Michael A. Rizzotti
Spirituality precedes religion. All great religious leaders were foremost spiritual beings. The overwhelming power of their spiritual experience eventually gave birth to world religions. True spirituality is essentially about communication, between self and the wholly other. As such, Spirit is openness to a fullness of being. This openness is realized by self-communication, making the spiritual experience known. Spirit is therefore the presence of being to itself. It IS a presence that unleashes a potentiality for self realization in the world. In other words, spirituality is a wholesome openness to the unfathomable sacredness of life. It is the unraveling of a unique and personal experience of the divine, the holy or the sacred.
In the first paragraph of Genesis, Spirit is described as a sweeping wind over the waters. In Genesis II, the words wind and breath are linked together as God breathes his Spirit into man and animates him with life.
In the Bible, Spirit relates to a close and personal relationship with the divine, described in Genesis as the creation of man in the image of God. This image is not to be understood in terms of a visual portrait, but rather as a reflection of the presence of God. This presence IS eminently personal and spiritual. It is outlined in Yahweh’s historical presence compelling Moses with His word unraveling God’s alliance with His chosen people.
Moreover, the biblical Hebrew alphabet is made up primarily of consonants. In the un-vocalized Hebrew alphabet, speech is necessary to give meaning to the un-vocalized words, otherwise the letters are a meaningless and chaotic code. Only with the spoken word are the vowels uttered. By exhaling one’s breath into the letters, the alphabet miraculously takes on a life and Spirit of its own, and words finally become meaningful.
In Latin the word spiritus means breath and air: The vital principle that gives life to the physical organisms in contrast to its purely material elements. Similarly, the Greek pneuma means breath and has a similar etymological connotation. For the Greeks, Spirit animates all beings in nature, particularly human beings, in stark opposition to the physical and the material things.
In the Gospels, the angel ─or messenger─ reveals to Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. And that she will give birth to a child who will be called the Son of God. Later, Jesus is filled by the Holy Spirit and led to the desert to fast for 40 days prior to his mission. Soon after his return from the desert during is baptism, the Spirit Came down from heaven: And then there was a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests with him”.
The Acts describe how the apostles, who were gathered together during the Pentecost, were startled by the sound of a violent wind, soon to be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They were henceforth empowered to express themselves in a convincing manner and preach to the outside world. All these examples point to the Spirit as the presence of God as a means of communication.
The Spirit effectively gave the apostles the inspiration to communicate to others the Good News about the impending return of the Messiah. The rhetorical gift of preaching and baptizing allowed them to convert a greater number of followers and communities. The early churches ─meaning; assembly or a gathering convoked for religious purposes─ were mostly comprised of Jewish members with a small number of non-Jews. These early members voluntarily shared their possessions and communal duties. The “communion of the breaking of the bread” was the central rite of these assemblies.
The conversion of Paul, a former persecutor of Christians, resulted in the conversion of an increasing number of non-Jewish members. The inclusion of non-Jews and a growing number of churches also increased the tensions between Jews and the Gentiles. These tensions were eventually resolved by compromises made in Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and in cultic pagan rituals.
Paul’s theological definition of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ* is considered to be one of his most invaluable contributions to Christian thought. Body is defined as a unifying force of assembly of believers as one people, created by baptism and maintained by partaking of the bread. From its genesis, the early churches were held together in mystical unity by the spiritual gift of communication, communion and community.
The growing number of Christians throughout the Roman Empire was seen as a menace to the genius ─the spirit─ of Rome. The faithful Christians who believed in an impending return of the Messiah were considered a threat to the stability of Rome and its religion. Religio, an original Roman word, meant; all the rituals to honor the gods, while it’s opposite, superstitio, meant what dishonors them. Generally speaking religio refers to the pious cults of the gods, performed by magistrates, statesmen and the citizens of Rome. Superstitio, on the other hand, was an excessive devotion to other gods considered a potential threat to the stability of the city-state. As such, Christians were among the religions that were considered superstitious.
Despite the persecution of Christians that went on from time to time, long periods of relative calm allowed them to practice their religion freely as long as they did not participate in public disturbance. Christian martyrdom came to an end the day Constantine saw the light in the sky in the form of a cross. In 312 CE, he converted to Christianity and by the same token transformed the hierarchy of the empire into a hierarchy of the Church. The Church who represented the spiritual and mystical body of Christian believers slowly morphed into the physical and visible structure of the Holy See. The geographical reach of the Roman Empire became the theocratic reach of the Roman Church.
For the early Church the issue of God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit and the belief in One God, became a central point of debate and division. Only with the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity was the Roman Church finally unified theologically. With the Trinity, the three persons ─or modes of being─ are defined as co-substantial in One God. The Holy Spirit retained a profane identity devoid of any gender filiation in respect to the Father and the Son, defined, nonetheless, as the Giver of Life.
As the Church grew consistently monolithic, the universal ─or catholic─ principles of the Spirit of Jesus Christ gave way to a prescribed salvation through the sacraments. Martin Luther, whose faith in God surpassed his devotion to the Church in Rome, fought for his spiritual ideals to the end. Luther’s faith was based on the principle that one is saved by faith alone, rather than by actions prescribed by the Holy See. Luther’s uncompromising faith in God’s word resulted in the most important schism in Church’s history. The consequence of which resulted in the Reformation as well as the Church’s own Counter-Reformation.
The advent of the printing press put copies of the Bible in the hands of a growing number of Protestants. People were finally free to read the Old and New Testaments without the strict monitoring of the Church. Old Testament principles of personal ─individual─ responsibility for salvation through faith spread throughout Europe. These principles and the absolute sovereignty of God were later to influence the Spirit of capitalism and the industrial revolution.
After several centuries of cultural stagnation, the Enlightenment finally brought some light on the Dark Ages and the discourse on the Spirit became the subject matter of philosophy rather than theology. It led to a profusion of debate that have enriched the course of history and given rise to a variety of notions about Spirit ─from Descartes to Leibniz and Kant. One of its most prominent proponents is the German philosopher Hegel in his Phenomenology of the Spirit.
With the expansion of the Industrial Revolution and the dehumanization of labor, the dialectics of Hegel gave way to dialectical materialism. The Spirit’s creative principle in history is henceforth replaced by “material class struggle”. The Lord-owner became alienated from his property, and labor alienated from the fruits of his manufactured work.
In the twentieth century the philosophical discourse on being eclipsed discussions on Spirit. The reason for the exclusion is that philosophers like Heidegger favored Greek metaphysics over Biblical and Christian thought. In addition, the devastation of the 1st and 2nd World Wars inspired a reactionary development of existentialism and atheism.
World War II ushered a dichotomy between genuine spirituality and cultic religion. Germany, the birthplace of Protestantism, saw the rise of Nazism and became the grounds for a national moral collapse. Theologian and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not reconcile the behavior of his countrymen with the message of the Gospels. He could not understand how a Christian country like Germany could illegally invade other countries and be responsible for the persecution of Jews. Bonhoeffer was among a number of Germans who stood up to Hitler and his minions. He participated in several missions to help Jewish people escape Germany and took part in failed plots to assassinate the Fuhrer. He was arrested for his unpatriotic stand and put in jail. He was hanged only a few weeks before the liberation of Germany by the Allies.
Bonhoeffer to this day stands as a true embodiment of the Spirit of Jesus-Christ. He knew firsthand The Cost of Discipleship, and what sacrifice it takes to be a Christian. He recognized the dire consequences of a country that faithfully follows a war leader. He came to the regretful conclusion that he was living in a time of Religiousless Christianity: A religious cult only by name, devoid of any spiritual content.
While in prison, Bonhoeffer recognized the signs of an impending divorce between spirituality and religion. He saw first hand how patriotism and state religion supplanted the true essence of Christianity. How religion was used by political leaders to confuse the body politic with the mystical body of Christ. As a consequence, the rest of the 20th century saw the unraveling of corporatism and communism battling for ideological attention and political supremacy.
On April 6th 1968 the cover of Time’s magazine displayed the title “Is God Dead?”. Echoes of Nietzsche’s words put in the mouth of a madman, who nobody would believe, came back to haunt post-modernity. The words of Zarathustra, and the proponents of the Death of God philosophy, were mostly misinterpreted and misunderstood. Nevertheless, the caption on the cover was taken as an affront by Christians. For Nietzsche the demise of the divine meant that the idea of God is no longer capable of acting or controlling a moral code for human conduct. The devastation of wars in the 20th and 21st centuries somehow attests to that view.
The advent of post-modernism, particularly the incursion of mass media, led to a displacement of some of the leading protagonists in the realm of the sacred. The cinematic news reel became the preferred propaganda tool that led to the rise of Nazi dictatorship. The media became the ideal tool for the subversion of spirituality, resulting in the dissolution of human communication, communion and community.
With the implantation of TV in people’s living room, the medium diverted the power of the word away from the priestly order. It displaced the temple as the center of propagation of creed and solace, juxtaposing the mall as the choice location for the congregation of fragmented solitudes. The preacher was no longer the only medium between the sacred and the believer, a gateway to the good news.
With Tele-evangelism, the medium replaced the presence of the preacher and disposed of the temple as the gathering place for the community of believers. The media became a top-down source of propagation that generates seclusion, isolation and fragmentation of being.
Based on the definitions of Spirit outlined above, the media does not encourage communication. The media is a content provider not open to dialogue. It does not generate communion or community. It is a remote form of control of marketable identity. It feeds itself on the consumer and brands the viewers’ with logos. Through the media the corporations created a distinct body of its own.
The corporation in the US is defined, in legal and accounting terms, as a person. And in respect to the US constitution it shares the same rights as a human person. Over time this legal person has become bundled into one political body, surpassing in power many political states in the world. One must keep in mind that although the incorporated body is comprised of human persons it nonetheless lacks the spiritual essence that inspires communication, communion and community, promoting instead corporate doctrine and trust in a moneyed and legal body.
As the Incorporated body plays an ever greater role in politics, the advent of Internet made subliminal inroads into human forms of communication. With the Internet, spirituality morphed into devoted interactivism and virtual commitments. The fragmented self leaped onto the awesome omnipresence, omniscience and all-seeing infinity of cyberspace.
The speed in which the Internet spread onto the world is unprecedented in history. It ushered a non-linear dynamic challenging the top-down hierarchies. The synergy resulted in open source operating systems and organizations of all kinds that thrive on a gravitational force to develop and organize. The Net pulled the Self into the vast otherness of cyberspace. The immediacy of the medium fostered new friendship and re-linked old ones. It expanded the nature of dating and relationships. And changed the way human beings communicate, deliberate and congregate. The new medium somewhat restored the interactive nature of communication.
To conclude, we are well aware that the childlike innocence of the early days of the Internet is long gone. The Spirit of the Net is slowly becoming asphyxiated by a hybrid media ─a merger between corporate world, advertising and the Net. Fortunately there is still plenty of room for open source interactivism to flourish and expand. And since the Net is by nature subliminal, novel tools always emerge to bypass any intrusion to the immediacy of the Net.
* The Church as the “Mystical Body of Christ” by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Letter, Mystici Corporis