What Is Spiritual?

What Is Spiritual? March 19, 2023

The Big Questions series

When my vitality was vanishing and I was facing heart bypass surgery, I had no qualms about doing it. No fear, just peace. Of course this level of surgery is at the top of the line in terms of magnitude. And facing having your heart stopped and your chest pried apart like a clam is not something I or anyone else looks forward to with delight. But I had peace about it.

Image Qualities of spirit by John Hain on Flickr
Image Qualities of spirit by John Hain on Flickr

I made a few arrangements to make sure my wife had quick access to everything in case things did go awry. Expect the best and prepare for the worst is my motto – or Boy Scouts’ “Be prepared.” And I checked out the risk factors in case more preparation was required.

I’ve lived a full life and while I still feel like there is more to do, if I was gone then that was okay. Time for a new adventure. I’ve long felt that those who fear death are those who “haven’t lived.” I think we’re all here to pursue a life with some individual purpose. My most profound fear is that I will become a burden to others. I know from experience that I’m a horrible burden to myself. 🙂

Finding the Spiritual

Throughout my life I have preached and taught about our spiritual journey and spiritual growth. What that entails is simply a growing realization and transition in our faith. It’s about how we come to a fuller understanding of spiritual principles – God is Spirit – and change our understanding of what we might have once taken as literal or overemphasized.

I had been steadily informed by the study of mystics, research into meditation (there’s no evidence it’s transcendental, just within), personal experience, and other writers on the subject. But I felt my understanding was lacking.

A couple of years ago, well before heart surgery appeared on the horizon, I undertook some research to determine what spirituality is. I surveyed several groups of thousands on religion on Facebook and collated their answers. Gratefully they were willing to respond giving me a rich tapestry of what they individually think spiritual is. These included those who think spiritual is a farce.

Since then I’ve researched things like prayer, written about the spiritual, and given it a thorough think. One result was a strong indication from scientifically well-done double-blind studies that prayer works to help healing.

Some studies don’t show these results but I suspect they have the wrong expectations. And prayer for healing is less likely to work for those who are near the end of their lives. People can’t expect prayer to move physical mountains – it has never happened. And similarly, certain types of plaque that clog up arteries resemble mountains in physical terms. Although earthmovers come close. And in another sense, movers and shakers in the world of attitudes also move mountains in a figurative sense. More research on prayer needs to be done.

A deeper understanding of spiritual

Recently, in my thought I’ve had some clarity in understanding the spiritual. From long deliberation I’ve noticed the division of the nature of life into three domains: The physical, the immediate spiritual, and the transcendental spiritual. I will probably change some of the names when I’ve had more time to think about it. Or let some college professors do it. 🙂

The physical world

The physical world is the world that God created. So far for the existence of the world, the idea that God created it is the only rationale that is credible to me. God is First Cause. And I don’t believe that we are left entirely helpless by a God so distant from it. God created us in His image, that is, a spiritual image, not a physical image, and the essence of our lives is in the spirit, while the physical provides us with the capability to live.

I also believe that God created nature to do what it does. God doesn’t micromanage every tiny aspect of the universe. We might be able to because Genesis in the Bible says we have control of the Earth. (We’re not doing such a great job of it.) God simply set in motion the laws of the universe and let the created nature do it. The Book of Genesis shows a clear progression of events that describes creation for non-science people – no one would have understood the Higgs Boson, let alone had a name for it in those days – not until last century.

The universe is waves that manifest into semi-permanent forms of energy or matter depending on factors such as measurement or other ways of interfering with those waves. This is what God created.

Physical drives

Nature does what it does. We have drives from both physical and intellectual needs. We might be able to interfere through prayer, but mostly natural events just happen. Floods, disease, earthquakes, storms are all part of the workings of the natural universe.

Animals and young children are more deterministically driven by natural drives. Deterministic means external to the will of the person. They generally don’t have the ability to question, to use words, to have abstract thoughts, or to think higher thoughts. The ability to use words has been shown to enable the ability to think in the abstract which is what the spiritual requires. But even many animals have rudimentary expressions of the spiritual world such as love, compassion, types of knowledge, ability to express more concrete words, etc.

