(This continues a series of posts about reconstructing the Mormon/Christian narrative. Please read this introductory post first, if you haven’t already, before continuing.)
The “Holy Ghost” is perhaps one of the most mysterious figures in Mormon theology (and perhaps more generally in Christianity). Many Mormons likely know this being of the Godhead as a “personage of spirit,” which “has not a body of flesh and bones,” “were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell within us” (D&C 130:22). This already begins to sound quite supernatural, a ghostly person that may come and dwell within me? How are we to make sense of this?
The Holy Ghost is taught to be the third member of the “Godhead,” which is similar to the Trinity in that it is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, except in Mormonism these are considered three separate and distinct persons who are one in purpose. The Holy Ghost is said to be a witness of the Father and the Son. It comforts us and teaches us truth. It helps us know right from wrong, good from evil. Mormons believe the Holy Ghost can be given to a person through the laying on of hands, where it is known as the “gift of the Holy Ghost,” which takes place after baptism. While the power of the Holy Ghost can be felt by anyone, the gift of the Holy Ghost is conferred onto a person so that they may have the constant “companionship” of it when “worthy.” This gift is said to then cleanse and purify the person from sin, like fire. A person may speak “by the power of the Holy Ghost,” and this carries with it a weight of truth. Denying the Holy Ghost is said to be the “unpardonable sin,” or one that can never be forgiven by God.
There are other names that the “Holy Ghost” is known by including Holy Spirit, Spirit, Spirit of God, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of Christ, Light of Truth, and the Light of Christ. Some of those start to sound very much like the “Christ,” the power of “Christ,” the presence of “Christ,” etc.
The Traditional Interpretation’s Failure
I perceive that there is much truth in this description, but I think the common interpretation is failing, or has failed for many people, and it is time for new interpretations and reconstructions that make more sense of this mysterious “Spirit” figure in our modern world. For many it does not seem plausible to consider that there is a disembodied spirit or ghost-like person out there somewhere that may come around to inhabit our bodies on occasion, or that may be our invisible companion. In fact, this could seem creepy to some. Do we believe in ghosts?
Who is this “person”? In what way can they be said to exist if we can’t see them? How can “he” dwell in our bodies? It sounds like possession. It becomes even more mysterious in that the Holy Ghost is usually never depicted in any artwork. Even though it is said to be a “personage” it is never explicitly shown as a person, but only symbolized occasionally such as in the form of a dove that descended from heaven at Jesus’s baptism.
It seems to me that the idea of the “Holy Ghost” or “Holy Spirit” has a long history in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, and in many other spiritualities around the world. It has been regarded in many different ways. What these all seem to be pointing towards is a life-giving or life-force principle in humanity, that which gives life and breath to humans and all forms of life, that energy that animates our bodies, generates warmth in our metabolism, which brings consciousness online and therefore understanding and meaning to our minds. It is that fundamental essence within us that makes us alive.
The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “breath.” In the Old Testament is found in the Hebrew word ruach or neshama, or in the Greek Septuagint and New Testament word pneuma, all which refer to breath. The Latin Vulgate translated these terms as spiritus. The word “ghost” comes from the Old English translation of spiritus as gast. Referring to it as a “ghost” has traditionally been avoided since it often refers to the spirit of a deceased person. So both the words “spirit” and “ghost” can be traced back to words that had the connotation of the breath, to that life-giving and life-animating principle which we all have. That which breathes is said to be alive; it has life in it. It seems to be related to that “breath of life” that was given originally by “God” to “Adam” in Genesis 2:7,
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshama] of life; and man became a living soul.
The breath of God, breathed into Adam’s nostrils, is said to give him (and in extension us) life and being in the world. “Adam” became a living soul because of this divine breath.
We find this “Holy Spirit” or life-giving principle portrayed in many different traditions throughout history. In Judaism it is often referred to as ruach ha-kodesh (Holy Spirit), that Divine inspiration to which individuals can attune themselves and therefore perceive the Divine. It is also the indwelling revelation of the Divine Presence, or Shekhinah. It is the Divine force of God in the universe and in all creatures. In Islam it is known as the Ruh al-Qudus (Holy Spirit), the agent of Divine action in the world, that creative spirit of God which gave life to Adam, and which inspired the prophets. It is the source of Divine revelation. The phrase al-Qudus refers to “the Holy One” or “the Exalted One.” In Chinese culture it might be known as qi (pronounced “chi”), the vital force that forms a living entity, that animates living beings. It translates as “air” or “breath,” again showing that relationship to breath in other traditions. It is considered that vital life energy or “energy flow” that is thought must be balanced in each human for good health. In Hinduism the concept of Atman might be viewed as related to “Spirit.” The deepest reality of humanity is the spirit-self Atman, and this is not separate from the highest reality, the one cosmic supreme all-pervading spirit Brahman. Seeking to know this deep spirit within is considered one of the classic paths to realization and liberation. Prana also points to this “life force” or “vital principle” that permeates reality, and is also related to the breath. The word Purusha can also be found in Hindu and Vedic philosophy, and is sometimes considered the universal all-pervading Spirit, Self or Consciousness, that is the soul of the universe itself, animating all things, breathing life into matter, the source of consciousness. In Buddhism, the “Spirit” can be compared to the idea of Buddha-nature, that deepest reality that we are which is all-encompassing and universal. It might be compared to the Sambhogakaya of Mahayana Buddhism, that subtle body of limitless form, clear light, and bliss, which helps one apprehend the ultimate Dharmakaya or Absolute Reality, and gain enlightened understanding.
