GOD SQUAD: What 'Spirit' and 'Spirituality' Mean to Me

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), June 9, 2017 | Go to article overview

GOD SQUAD: What 'Spirit' and 'Spirituality' Mean to Me


Q: Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, "God is spirit" (John 4.24). Does Judaism agree that God is spirit/breath? How would you describe spirit? I know what spirit is not: physical, material, visible, etc. After years of pondering, I still am trying to learn more about what spirit is, and by "spirit" I do not mean the Holy Spirit. For years I have looked forward to reading your column, and I respect your wisdom and insight into some complex issues. I am a "resting" Presbyterian elder, so you can guess that "reconciliation" is a subject of great interest to me. I believe that you promote the cause of reconciliation for anyone who thoughtfully reads your column. May your readership ever increase.

-- Very truly yours, H

A: Thank you, dear H, for your deep question and kind words. To answer it properly we must first remember that the Hebrew Bible came before Aristotle figured out how philosophy actually describes the nature of what is real. This contact between the Bible and Greek philosophy happened when Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 331 BCE and brought with him his tutor Aristotle.

Aristotle had a fruitful dialogue with Pharisees who would later evolve into rabbis. This group would take one big idea from Aristotle and weave it into the fabric of Judaism, and through Judaism it would become a part of Christianity and Islam. That big idea was that everything in the universe is made up of matter and form. Matter is the principle of potentiality and form is the principle of actuality. Matter is like clay in the hands of a sculptor. Form is like the idea in the mind of the sculptor of how to shape the clay.

The religious translation of matter and form is easy to see. Matter is our body. Form is our soul. God is pure form. Spirit is form. God is immaterial because God's perfection never requires that God change. This is what John meant by, "God is spirit." God is not made up of stuff like every other thing in the world. The pre-philosophical biblical take on this in the first chapter of Genesis is that God is like a hovering spirit, "And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters." Though there is no notion of soul in the Hebrew Bible, there is an idea that God is like a breath of life, which is what God breathed into Adam to make him a living being.

Of course Christianity emerged after Greek philosophy bequeathed matter/form into Judaism's body/soul duality, and Christianity had to try to accommodate the contradiction that God is immaterial with the belief that God had become incarnate in the material body of Jesus. …

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