In our physical form nature influences us in many ways such as: sexual desire, anger, jealousy; or things known in psychology as “the will to power” (German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and psychologist Alfred Adler, in his theory of the commitment to aim for superiority and dominance, in those who feel a need to escape the emotions of insecurity and inferiority); “will to meaning” (logotherapy, the practice of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl (I studied meaning for years); will to pleasure (Freud), and Carl Jung and Rollo May show that Where love rules, there is no will to power.

Our physical nature, when it conflicts with the goals of self-improvement and the betterment of mankind, is managed through the immediate spiritual. The spiritual modifies the natural, that is modifies our basic instinctual nature.

The immediate spiritual

For want of a better name, the immediate spiritual is a land of ideas that we consider, test, and bring into our lives. They are not meaningless ideas, but rather meaningful and compelling ones. They incite us to action or guide our actions.

Very fitting to me is a quote by Carl Sagan. Who is Sagan? NASA describes Carl Sagan as “Carl was often described as ‘the scientist who made the Universe clearer to the ordinary person.’” He was an American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator. Whew! And I think my life is complex!

Sagan was also a religious person. And like me, a communicator who tries to explain the world to people. He made an insightful statement that a world is conveyed in a few words. He said of books in his book, Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980), “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” – Quote from Goodreads.

I don’t pretend to be the greatest communicator. I need transition sentences between the thoughts I hurriedly jot down. But I’m the one communicating so I’m all you have. (I forgot, you have the Internet – in this line of work it helps to have a big sense of humor besides a wide education.)

I’ve often said that two of the largest things in the universe are words and love. A single world can contain the entire universe, not explicitly but implicitly. Love – God is love and to love is a very imperative commandment – love is the grand scheme of things in the universe. Both words (knowledge, wisdom) and love can reshape the universe.

Mixing words with experience yields a perspective on how words are understood and affect our attitudes that shape our behavior, which is something I work with. Words and love are spiritual things.

To me, the immediate “spiritual” is anything but a dead world filled with stale and lifeless ideas. Essentially it is that essence of “being,” a spiritual energy waiting to unfold in different ways to express or test our beliefs in a variety of ways. It is the inner life of us all, filled with love, faith, hope, compelling ideas, human passion, and wisdom that influences us and sets us into action. It’s an expression of intent, a deeper communion with others, the testing of and product of experiences related to ideas. These experiences relate to ideas, are an implement in spiritual growth, and an avenue of relating or resonating with ideas.

The spiritual helps us form ideas regarding many aspects of our lives such as love, social and criminal justice, psychology, sociology, knowledge, wisdom, beauty, aesthetics, religion, etc.

In life we test these ideas and formulate better ones. We become wise from our experiences.

Twentieth Century limitations on spirituality

In the 20th Century we saw a lot of limitations placed on spirituality in favor of rote religion. Or no religion. This was from the confluence of scientific testing and fraudulent spiritual activities. Science isn’t able to test the spiritual so it has deep reservations about it. Investigation showed that many who pretended to be able to contact the “spiritual world” did so fraudulently.

The result was that the fraudsters were booted out and a healthy skepticism emerged about all things unseen. But was the baby thrown out with the soiled bathwater?

The church seemed to accept this state of affairs and downplayed the spiritual. It was only the divine act of God that was emphasized. Emphasized but poorly understood. People slowly changed from the opinion that every catastrophe in the world was somehow the finger of God at work.

Religion replaced spiritual in our lives, and this is probably one reason why many churches seem to be spiritually dead. Everything about the spirit is denounced as being irrelevant to religion, especially since it might not support religious doctrine. Due to the focus on the personal God who would do everything for the individual, spiritual responsibility was denounced or relegated to religious pursuits.

To my mind we have it backwards. Religion provides a framework for people of like minds to work together in a common set of beliefs. The spiritual is our connection to the spiritual world and the transcendental. It’s the spiritual that each individual is most responsible for.

