The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Unity of Spirit

Unity of Spirit

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

There is a lot of talk about polarization and division. There is a lot of evidence, be it research or anecdotal, to point to in support of all the talk. The common line is something like, “We are more divided than we ever have been in our history.” It is easy to point to politics to see this sentiment played out. It is as if no one is even trying to listen to each other. Everyone comes with what they want to get done and their strategy of how to make that happen. Any hinderance is an obstacle meant to be overcome. Any support comes from an ally. There is nothing in between.

Thankfully there are a few organizations that, in their own way, are trying to bridge the gap between ally and enemy – some with language (Starts With Us + Braver Angels) and some through the arts (like Gangstagrass). What is behind each one of these efforts is a particular vision for what unity actually looks like.

If you know me, you know that I go to extremes – at least in my thinking. Going to extremes helps me sift through distractions, dodge settling for lesser goals, and continually challenges my imagination. Envisioning extreme evil helps me be thankful for all that isn’t happening in the world, and not be surprised if it actually is found in reality. Envisioning extreme goodness helps me imagine what life could be, even if the world around me isn’t organized to help me towards it. Visions, after all, is what is first required for any change to occur. That said, if we are experiencing a kind of extreme division, a necessary balance is at least a vision of extreme unity.

Extreme Unity is Unity of Spirit

To work this out we must first define the word “spirit.” One way, proposed by Dallas Willard, is that spirit is unbodily personal power. It doesn’t need a body to exist, but exists in every body. It is personal as in having a particular character or persona about it. It is power. It is the thing that enlivens us and that initiates action. Other words for spirit might be “will,” or in an ancient sense, “heart.” Every person has a spirit and it is that spirit that holds our wants and desires, initiates action towards the fulfillment of those wants and desires, and for the follower of Jesus Christ, may be fundamentally transformed into the likeness of the Spirit of God (or Holy Spirit).

Saying that a fundamental change of spirit is possible is a radical proposition. Most would settle for a change in behavior. I mention this idea here because it is important to know that someone over the course of human history has proposed that this is possible. You and I can become different kinds of people – not just people who can control their actions. At least that’s what Jesus was talking about. But I digress.

We should also talk about what unity means. It can mean being together. It might mean “of the same kind,” although it doesn’t have to mean “being part of the same thing.” Unity has something to do with connection and being connected, either physically, in thought (being of the same mind), or in spirit.

There are many examples of what unity might look like. For example, the idea of marriage as two people becoming one is a vision of a kind of unity. The idea of having a common goal – with commitment and effort put towards that goal – as we see in sports is a kind of unity. The bonds of love in certain families and communities are a kind of unity.

What Does Unity of Spirit Actually Look Like?

Unity of spirit is a connection between persons at the deepest level. It means that the persons who are unified want the same things and act towards them, which means they share visions, too. They are willing to exert effort towards the things they say they want. And may even have similar ways of seeing the world around them and the path they are to take to achieve their desires. Unity of spirit makes for a lot of trust, fast (although not hurried) movement, and quick adaptation. Individuals who are unified in spirit don’t necessarily take the same actions (they are of course different people), but they act towards the fulfillment of the same vision.

How Do I Know This?

There are two examples of unity of spirit that I hold on to. Both are from my life. One I have seen replicated, the other not so much. First the replicable example.

I founded and directed a tap dance company for 10 years in New York City. We produced shows and toured as Cats Paying Dues. In order for the company to execute, everyone had to share the same vision. They had to want to perform to a particular standard, exerting effort to work through the choreography and learn whatever skills they may have been lacking. Members of the company came to understand that the rehearsal room for Cats Paying Dues was a place of learning. Everyone there wanted to become the kind of dancer required to fulfill the vision of the body of work.

The company required a unity of spirit. The spirit required was one of openness to deep learning, even transformation. This would bring with it the imagination to take on a different kind of vision, and the poise and discipline to exert effort towards it. Every member who entered the room responded to this call in different ways. A few took the learning personally and took on the vision as completely as they could. Others rose to the occasion for the moment while holding to their own ideas. They could execute well, but the body of work didn’t stay with them. Still others did not seem to want to adapt, their own ideas were stronger than the ideas in the room.

When the room was humming the unity of spirit could literally be felt through the dancing. When things weren’t working – when friction was evident – I would take inventory around what members actually wanted. Most of the time it was resistance to the call of the room – they just wanted something different – that was causing the friction.

Second, the example I’ve never seen replicated. My mom and dad presented a dramatically unified front to me, especially when I was a kid. I noticed this first around the age that I realized that there was strategy to be found in getting what I wanted – the age that asking the right question to the right parent at the right time becomes an actual thought. For example, if I wanted to play a particular game, I might think, “Maybe dad’s the better person to ask, but only before dinner.” Part of working out my strategy for getting what I wanted included thinking that if one parent said no, I could go and ask the other parent. I remember clearly how this worked itself out, although I don’t remember a specific example. I would ask dad about something I wanted, and he would say, “No.” I would then go and ask mom, and she would say, “No.” I would ask mom if she had talked to dad about this, and she would say, “No, why do you ask?” I would respond with something like, “Because I just asked dad, and he said no, too. Did you talk about this before hand?” And my mom would say something like, “No, we just both believe the same thing.” Namely that whatever it was that I was asking for wouldn’t be good for me. I tried the strategy a couple different times before I gave up on it altogether. Never once did I ask my mom something and she say, “What did your dad say?” Or vice versa. They both just always had the same answer.

It was uncanny.

So How Do We Get Unity of Spirit?

Unity of spirit cannot be achieved by coming together and saying, “Okay folks, we are going to pursue unity of spirit.” Doing this makes unity of spirit an imposed outcome – we start to aim for behaviors that would prove the outcome, rather than the transformation that makes the behaviors the natural output of the people involved. Instead, unity of spirit comes indirectly, from a process of spiritual formation undertaken by every individual in the group seeking unity. This allows the outcome of unity to be unforced, not imposed, and natural. The effort is set in the direction of sharpening each others vision, supporting each other’s spiritual formation, and encouraging patience and perseverance towards an outcome that all would be waiting for.

For followers of Jesus, spiritual formation is a specific endeavor in which an individual entrusts their person (even their life) to Jesus as their teacher – the smartest person there is when it comes to people matters. Through the intuitive act of following, becoming like one’s teacher, in apprenticeship, the spirit of the student is transformed into a spirit in the likeness of Jesus Christ. The transformation of one’s spirit does not happen through direct action – as if anyone could transform their own spirit by their own effort. Rather it happens through indirect action – doing what we can to position ourselves to be more easily transformed. In all of this it is Jesus who is the vision, who frames reality, and who is the model of the outcome. The more one engages in this process, the more they will resonate – and find unity – with others who are also on the journey.

And a journey it is. Spiritual transformation is one of the slowest and most powerful processes I’ve ever endured and witnessed. It is amazing to see someone really change, and yet it takes longer than any other process. And here again, we land at extremes – fundamental change in the deepest part of the person (as opposed to anything less) and an complete trust in the process (and the person guiding the process). If we aim for this kind of extreme transformation and the outcome never comes about, at least we would have tried for the greatest shift towards unity possible. Aim for something less and I suspect that we can trust to see the same kinds of division and polarization we’ve been living with for generations to come.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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