You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a board game enthusiast. Yes, I’m self-aware enough to know I’m a nerd. Ever since being introduced to Dominion in college, I’ve often been searching for newer and even crazier games to play with friends and family. And I have accrued quite a collection over the past few years. Codenames, Avalon, Pandemic, Puerto Rico, you name it… But there’s been one game in particular that I found this past year and boy has it been a joy to play. The game is Spirit Island.

For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s like a mix between Dominion, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan. Hopefully I didn’t lose all my readers there. It’s the perfect game for millennials because the spirits of the island are teaming up with the island natives to fend off those oppressive European settlers who intend to settle and blight the island. Hopefully I didn’t lose all of you by now because this isn’t a board game review. Although this is one of the highest rated games and I do recommend it!

I think Spirit Island provides illustrations of the widely held views of what spirits were to ancient people. They were those invisible forces of nature that tribal people used to believe in. They were the mysterious entities crafted by our older generations before they had the ability to disprove their existence through science. They were the result of person-hood being assigned to the elements like fire, water, and lightning. These phenomenons that they experienced at the time but could not explain in any other way.

Maybe that’s what our ancestors thought. I’m sure that is what some of them in fact did think. But maybe there’s a bit more to this idea of spirit as well.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you will likely have to ask yourself what to make of the references to spirits within the Bible. And even if you’re not a Christian, you’re probably wondering why those Christians believe in spirits at all? I mean the Holy Spirit is right in the Trinity right? It’s kinda a big deal. Yet, speaking for myself personally, for many years I have avoided giving this question sufficient consideration. Maybe you have as well.

What made me initially want to become a Christian was my adoration for who Jesus was. The way he interacted with people. The wisdom he shared. The love he said he had for me and everyone else when he gave over his life in his execution. Isn’t it adoration that makes us want to follow anyone? I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least like Jesus. They may not like Christians, and I understand why, but Jesus himself, tends to be a pretty likable figure for many people today.

Yes, some of you may say I was suspending disbelief to put my faith in a man who died and rose again. The resurrection is as much today, as it was then, a mystery and a miracle worthy of debate and doubt. But I was at a point where I decided Jesus was worth following, he was the basket I was willing to put my eggs in, and I would see where it would lead. But I wouldn’t at the time suspend my disbelief on spirits. It just wasn’t something I was giving much thought to at the time.

I have often struggled or avoided this topic of spirits. To me, spirits were similar to the topics of angels and demons, which have unfortunately been represented often in a manner similar to that depicted in The Emperor’s New Groove with an angle and a devil on each shoulder telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I mean c’mon, it’s clear to everyone today that this was an antiquated way of representing what we now know is our consciousness. It can be reduced to a bunch of synapses and neurons firing at all times.

As an engineer, someone who has spent much time in mathematics and the sciences, how could I believe in these spirits? There’s no proof of them. Nothing materially to show they exist. If it weren’t for their prevalence in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be wrestling with this question. But here I am. I cannot continue to kick this can down the road. For myself, I needed to give some more thought to the topic. And before that question of who the Holy Spirit is could be answered, I had to ask what in the world spirits even are.

what spirits do we have today?

When you hear the word “spirit” in what context is it often used today? School spirit possibly? Team spirit? The type of spirit associated with Halloween that floats around like a ghost? Wine and spirits? Spirit fingers?

According to Google NGram, the use of the word spirit, not surprisingly, has diminished in use over the past couple centuries. I know I personally don’t use the word often and would often turn my head sideways when I met someone who did. But it’s with this diminished use of the word that I believe there’s been a loss of understanding of what in the world “spirit” even means.

If we consider uses of the word like team spirit and school spirit, I think we can start to get an understanding of what spirits may be. As a Penn State alum, I know full well what school spirit looks like. There are few experiences that compare to that of watching a Penn State football game with over 100,000 other Penn State fans at Beaver Stadium. People screaming their heads off. Giving up their entire Saturday to tailgate, eat food, yell chants, sing the Alma Mater and show up shirtless for a November game. The same school spirit that causes people to lose sleep for days when Joe Paterno was fired. How do you define that school spirit? Is there a scientific way for representing what that school spirit is?

Or consider team spirit. I’m sure many of us have taken part in a team sport, musical ensemble, or worked with a group of people at multiple times in our lives. There are different feelings associated with each group. Maybe times where everyone “gels together” and maybe times where there is clashing and infighting amongst the group. Is there a way that this team spirit can be quantified or measured? I don’t know that it can.

Maybe instead of spirit, we would call these “values”, or more broadly “ideas”. But I think the problem with using the term value or ideas is that we often state that we have values or ideas. Yet Carl Jung, a well-known psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, flipped this notion on its head and said “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” I think this quote is quite relevant for explaining how we experience values, ideas, and even things like team or school spirit.

How responsible are we for adopting these spirits or values? It didn’t take much effort at all for me to hop on the Penn State school spirit train or to want to belong to the teams I have participated in over the years. Do we possess these values or ideas, or could it possibly be that these values, ideas, or, dare I suggest, spirits have us?

Consider the dark side of these so-called spirits. Is it that hard to say that a spirit colonized the people of Germany leading up to and through World War II? We’re not talking about a few people here. We’re talking about millions of people who fell in line with what turned out to be a horrific viewpoint. To them at the time, it was completely rationalized, yet look at the fruit that spirit produced. They were in a sense controlled by what we would term an evil ideology today. This isn’t to absolve individuals of responsibility, but to demonstrate how people can passively, and sometimes actively, absorb these mindsets and ideologies. Is it hard to say that maybe “spirit” would be an appropriate term for this example that is comparable to the team and school spirits we discussed previously?

Or even spirits within families? As children, aren’t we largely passive in our intake of the spirits of the very relationships of our parents, siblings, extended family members and communities? Are there not “spirits” that occupy the interpersonal spaces and relationships that we breathe in every day of our childhoods? When we say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” can we not see that there is often some momentum within family dynamics that can be difficult to overcome? Can we not ascribe the word “spirit” to this constantly evolving (both positively and negatively) interpersonal space that affects us all?

These spirits aren’t quantifiable. They cannot be measured. They are unseen to the naked eye. But I think we can all admit they exist. We may call them values. We may call them ideologies. We may even give them the name essence. Could their fluidity, invisibility, potency, and ability to (again dare I say) possess people make them worth considering more deeply?

If you followed me to that point, then the next step beyond that would be assigning these spirits personhood. I realize that’s no small leap in assumptions. I’m not sure I’m there yet myself. But when one looks at the spirits that contend for our allegiance in political, familial, and societal spheres of life, I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think there may be some credibility to the statement that a spiritual world exists. I was struggling with this idea of spirits before, but I think I’m slowly starting to see that maybe they just look different than the ones in Spirit Island. Maybe, just maybe, there’s some legitimacy to this whole spirit thing.

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