Jesus said: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:24 (NASB). There is no concept in that statement that the church is responsible for the individual or the individual’s salvation. The church is a vehicle to help provide the means of the journey, not the end of the journey.

Transcendental spirituality

For some it’s difficult to believe there is anything beyond this world. No problem. The ancient Jews had no concept of immortality for people – this was reserved for God, angels, and certain special people. But the Jews had a concept of behaving well so that they were pleasing to God. It wasn’t until a few hundred years before Jesus that the concept of immortality for people began to develop.

Many in more recent times thought that the spiritual world was in touch during meditation, which is practiced by those in many religions including Christianity. But studies showed that during meditation what seems to happen is that the mind puts together information, probably information that is relevant to recent experiences. This brings about a deeper understanding. It isn’t much different from studying.

Religious mystics believe that they are in touch with God. It involves them discarding their bonds to themselves to be replaced by God. Some receive information through this pathway. Some doubt the veracity of what they experience. (I don’t agree with this experience since I think we are created to be individuals and not empty vessels for God.)

There are other more evidentiary things that indicate there is something beyond this physical world that can be experienced and can be helpful. These include certain drugs and Near Death Experiences (NDEs).

Drugs. Certain drugs (mushrooms, etc.) can create these experiences and bring benefits. “… researchers say, a majority of respondents attributed lasting positive changes to their psychological health–e.g., life satisfaction, purpose and meaning–even decades after their initial experience.”

These drugs are being investigated after promising results that show people with free floating anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and other afflictions benefit greatly from these experiences.

Paranormal experiences. All through history people have had paranormal experiences in which they have premonitions that often immediately come true, for which there is no warning of the cause of the event. Others have spooky visitations from dead relatives. Real-world validation is often available for these.

NDEs. The most consequential experiences are Near Death Experiences which have no viable scientific explanation. They are clinically dead – there is no viable explanation for their narrative experience and memory. The normal brain chaos that happens during death is in no way capable of explaining these at all. These are common.

During NDEs people see and communicate with dead relatives or spiritual figures who give them information about various things. It might be about their purpose in life, maybe reassurance, a prophetic warning, or maybe information about the spiritual world. Each experience is unique. These have occurred for thousands of years and they can’t be refuted or explained by science. It is common for physicians to feel puzzled and skeptical, but many are convinced that their concepts are real, and some have them themselves and walk away transformed.

Are we able to transcend to spiritual contact and knowledge? Possibly. And maybe it’s experienced frequently by those who like myself have felt peace when faced with grave danger or during tragic loss. Or those who feel God’s guidance frequently in their lives.

Science: “… no current scientific procedures are able to disclose the ontology of consciousness,” but science is having a much closer look at self-transcendence experiences. It’s a conundrum – we wonder if artificial intelligence can become conscious, but we don’t understand consciousness in humans. Is consciousness a spiritual reality? The mind considers more than biological and instinctual reactions; it considers immediate spiritual considerations as well..


We have the tools for better discernment of what the spiritual world is than in the late 19th and the 20th Centuries. We have the ability to understand what is based simply on the physical world and protective instinct and differentiate it from the world of knowledge and spirit in which we forge religion, justice, knowledge and wisdom, working these things out through experience, and other important abstract aspects of our lives not seen in the physical world that need to be seen through the lens of love … love is a paramount spiritual idea. Not the familial type of love, but the egalitarian and divine idea of love that says we all deserve fair treatment in our lives and make it happen for all.

We are all physical beings subject to the physical universe. Despite this, we aspire to achieve even higher levels of needs for our own good as well as the good of all. And at times we may even transcend, whether consciously or not, to the higher spiritual world and God.

In our churches we should be looking at aspects of the spiritual such as spiritual growth, justice, love, faith, beauty, and other things that are or can be very relevant to life.

Also see Mysticism and the spiritual – Encyclopedia Britannica.


The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. God is love. We’re asked to be like God.


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If I’ve challenged your thinking, I’ve done my job.


Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.

– Dorian

About Dorian Scott Cole
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