[T]he ancients, knowing nothing about vaporisation, drew an absolute line between solids and liquids on the one hand and what we call gases on the other. The name they gave to what we call gas was spiritus (Latin), pneuma (Greek) or ruach and neshama (Hebrew). In each case the word could mean air, breath or wind. The ancients thought of the wind as the breath of God.
So when the Hebrews offered their account of the world’s origin, they said the powerful wind (ruach) of God fluttered over the waters. And when they told of the origin of humankind, they said that God made humans out of the dust of the earth, breathed his gentle breath (neshama) into them and they became living persons. Further, it was as obvious to ancients as it is to us that the best way of distinguishing between a living person and a corpse is to look for breath— for a living person breathes. Breath was believed to be the very essence of what constitutes a living human being, and thus the very principle of life. But for the ancients breath, air and wind were all the same. When a man dies, said Ecclesiastes, “the dust returns to the earth and the breath returns to God”. When Jesus died on the cross, according to Luke, he said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit (pneuma)” and, “having said this he breathed his last”. Of course we are used to hearing the word ‘spirit’ in one place and ‘breath’ in the other, but in the Greek original the same word, pneuma, is used. Similarly in the King James Version (still nearer to the medieval world-view than we are) Matthew reports that “Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost (pneuma)”.
During the transition to the modern world people continued to speak about spirit without realising that they were no longer talking about something originally conceived to be as tangible as the air we breathe. Christians continued to speak of God as spirit and referred to what they called the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers continued to expound the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (where being born again of the spirit is described in terms of the blowing of the wind), but failed to draw attention to the fact that in this story the same word is sometimes translated ‘wind’ and sometimes ‘spirit’.
Only slowly has it dawned upon us that in talking about spirit we are talking about something far less substantial than wind or the air that we breathe. Indeed, spirit has no substance at all. It has become a purely abstract term that has no external referent. It continues in usage as a frozen metaphor from a now obsolete worldview, and its only possible meaning is a metaphorical or symbolic one. Conservative Christians continue to speak about the Holy Spirit, the power of the spirit and so on, as if it were an oozy something that operates like the wind. Without being wholly aware of the fact, they live in the medieval world for religious purposes and return to the modern world for the mundane business of daily living.
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic