. The spirit is breath, and the Greek word is pneuma. The soul is life, and the Greek word is psyche. The mind is understanding, and the Greek word is nous. Natural confusion exists between the spirit and the soul since both words, in their roots, mean breath. But for the Greeks, there were two kinds of breath: the kind necessary for life, the pneuma, and the kind necessary for love, lust, and relationships to the self and others, the psyche. In modern English, we might distinguish the two as life and energy.

Why did the Greeks emphasize these three aspects of human experience: life, energy, and understanding? That question cannot be answered simply because these three distinctions emerged over time. But briefly, we can say that to the Greeks human health depended upon balancing these elements through moderation. The famous Greek dictum, often attributed to Thales, is "all things in moderation." Excessive energy (psyche) directed to personal satisfaction leads to obsession (what we would today call addiction); excessive clinging to personal life leads to selfishness (what we might call sociopathology), and the excessive search for understanding leads to a loss of context (what we might call "missing the forest for the trees"). The balance of all these elements is important. We need energy, but it must be that of love for the self and others; we need to respect our personal life, but it must be respect based on community well-being; we need understanding, but it must be based on our limits and our relationship to the environment. These ancient insights are also modern ones because wisdom is timeless.

One might ask, what has this to do with Easter? At Easter Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but what "body" of Jesus rose from the dead? Was it his psyche, pneuma, or nous? Various kinds of Christology (doctrines about Christ) emphasize the mind of Christ as the divine part of Jesus. Sometimes, the emphasis is placed on the breath of Christ as the divine, creative, breath of God. And often the psyche or spirit of Jesus is intended.

The Greek word for body is soma. This can be a "psychic-body" and it can be a pneuma or "breath-body." Sometimes "soma" is more literally the flesh, but context (that is, by using our nous or understanding) tells us what subtleties are meant. The woman healed at Mark 5:29 feels the healing "in her body." The Greek word there is "soma," and it means both a physical and psychological healing. At John 2:21, Jesus speaks of the temple being destroyed and raised again in three days. The crowd asks how this could be since the temple was 46 years under construction, but the writer of the gospel assures us that Jesus meant his "soma," his spiritual body as a temple. But perhaps most obviously Paul writes about and explicitly distinguishes between the physical body and the spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:44), and he is adamant that the body of Christ raised from the dead is the spiritual kind; Paul calls the risen body a soma-pneumatikon or a "breath-body." This Easter, when thinking about the story of the resurrection, it makes both academic and common sense to understanding that when the resurrection is spoken of the point is restored energy. The point is a psychological sense of being healed, being forgiven, and being put back into life.

Understanding the resurrection as the restoration of energy for life may sound like a post-modern way to think about religion or spirituality, but by using our "nous" we can know "in our bodies" that, in fact, this way of understanding Easter is closer to what the Bible means.


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