Do you have soul?

Do you have soul? 

I imagine that most Christians believe they have a soul.  I imagine most believers of all faiths believe in the soul, though what they mean by the term “soul” varies considerably.  Surprising then is how unclear the concept of the soul is within Christianity itself.  The Bible has two different accounts of the fate of the soul, and attempts to reconcile them are clumsy.

Some passages of the Bible suggest that when you die, your soul goes immediately to heaven.  Jesus promised this to the thief hanging on the cross beside him when he says “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)  At other times, Jesus referred to resurrection as ῇ ἀναστάσει, which most likely refers to the raising up of the dead at the end of the present age (Matthew. 22:29-33). 

Other books of the Bible emphasize the resurrection of the body. 

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43) 

The resurrection of the body at the end of days is so central to Christianity that it is included in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. 

How these two views are reconciled.

The usual way these two views are reconciled is:

  • Our soul goes immediately to heaven, where it resides in the Lord’s presence.
  • Our body is buried until the day of resurrection.
  • When Christ returns, we will be raised bodily from the grave.
  • Body and soul reunited, we will be with the Lord forever.

It works but it’s clumsy.

I used to think the resurrection of the body was a weird idea.  I still do, but I see its advantages.  It is frequently argued that the Christian concept of the soul came from Plato, for whom the soul (psyche) is separate from the body, and always longing to be free of the body. 

Plato has Socrates’ last words as these.

Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.  Pay our debt and no forgetting. (Phaedo 118 a-b)

Socrates wasn’t delirious from the poison he had been forced to drink.  Asclepius was the god of healing.  When a person who had been ill recovered, it was traditional to make an offering to the god.  Socrates is saying that embodied life is itself like an illness.  Health is the separation of the soul from the body, so that it can consort with the eternal Ideas, or forms (eidos).  It’s not difficult to see how Plato was Christianized (or was Christianity Platonized?).

Embodiment

The advantage of emphasizing the resurrection of the body is that it asserts the value of the body and its experiences.  The soul is not body, but it is distributed throughout the body so that soul experience is body experience (though not just body experience), which was roughly Aristotle’s view (De anima, 408b, 414a).   It’s not difficult to see how Saint Augustine baptized Aristotle, so to speak. 

Too often Christianity has been directed against the body, as though bodily needs, pleasures, and desires are bad.  The embodied soul reminds us that we are not just our bodies, but we are also our bodies. 

What is the soul? 

From one perspective, the soul is just me: my sense of myself as a continuous entity over time, including my hopes, loves, and dreams.  The ancient Greek term for soul, psyche (ψυχή), lends itself to this psyche-logical perspective. 

George McDonald made the wise remark, “You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”  Personhood is not based on having a body.  A soul is required.  Consider the physicist Stephen Hawking.  His body is almost useless; he communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device.  Perhaps his body is a burden, but no one would question his rich personhood. 

What’s God got to do with it?

The problem with making personhood the defining dimension of the soul is that the soul is left to itself.  If I am my soul, what’s God got to do with it?  Is he just a judge sitting on a white throne waiting to send me to heaven or hell? (Revelation 20:11-15) 

I think it makes more sense to see our souls as merged with God at the same time as he breathed the breath of life into us. (Genesis 2:7).  Pneuma (πνεῦμα), breath, is another word for soul.

Our souls do not belong to God, or if they do then we have the power to make them our own.  But exercising this power is risky business, for we will have exiled ourselves from the presence that unites the universe.  

Ashes to stardust

That the soul is sacred, shared in some way with God, does not mean that it is immortal in any personal sense.  It will soon be Ash Wednesday, and we are reminded that we are mere mortals, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as it says in the Book of Common Prayer.  The committal continues “in sure and certain hope of resurrection unto eternal life.” 

I’m not exactly what “sure and certain hope” is.  If it’s certain, then it’s not hope.  If it’s not certain, then it’s just hope.  I think it should run like this, “ashes to ashes, dust to stardust.” 

We are stardust is not just a line from Joni Mitchell at Woodstock.  Astrophysicists agree.

Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes. (Iris Schrijver)

At death we return to the basic elements of which we are made, and the cycle starts all over again.  Our souls are sacred, an expression of the One who made it all, but the soul is not personal.  It is what we share with God and the universe.    

Do I know this?  Of course not.  It’s just a likely story, but one that has soul.

References

Karel Schrijver and Iris Schrijver, Living with the stars: How the human body is connected to the life cycles of the earth, the planets, and the stars.  Oxford University Press, 2015. 

4 thoughts on “Do you have soul?”

  1. The title reminded me of “soul music”.Then I thought of Keats

    * * *

    Keats argued that any attempts to improve one’s life still end in death—a fate that he acknowledged as unbearable without some notion of redemption. And yet he rejected the idea of the afterlife or religious salvation—those, in his view, devalue the act of suffering, because they serve no creative purpose and teach nothing to the human individual.

    Instead, he referred to the raw material of a soul as an “intelligence.” All humans have (or are) an intelligence, but they’re not considered souls until they develop an individual identity. Soul creation takes place over the span of many years and requires two components—the human heart and the world of feverish suffering—comprising a process that Keats likens to an education:

    I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways.

  2. Kathryn, I read the Keats quote, and my reaction is yes, suffering is necessary to build the soul (psyche), but without some sense of transcendence, the beautiful soul we will have built will vanish in dust and ashes forever. Is that all there is? My next post, on the psychology of God (or some such title) addresses this is more detail. It should be up in a day or two.

    I think negative capability in general is a great idea, but the idea that true genius, or at least being really smart, requires the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time sounds more like schizoid experience. Seriously, I think over time one ought to be able to tease it all out, as in “I like this about idea A, but this about idea B.”

    Still, these are deep waters, and my comments are just a beginning. Fred

  3. Off the top of my head, I think paradox and uncertainty might be more a part of being a poet or artist as opposed to a scholar or a scientist who weighs things up and chooses what they think is the better option
    I believe it is also connected to time.If we are too urgent in seeking the answer [ finishing the poem ] we will not tolerate the uncertainty until gradually we get a clearer idea of what our answer will be[ what is the best symbol ormetaphor for an artist/writer.
    And you know it’s true in friendship and love.We have times of doubt and if we can’t bear it long enough[ in all senses] we may destroy the relationship
    I think this is why someone said to me that men don’t like very needy women who don’t give them space and vice versa
    I don’t think that negative capability is to maintain two differing viewpoints or ideas forever.Though some of us do get locked into rumination which is destructive and perhaps the worst mistake we ever make.
    And as a mathematician I am aware of struggling with a problem for hours, going to bed and dreaming the answer or wakening knowing a better approach.
    Can it be acknowledging something in us other than the conscious self which can’t be controlled by our will power.Lesley Farber wrote a book called,The way of the will.He thought willing what can’t be willed is the source of anxiety [ not to mention nuclear weapons and mad politicians]
    I am in doubt about the soul being everlasting although after all our struggles with pain and anxiety and war that we might just vanish.It might make it seem pointless but we must do it for the sake of others and the next generation.I believe the students you taught were influenced by your being and they pass itb on to others as they live so your soul is already spread over some of the world.Webs of connection which never die
    Kathryn

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