A Critique of the Spiritual Ascent

A Critique of the Spiritual Ascent

Photo by Melburnian

Spiritual discussion is tightly bound to the idea of an ascent. In Christianity, especially, we have resurrection and eternal life, an upward movement toward God, who sits in his heaven, far above us sinful mortals. We must offer supplication to the Almighty, prayers which glide gently upward like smoke from a fire. This is what a priest’s censer symbolizes during Mass. The fragrance of the incense rises to the anthropomorphic nostrils of God as an offering.

Western life is a panoply of ascensions. We strive for success, to be the top dog, top of the heap, climb the corporate ladder, be the big man on campus, rise from the ashes, and ascend to the height of stardom. We have constructed skyscrapers in a manner similar to the builders of the fabled Tower of Babel. We have scaled the lofty heights of Everest. We have traveled to the moon in phallical ships. What does all this upwardness mean?

Spirit is behind all of it. The constant need for ascent and transcendence is the classic archetypal motif of spirit. Spirit soars into the very upper regions of the atmosphere. It is most at home in very high places, where the air is thin and light, where one can sit atop and apart from the world and be superior to it. Spirit is cold, since the higher one ascends, the lower the temperature and the thinner the air. There is a snowy whiteness about spirit that makes it chilly and vapid, if taken to extremes. When you hear someone refer to “spiritual detachment,” you’ll know that the archetype of spirit is present.

Western culture has been obsessed with spirit for a long, long time. Spirit is ubiquitous in our society. It is the driving force behind many Western standbys, like capitalism, technology, industry, religion, and even some mysticism and new age teachings. Anytime you hear someone talking about transcendence, you can bet spirit is close by. Spirit is overemphasized at the expense of Soul. Many have forgotten about Soul, since it is much messier and less glamorous. We would rather soar in the heavens than slog through the morasses and quagmires of Soul. Actually, we should be having both experiences.

When asked by an interviewer about the differences between soul and spirit, author Thomas Moore gave this reply:

The words themselves aren’t that important, but it is important to know
the difference. In my mind, “spirit” is a state of divine perfection
that exists beyond the human plane of existence. It is something we all
strive to realize in this life whether it be through religion or the
highest reaches of human potential, whereas, the “soul” is what we are
given to work with in our life on earth. The soul delights in the messy
conditions of life’s entanglements, and relationship is the place where
the soul works out its destiny. Simultaneously, religion recognizes pain
and failure as important in the soul’s deepening and sophistication.
That’s where soul and spirit merge. (Thomas Moore: Food for the Soul, by Virginia Lee).

It is not just Western culture that has concentrated on spirit. Hinduism and Buddhism are also religions of transcendence. Nirvana is the transcendent experience par excellence. Spirit is always accompanied by the light of awareness. One is said to become “enlightened,” when the mind arrives at a place of perfect stillness, and is thereby illuminated.

Spirit is a valid, necessary human experience. A problem arises, however, when it is pursued to the exclusion of Soul. Spirit is height, but Soul is depth. What would we be like without depth? We would be cold, inanimate automatons, going around making positive affirmations, bathing in the light and rejecting the darkness. Spirit seeks intelligence, while Soul seeks imagination. We need both, of course, but we must never overemphasize one over the other. So many problems in culture have been caused by just this. James Hillman says,

Where spirit lifts, aiming for detachment and transcendence, concern with soul immerses us in immanence…(The Myth of Analysis, p. 27).

 Soul prefers to descend into dark, scary, messy entanglements. Soul loves trekking through the swampy bogs of human experience, where the sticky mud sloshes with each gooey step. 

After over 2000 years of emphasizing spirit at the expense of soul, we are finally beginning to transform ourselves. Soul has reemerged to lead humanity, along with Spirit,  toward its greatest moment.

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3 thoughts on “A Critique of the Spiritual Ascent

  1. Yes, descent into soul, into Earth & the lower regions is vital to living life with one’s whole being, embracing all that is past to allow for future growth. A tree w/o roots, on the other hand, is not only unstable but its earthly life & relationships are already being forgotten as it awaits the release of transmigration or apotheosis. Yet, roots alone speak of a “lost soul”, a wandering shade who can only grow down or laterally amongst the global network of underground mycelium fibres. Soul and spirit need to connect to have a complete, vital tree, and tall trees need deep roots.

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