Sunday, May 17, 2009

Distinguishing Soul From Spirit

After preaching one Sunday morning, an enthusiastic and thoughtful man approached me with the following question: how to conceptually and theologically distinguish between the soul and the spirit? Needless to say, I failed to produce a comprehensive articulation of the soul-spirit link on the spot. However, with a bit of time for reflection, I believe I have arrived at a temporary consensus that works well in my own life:

The soul, it seems, refers to that innate longing of the individual to reach out to and connect with the interdependent web - human and divine. Inversely, the spirit describes the holy's indwelling in the individual by way of the collective - a binding together of selves in spiritual solidarity.

Jewish tradition helps gesture towards this malleable expression: in terms of the soul, we read that God ‘breathed the breath of life’ into Adam and he became a ‘living soul’ (Genesis 2:7). Hence, the soul operates as an animating principle or actuating cause of an individual life - in effect, a spiritual principle embedded in the human (and non-human?) experience. Spirit, on the other hand, derives from the Hebrew ruah, suggesting wind or breath - perhaps the 'breath of life' above. Thus, it embodies a vital life force moving within and through people and places.

I also find traces of this distinction in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. On Pannaa 18, Guru Nanak Dev emphasizes the individuality of humanity's need for sacred relationship:

ਸਚੁ ਮਿਲੈ ਸੰਤੋਖੀਆ ਹਰਿ ਜਪਿ ਏਕੈ ਭਾਇ
Those contented souls who meditate on the Lord with single-minded love, meet the True Lord.

In Raag Maaroo on Pannaa 1096, Guru Arjan Dev Ji emphasizes the collective nature of the spirit:

ਇਕਿ ਵਿਚਹੁ ਹੀ ਤੁਧੁ ਰਖਿਆ ਜੋ ਸਤਸੰਗਿ ਮਿਲਾਈਆ
You enshrined spirit within, which merges with the Sat Sangat, the True Congregation.

Perhaps most illustratively, Guru Gobind Singh paints the reciprocity and relationality of the spirit and soul in Dasam Granth: "O Individual soul, this is All-Pervading spirit of the universe" [Pannaa 326].

The two, then, interpenetrate in multivalent mutuality.

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