What is spirit, exactly? This question has come to mind for me on a handful of occasions, but until recently I generally took it primarily in negative terms with respect to matter. Matter has time, space, energy, maybe mass, etc. Matter is tangible or at least physically detectable. Spirit, on the other hand, refers to kinds of being which lack all of those qualities. If matter is tangible, spirit is intangible. If matter is visible, spirit is invisible. And this more or less worked for me.
Or at least I thought it did. It led me into a number of polemics, most notably strong writing against the notion that the “heaven” of the intermediate state would involve any kind of experiences which we could associate with any of our senses. And in addition to this, it frequently made me scoff at talk of spirit beings in ways which treated them as having any qualities I would consider physical.
One rather random place that this scoffing came up was in Zelda. Despite Zelda being one of only two or three game franchises I care for, and probably my favorite, I couldn’t help but at cringe at the way that Zelda games frequently refer to beings which are most notable for physical characteristics as “spirits.” Some appeared as dragons, or fish, or other things, but they almost always held a physical form for at least most of the time. Of course, I have always realized that spirits are supposed to be able to appear in a temporary physical form, but in these games, the lines between the spirits qua spirits and their physical form were often loose and unclear. In the most recent addition to the franchise, Breath of the Wild, this comes up a few times.
The absolute final battle of the game is with Ganon, the series’s regular big bad. As in most Zelda games, you fight him in multiple forms, and (spoiler alert!) the last form is a gigantic, boarlike monster. What’s weird about it is that this form isn’t treated so much as a physical beast but rather seems to again be a kind of spirit, since Zelda and the game itself both speak as though Ganon was trying to take on a physical form again, but failed and unleash his true, inner, apparently not-quite-physical self. But of course you still fight him by shooting arrows at him and he still fights by spewing fiery energy beams that burn up fields and forests.
This, of course, seemed silly to me (at least philosophically), but what occurred to me that other day is that the Bible itself seems to play this same fast and loose game with the line between the spiritual and the physical. Angels and God Himself (even before the Incarnation) appeared on many occasions no different from men, and they could eat, fight, touch, and speak. Visions of heaven, currently a spiritual place (or at least one would think), often include rich colors and sounds, even smells. Mention is made of people seeing God’s feet, back, or robe. And of course, throughout the Bible, God speaks to people, and while this may not always have involved an audible voice present as sound waves in the air, there can be no doubt that it at least did sometimes.
So what gives? Is this stuff just the product of the imagination of people too philosophically unsophisticated to distinguish reasonably between spirit and matter, as the Zelda incidents could be? Or were the Japanese myths and folklore behind Zelda in fact closer to the Bible than I’d have guessed?
I don’t have a comprehensive or definite answer, but I’m starting to think along these lines. God is spirit, and the physical world is meant to express His glory. This means that, whatever spirit actually is, the physical world is designed from the beginning to be a vehicle of its expression. Taking this seriously should make it no surprise, then, that spirits would make free use of this expressive capacity of the physical realm. Another way of putting it might be as projection. A spirit is able to really project its presence into the tangible world. Talk of expression and projection together allows for two important points. First, the physical appearance and features the spirit manifests are not arbitrary, or completely divorced from what it is as a spirit. Rather, since the physical world is meant to really express spiritual realities, there is an authentic correspondence between what we might see and touch of a spirit’s appearance and what the spirit is in itself. On the other hand, since spirit and matter are still quite different, we cannot imagine that the physical appearance a spirit uses would be at all exhaustive of its personal nature. Like a projection of a shape or an image on a wall, a dimension (among other things) is necessarily lost.
The difference between us, then, as naturally embodied creatures, is that we are anchored in physicality. While we “have” spirits, our spiritual being is linked with, even woven into, our flesh and blood. Our bodily changes can affect us spiritually, and our spiritual changes affect us bodily. And unlike beings of spirit, which do not need their projected bodies and naturally exist without them, we are made for embodiment and radically lack if we are without flesh (i.e. after death).
If it is unclear here, I think the key shift I’ve made in thought is from spirit as negatively associated with matter (i.e. defined in opposition to material properties) to spirit as transcending matter but analogous to it. Thus, for example, color is not simply something which spirits lack, but rather represents tangibly something which spirits have. Spirits do not simply have material size and shape, but those qualities really do correspond symbolically to qualities which spirits possess.
I am not sure what all this means or implies. I doubt very much that it is as trivial and academic as it sounds, for very few points of theology actually are. If nothing else, I think it may provide some direction for understanding the relationship between angels and miracles, though that would take another post to explore. Any thoughts or comments? Let me know, because I’m interested. And in the meantime, maybe Ganon’s true form as a giant boar isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Myth, folklore, and fantasy do have a tedency to be wiser than anyone gives them credit for.