Psyche, Meet Pneuma

Genesis 1:2 describes what it was like in the beginning, when the earth was a dark, watery void.  It was formless, empty, and deep. The Message says that “earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”

The author of this creation poem paints a picture of a place devoid of life. Soupy. Dark. Empty. Like an abyss.  But the same verse says that the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the chaos. Which is important to note, because it means that the watery void of nothingness wasn’t all there was. There was more. God was present in the very midst of this barren, soggy, soiled wasteland, and when God spoke, something shifted. Light and life and form and order came into the dark, watery blackness.

Cosmos entered the chaos.

The Spirit in the Greek version of this text is called pneuma, which translates as breath. It was the breath of God that hovered over the lifeless void, the breath that animated the dark waters with a life it had not yet known. The Spirit was the catalyst for life in the space of that which was not-life.  There is an interesting linguistic link between pneuma and another Greek word, psyche, which in ancient Greek philosophy meant “the breath of life.” It loosely translates to English as “soul” and is the root of the word “psychology.” But it wasn’t limited to the mind as it is in popular psychology today.  The ancient understanding of was capacious. It was the energy that animated all of life, a person’s deep, mysterious core essence. They differentiated between that which was living and breathing and that which was lifeless—between the animate and the inanimate, between life and not-life.

So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about more than just the mind. We are talking about a lot more than Dr. Phil, psychotherapy, anti-depressants, Freud, and Hollywood stars who had bad childhoods. Because the psyche is as much about the soul as it is the mind. Psychology is as much about the Spirit as it is about laying on a psychoanalyst’s couch while an old man with a white beard takes notes.

This creation story at the beginning of Genesis is the first time in the Biblical canon that we hear about the soul. And the soul has something to do with breath and creation and the transformation of darkness and chaos into light and form. So when we talk about psychology, we are actually talking about creation. This story of creation that the Hebrew scriptures begin with is a poetic rendition of the creative movement of God. It is about order (cosmos) infiltrating disorder (chaos). The earth was devoid of life and the Spirit was present to this space of void and darkness which was all that was in existence. Into this space of not-life the Sprit brought something fresh and new and glorious. This creative act was the divine breath infiltrating the dark formlessness and infusing it with life, something the earth had not yet known. The old gave way to the new by the breath of God. And that is what the Spirit does, hovers over the spaces of not-life, renewing and enlivening and animating. Psychology is about this new life infiltrating the spaces of brokenness and darkness within us. So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about the creation of something fresh and new.

In telling the story of God’s first creative movement that initiated the life of the cosmos, Genesis is also speaking to a broader pattern of life emerging in darkness. Just as God hovered over the lifeless void in the beginning, God is hovering over us, over the dark places of wounds and trauma that we have experienced, the spaces of shame and contempt that keep us locked into patterns of harm and abuse, bidding us entrance into the chaos of our own selves.  Just as the Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters, so too does the Spirit hover over the chaos of our lives, the darkness and pain that reside deep within us. It is from here, from this understanding, that psychology transcends the standard therapeutic box in which it has been placed and becomes a central tenet of the Biblical narrative—of the the story of God’s ongoing work of redemption, restoration and renewal of all things.

According to Genesis, psychology is all about a God that initiates life in the spaces of pain, void and darkness in our own lives. When we enter into the territory of the psyche and the unconscious, we are stepping into the sacred terrain of the soul, a space inhabited by shadow and light, repressed pain and dramatic bliss, harm and beauty. As He did in the beginning at creation, God is inviting movement into greater life wholeness, within the world and within each and every one of us.  It is the Spirit, in the beginning as now, who brings life to spaces of not-life while inviting us into the same. This is something we can do with the assurance of knowing that the Spirit never hovered in judgment and condemnation, but rather in desire for life to the full.

Engaging psychologically with our own personal narratives, especially the places where harm has been done, is a necessary task, especially if we are to engage in mission practices that are healthy for ourselves and people who dwell in the margins of the global village. People who are forced to live in the economic inequality, the short end of misaligned economic policy of global superpowers, in the chaos and darkness of poverty, injustice, and death.  We cannot enter well the darkness of those dwelling in poverty if we have not first replied to the Spirit’s invitation to enter our own.

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