These are clearly not all describing the very same thing in their respective traditions, and they have many differences, yet they all seem to be pointing to something essential in humanity and other forms of life, an ultimate life-giving light or energy that makes us what we are, that forms the reality of our life, even being that thing we call life itself. If there is such a reality in humans and other creatures that gives us life, that makes us conscious beings, then this might be what the “Spirit” is referring to in these various traditions, describing it in a multiplicity of ways.
A New Interpretation
So we can begin to see a new picture emerge of what may be a better interpretation of the “Holy Ghost.” It may not be a separate person entity out there somewhere, but may be the very life-force of our very own self, and that of every other living thing as well. It may be the energy that continually flows through our bodies, from the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe. Our bodies are constantly in the process of transforming the elements of the cosmos, particularly the energy from our sun that is captured through photosynthesis in plants, into energy that our bodies can use to function. In a fundamental way, we are that energy, that energy which gives us life, which “breathes” into our bodies the “spirit” to be living souls, to have consciousness, and to be aware, that actually constructs our flesh and bones and blood. Without that energy, we would be nothing, not having life or consciousness.
I suggest that the “Holy Ghost” is not something separate from us, but is one in us, that which makes us living breathing beings. We are that “Adam” into which “God” “breathed” the “Spirit of Life.” It was God’s own Spirit, or this Cosmos’ own Energy, which was carried into our mother’s womb and developed this body that we now have. And it continues to be this Nature’s Energy which is flowing into us, giving the body growth, life, breath, and energy, even in this moment. This “Spirit” that is in us is not a separate spirit from God’s Spirit, but is the very same Spirit. When we become more aware of this Spirit within us, this life-giving energy in all of Life, then we are filled with joy, love, peace, creativity, and truth. We know the essence of our being, for the energy which animates our organism is not separate from the Cosmos, but is the Cosmos manifesting itself through us, through our body-mind forms.
Sometimes we come to be more aware of this energy in us in a powerful way, such as when we have a deep consciousness-altering event. This energy that upholds our consciousness can appear visually like a fire in our mind’s eye, like a bright light, which seems to purge out all lesser egoic thoughts and concepts of who we think we are from our minds, and we know we are that Light that we see, the pure, holy, complete, perfect Light that makes us conscious beings in the world. That is our true Identity, our true Self. It seems that we are this Spirit, this Light of Christ, this Spirit of God, this Spirit of the Lord. It is the Ground of our Being. As Jesus declared, “ye are the Light of the world [kosmos]” (Matthew 5:14), which mirrors statements about him being this Light (John 8:12, 9:5).
As is often noted, the laying on of hands to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost does not actually give anything, somehow transferring it from the hands to the person, but is an instruction to “receive” this “gift.” It seems to be a symbolic invitation to become aware of the gift of the “Spirit” that is already and always within us, to attune our minds and consciousness towards that miracle that is the energy of Life in us and all sentient creatures, and come into greater harmony with this Life. At times we may become much more aware of the Life in us, and we sense deep and profound feelings of Love, of Truth, a full sense of Being, of excitement, of passion, of emotion, of aliveness. This may be the times we feel we “have the Spirit.” Our egoic consciousness, or self-referential consciousness, has fallen away from our minds, and we are intensely busy fully living Life, fully conscious of the present moment of Life and Being. This is sometimes called “being in the flow.” This is the “Spirit” coming fully alive within us. We are living Life!
Jesus taught, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus’ teaching was to help guide people into realizing their Life, the Life already present in them, this “Spirit of Life,” which is the fundamental Truth of our being in the world, and the fundamental Truth of all beings in the world. It is the same fundamental Truth, the same Spirit, the same Energy. It is God’s Spirit breathing the Life into all things. It is One Spirit, One Energy of the Universe, One Light that burst forth from that Big Bang, which now comes to take on form in our particular body-minds, the Word taking on Flesh in us, and this is our Life and Being in the world. When our egoic consciousness subsides, this separate “self” in consciousness falls away, we see that we are the same One which is being manifested in each and All. We recognize the Spirit in us is One in the “Father” and in the “Son,” which Sons and Daughters we are, that Light of God which takes on the flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bones.
