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Is race to culture as soul is to spirit?

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When ideas are confusing, it's often productive to subdivide thoughts into their component parts, and examine each component separately. Once you examine each component's attributes, and how they relate to the other components of the thought in question, clarity will often avail itself.

A while back, while "subdividing my thoughts", I noticed an apparent parallel: "race" seems to be commonly conflated with "culture", and in a similar way, "soul" seems to be commonly conflated with "spirit" ("conflate" means to blur two categories into one, when perhaps they are best kept separate). Since these types of confusion often beget anguish (especially in the race/culture pair), it seemed that I ought to unpackage these thoughts and share them in the hope that more clarity might somehow beget peace.

To illustrate this, a bit of philosophical lingo is in order. In philosophy, "essential" properties are unchanging, immutable characteristics, whereas "accidental" properties are "mutable" (changeable). In this context, "accidental" doesn't "by accident"; it just means "not necessary". For example, a dog is essentially a canine, but accidentally a good frisbee catcher. Her ability to catch the frisbee wasn't essential (if her master had never taught her how to, she wouldn't catch frisbees). If we subtract the canineness, however, she is no longer a dog.

Now let's look at the terms "soul" and "spirit". Most people see these two items as the same thing, but that view has always seemed problematic to me, as they are listed as separate things in several Bible passages, and apparently contrasted (i.e. 1 Corinthians 15: 44: "it is sown a natural (soulish) body, it is raised a spiritual (Holy-Spirit-led) body..."). After doing some Biblical word studies in the Hebrew and Greek, I noticed that the term "soul" ("psychikos") is usually used as if it describes an immaterial yet essential part of human beings. "Spirit" ("pneumatikos"), on the other hand, is generally used to describe accidental (transient) properties.

It's as if souls are containers, and spirits are the substance which occupies the containers. This understanding also corresponds to the different types of spirit described in scripture: "evil spirits", "unclean spirits", "a spirit of slavery", "a deaf and mute spirit", "a spirit of adoption", "a spirit of divination", "the spirit and power of Elijah", "The Holy Spirit" (a composite of supreme properties: "The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord" -- Isaiah 11: 2), etc.

To be fair, there are a few cases where the word for "spirit" refers to a person, post-death, but that doesn't seem problematic to me. I think that at death we "inherit" whatever spirit God knows is appropriate (hopefully as close to pure Holy Spirit as possible) given how we lived our lives. From that point forward, it seems, soul and spirit are "unified", and can be described by either word.

Now let's look at race and culture. I have mostly German "blood". Following WWII, the harsh Nazi stereotype became associated with Germans. It's been the fodder of jokes ever since -- I just watched SNL mock Angela Merkel on this basis -- yet I know dozens of people (including myself) who are German who have not one iota of Nazi tendency. The little excursion into Nazism some eight decades ago was a cultural phenomenon -- not a racial phenomenon. It wasn't caused by folks being German, but by a certain cultural mindset that grew like a yeast infection among certain people, for a certain time. As a man with mostly German blood, I can assure you that these properties are accidental -- not essential. Do you see the parallel with soul and spirit?

Let's try another one: the "Gangsta Rap" culture is a repulsive, destructive cluster of behavioral patterns that is frequently linked with young African-Americans, yet I know dozens of African-Americans who have no interest in Gangsta Rap. On the other hand, little insecure white boys like Eminem have adopted it wholesale (I just watched him re-affirm that on SNL earlier this evening complete with crotch-grabbing -- tragic). Eminem is not alone. Like any other off-the-rack culture, it unfortunately can be and is being adopted by young and naive people across the planet. Unlike many other cultures, it guides its adherents into bragging, materialism, threatening, idolatry, pimping, ho-ing, thievery, rape and murder.

The law of Inertia says that "objects at rest stays tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion". Cultural orientations seem to follow the same patterns as inertia (albeit for non-physical reasons). As human beings, our cultural "default" will tend to be that of our parents' culture (which is really an aggregate of features from countless previous cultures). Although some of us lurch away from that in adolescence, or later, at least until we feel "sovereign", "cultural interia" will tend to keep us roughly the same, culturally.

It's tempting to think that there is a link between culture and race, but the link is illusory. We need to keep in mind the axiom "correlation is not causation". There may have been a 100% correlation between Nazism and millions of Germans in about 1938, but not one iota of it was essential (or racial) -- this was a case of cultural inertia.

Germany made some major mistakes in the years leading up to WWII, and bitterness, economic problems and unemployment led to an unfortunate openness to oversimplified solutions, and scapegoating. The long series of bad decisions (and repeated lies) was such that the young people of that time had not been exposed to much else, and trusted the charismatic Fuhrer promising "hope and change".

This brings to the surface the importance of questioning authority (within reason). We are all born with a conscience, and thus we have responsibility in this regard. The fact that some people become adept at ignoring their conscience is immaterial. The Nuremberg Trials following WWII reminded us that even if 100% of your culture -- including authority figures -- orders you to commit atrocities, if you commit atrocities, you're still guilty.

It's unfortunate that some cultures have developed which more resemble cesspools of depravity than communities in which children ought to be raised. Whatever culture any of us "adopt" however, at any time, is something for which we bear responsibility. Just as with spirits, we are the gate-keepers for whatever culture enters our life. This thesis can be easily proved by looking at the counter-examples: myself, Heidi Klum and Boris Becker (German "blood" -- no Nazism); Dr. Shelby Steele, Dr. Ben Carson and Senator Tim Scott (African-American "blood" -- no Gangsta Rap).

To recap, let's be clear; race and culture are overlapping categories, but they are not the same thing. Some of what is called "racism" is not actually a disgust with particular races, but with particular cultures (which may be manifested in any race). When somebody is disgusted by rap culture, it does not make them racist any more than being disgusted by Nazi culture does. Presuming that particular races are intrinsically drawn to any particular culture -- rather than "accidentally" drawn towards them (often through cultural inertia) -- is a fallacy.

Steve J. Williams is the author of the book What Your Atheist Professor Doesn't Know (But Should)

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