Monday, August 1, 2011

Trading in God for Good? Part 3 -- Soul, Spirit, and Sacred in Secular Contexts

In this post, I will provide examples of some secular uses of the above terms. I present these examples as the beginning of an argument towards reclaiming them outside of their traditional religious contexts. Obviously, in my next post, I will need to struggle with whether one or all of these words are too tainted by their connection with religion to be used as atheistic indicators of human existence and meaning.

SOUL – “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) “Living being”—in Hebrew nefesh chaya, or “a living soul.” There are multiple terms in Hebrew that can be translated as soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, yechidah, etc). In this verse, the word “soul” reflects the new man’s vitality—not his ability to survive death in any form. Thus, the Bible itself presents us with a use of the word “soul” uncoupled from any notion of immortality. To be a soul means to be a living being—no more, no less.

Apart from religious contexts, “soul” can also be used rhetorically to point towards the metaphorical center of a person. This center is often irrational and highly personal. Thus I can “know it in my soul” in a similar way that I might “know it in my gut.”

In the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame online entry for Otis Redding, we are told: “His name is synonymous with the term soul, music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” For more on how “soul music,” reclaimed religious items for the secular, look for the scene in the movie “Ray” in which Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) writes the song “I Got a Woman.”

SPIRIT – I’ve already written a lot about this in a previous blog post and also this pamphlet. But a few examples of the secular use of “spirit” just to remind you:
The power of the human spirit discussed in this article on the Disable Veterans of America Winter Sports clinic.

We got spirit, yes we do! (Pretty sure this is secular-- or are our cheerleaders indoctrinating us?)

That’s the spirit!

SACRED --  I’ll start with a scene from The Simpsons:
(Lisa and Janey are in Lisa's bedroom reading the "Baby-Sitter Twins" books)
Janey: I can't get enough of "The Baby Sitter Twins." They arrested the counterfeiters, rescued the President, and made 4 dollars.
Lisa: I love everything about the world of babysitting. The responsibility, the obligations, the pressure...
Janey: And full refrigerator privileges!
Lisa: That's a trust, Janey. A sacred trust.
Janey: Geez. Lighten up, Lisa.

Here are some other quotes that use the word “sacred” pretty secularly:

“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson*

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” – Thomas Jefferson

“National defense is the sacred duty of the young and all other people.” –Kim Jong Il

Also, thanks to Jeff Lowe for pointing out this fantastic example from the classic comedy "Back to School." (Example in the first minute. For the faint of heart, don't watch further than that!)

Help me out here! Know any other good, secular uses of SOUL, SPIRIT, or SACRED?


  1. In contemplating notions such as soul, sacred, holy and that ilk, do you make any distinction(s) between the term wholeness and the term oneness? Do those terms even come up for you?

  2. Funny, I actually find myself using those terms a lot in my teaching, but have never tried to examine them directly and distinguish between them. I think oneness and unity can be used in a lot of different ways (simple unity vs. complex/inclusive unity, for example), and I usually talk about oneness in the context of describing reality. On the other hand, I bring up wholeness more often in the context of aspiring towards it. Since my writing of this blog post (about 3.5 years ago), I don't really bring up the soul, sacred, or the holy much. How would you relate wholeness and oneness, along with the rest of the terms?