What is the “Holy Ghost”? It may be what we ourselves are in our depths, the light of our consciousness, the energy of our bodies, the truth of our beings. It may be the same One light, energy, and truth that fills all beings in the universe. And we may become directly aware of this through spiritual practices which help us to become more consciously aware, more mindful of reality, more in-tune with our physical bodies and nature. Practices such as meditation help us see past the ego-self of our consciousness, our talkative mind that veils our perception of what is real in us and in reality. It helps to quiet the mind to silence, so that we may see things as they really are, and not as we usually think they are in words, ideas, concepts, “for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are…” (Jacob 4:13; cf. D&C 93:24). We observe carefully, we are mindful, we pay very close attention, and consciousness eventually shifts and opens to seeing things in their true form, true reality, even the truth of our own being. The “veil” parts. Our own “Spirit” reveals the Truth of its nature to us, in us, as us. Denying this “Spirit” may therefore be denying our own Self, which is perhaps why it is called the “unpardonable sin;” God, or Reality, cannot “forgive” us while we deny what we ourselves are in God. In other words, our true Self cannot redeem us from our ego self’s errors and illusions while the ego denies the true Self.
I love these words from Joseph Smith regarding the “Light of Christ”:
This Comforter is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom;
Which glory is that of the church of the Firstborn, even of God, the holiest of all, through Jesus Christ his Son—
He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;
Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made;
As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made;
And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand.
And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;
Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—
The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.Doctrine & Covenants 88:4-13
In my sharing of this new interpretation and reconstruction of these various members of the Godhead, the “Father,” the “Son,” and the “Holy Ghost,” you may have noticed a pattern. The “Father” may be the ultimate Reality of the universe and its formless unmanifest nondual Source. The “Son” may be the ultimate Reality of humans and all beings in this universe, the “Father” becoming embodied, incarnate, formed, manifest, physical, in duality. And the “Holy Ghost” may be the ultimate Reality of the energy in this universe which is what incarnates the “Father” into us as the flesh of our bodies and the energy which gives us Life and Consciousness, therefore begetting the “Son.” They all appear to be different facets of that same ultimate Reality—the “Father” pouring itself out in Love into the “Son” of all creation through the energy of the “Holy Ghost,” and the “Son” pouring its “Spirit” energy out in Love for the “Father,” which is the giving of its Life for all beings and the whole of creation. Ultimately, they are all One divine dance of energy and life and love of God, for God, in God. And we ultimately are that God, that Reality, that Truth, that Being, that Love. We are One.
What are your thoughts about the “Holy Ghost”? Where do you resonate with this reconstruction of the “Holy Ghost” and the “Godhead” narrative? Where do you disagree or have difficulties with it? How do you interpret it differently? Do you think this interpretation makes more sense of the “Holy Ghost” in the world today? Please share your thoughts and ideas with us either here in the comments or on Facebook. I look forward to discussing it with you.
(See the next post in this series about Joseph Smith’s First Vision.)
6 thoughts on “Reconstructing Mormonism’s “Holy Ghost””
I like your interpretation of all 3 members of the Godhead. As a former catholic and current Mormon a I appreciate your perspective. It is more of a mystery than absolute concrete knowledge.
I gave a talk in church a few years ago and explained that within each living person is the Light of Christ represented as a magnet. The Holy Ghost was the corresponding magnet that could bind w our internal magnet and generate heat or awakening or awareness. I agree that it could be an energy source or life source.
There is so much we do not understand and it’s wonderful to contemplate it all.
Thank you Maureen. It is a mystery, even after all this. As with so many spiritual subjects, the best way to know it is to experience it.
Adam is my guess.
And he won’t get a body until the very end. And the Holy Ghost is also a concept too.
Interesting thoughts. Who is Adam in your mind? If the “first man,” did he not already get a body?
Yeah, boy, Bryce. You describe things so much more eloquently than I do, with the etymological support, etc. Yet, it’s like I’m getting the same things in different words. Accessing that oneness, that love, that binding force that animates all things, at the expense of the ego, is the path to eternal life. Once again, the ego stands in the way of “living fully” what we are naturally. When I read what you write, I almost always perceive confirmation of things that I’ve been taught in different way, different words, but ultimately the same concepts, the same truth. I share these confirmations with you because I figure you feel like I do, that we’re on the fringe, and it’s nice to feel united and that others are receiving common things.
Thank you, Scott. Yes, the specific words we use are largely beside the point. Many different words can point to similar or the very same thing, as languages clearly show. All truth eventually leads to One ineffable Truth, a Truth that cannot be put into any words, any concepts. Thank you for sharing your confirmations. It is good to be of one heart and one mind with others.