by Joel Kovel
In all places and all epochs human beings have used some such word as “Spirit,” to designate the animating, world-moving force within them; the relations with ancestors, demons, totems, ghosts and other “spirit-beings”; and the Supreme Being, the godhead that permeates the universe and creates the world and is bound together in our religions. In sum, what has been known as spirit relates the human self to the universe and all its beings and forms of being. Spirit is no residual category, then, but an ontological potential of humanity, a vital part of being human. It is as essential for human nature as building a web is for “spider nature.” For all creatures are inserted into nature at a certain point and with a certain internally articulated set of relationships. These frame the possible arrangements that creature has with the rest of nature. Spirit belongs to the relationships of human nature, then, along with phenomena such as childhood, language, the capacity for rational thought as well as speculative thought, a peculiar emphasis on the role of sex, the making and chronicling of history, and above all for humans, the power to produce, that is, to consciously transform nature to meet needs that are both universal and yet also peculiarly human, one of which is the spiritual. From this angle, spirituality is the production of spirit, and like all forms of production, is a function of history. Thus there is no spirit as such, there is only spirit in various historical contexts, arising from historically prepared ground and transforming that ground.
The present epoch is historically unique in that the spirit-side of life can no longer be taken for granted. It appears both in innumerable fragmentary shapes and as massive blocs of fundamentalist and totalizing conviction, and quite often it seems to not exist at all, as though there were some kind of systematic power at work to drive it out of our lives.
Albert Einstein wrote that humans are born connected with the cosmos. We become separated from this ground of being as we develop and we therefore have the choice of whether to rejoin this universal ground—not, of course, in the original manner attendant upon birth, but consciously, according to personal history and what we have done with our life. We all rejoin the universe when biological life is over and our substance re-enters the great natural cycles of material exchange. But this need not occur blindly. We are endowed with human consciousness and thus the option also exists for us to live and be conscious of our path from universal being and back to universal being. This path is of spirit and traverses the self—and it is the self and its relation to the world that can both shape and impede the path of spirit.
As an internal representation of the person, the self exists between the person and the world, and is a kind of boundary between the person and the universe. If the boundary is relatively rigid and impermeable, we would call this the ego-form of the self; and if the boundary is relatively fluid, permeable and differentiated, we would call this the soul-form of the self. Thus the ego-form is hostile to the emergence of spirit. It posits the person as a fixed and discrete individual, and prioritizes the forms of reasoning that reinforce this, including the Cartesian splitting between mind and body and the various technical and bureaucratic practices that naturalize this.
Soul-consciousness overcomes this splitting and differentiates the human being and nature, that is, sees each as part of the other. This openness allowed by infusion of spirit—manifest in far too many forms to be even summarized here—is therefore an overcoming of ego, an overcoming of separation of self from universe, and a transfiguration of the flesh, or body under the name of spirit. The language of death and resurrection is apposite here:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. (I Cor: 15, 42-44)
My reading of Paul is that he insists on the resurrection of the death-in-life inherent to normal egoic existence. The spiritual moment overcomes the separation from the deadly splitting from nature which sees us alone in the universe of dead matter, and opens upon the perspective of universal being. This may be tied to the saying of Jesus: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And it presupposes the faith in a living God.
The emergence of Jesus Christ as the intermediary between the human and divine, and hence as the essential configuration of spirit opening upon a radically new path of human existence needs to be evoked here. I do not claim that Jesus is the only authentic path of spirit: that sort of sectarian splitting and chauvinism is precisely the anti-spiritual way. I do claim that his emergence was the sort of thing that could only have happened at a certain moment in history—and that such a moment has most definitely not gone away, although the forces that would hold it back—dare we call them Satanic?—are presently in the ascendant.
The Jesus phenomenon occurred as the expansion of Rome’s empire into Palestine destabilized the existing Abrahamic religion and introduced new class configurations into traditional Judaic society. The quisling King Herod and the quisling elite-priesthood of the Sanhedrin represented the infiltration of a foreign body into the command structure of Judaism. This was accompanied by severe dislocation and dispossession in the countryside and it reached its grim apogee in the introduction of money exchange into the Great Temple. I see Jesus as a peasant revolutionary who emerged in dialectical reaction to this and conceived of a transformation in the spiritual sphere that could also nonviolently transform the secular sphere. The key passages bearing witness to this in the Gospels are Jesus’ magnificent and soulful imprecations against the money power. Non-violent to living beings, he actively throws over the money-changing tables in the Temple, and thereby seals his fate on the Cross.
From another angle, this core spiritual event is also a critique of idolatry: that abiding propensity of humanity to make false gods out of its own productions and submit to them. Without this insight we fall victim to the shallow view of spirituality which sees it as something missing in contemporary materialist life—which is by and large, true—and concludes that what we need is more spirituality—which is both stupid and dangerous. How can we forget that some of the most malignant features of modern history—Nazism, for example, or the various fundamentalisms that blight our landscape—have many of the essential hallmarks of spiritual experience, in particular, the breaking down of ego boundaries and the sense of reunion with some larger whole? In fact it may be said that right-wing movements energized by pseudo-spiritual power are much more dangerous than the stodgy and prudent secular right.
No, we do not need more spirituality as such; indeed there is no such thing but only spiritualities mediated by their social vision and relations. We need more authentic spirituality: not just a simple breaking of egoic chains but also an overcoming of the corruptions of idolatry. This occurs in context of a righteous striving toward justice and universality, beyond the strictures of racism and gender oppression. In respect to this we should bear in mind that money power is the pure form of idolatry: money power, that is: not the simple form of monetary exchange but the endless expanding of value, dissolving the integrity of nature and human being. The word for self-expanding value is capital, of course; and the struggles of Jesus against the money-changers initiate not only a new moment in religious history, but were the first, anticipatory, instances of an anti-capitalist campaign, when capital was only lying nascent in its cradle. Today, capital has become hegemonic and world-destroying at the same time. Its society of rampant egoism—because the ego-form is the only model of self suitable for capitalist relations of production—along with the astounding panoply of idolatry known as consumerism, poses the greatest threat of all history to the survival of our species and innumerable others. It is this massive weight that burdens spiritual existence today—and demands that we find new ways of spiritual realization.
Jesus and the first Christians have been called the first communists—that is, in class society, in contrast to the primitive communism that graces original, pre-class and pre-state society. We are now in another context requiring a spiritual revolution. Will a renewed power of soul resurrect us from the abyss?