Sunday, December 25, 2011

Catechism of the Soul

One of my favorite jokes about Unitarians is this:  a Unitarian dies and takes the elevator up to Heaven.  When he exits, he sees a signpost with two references:  one points left and says, “Heaven.”  He other points right and says, “Discussion of Heaven.”  Being Unitarian, guess which way he goes? 

I wonder if we could create a similar joke about souls.  Our visions of souls are probably much more diverse than they are of heaven.  Maybe the joke should start out:  There is a shop with the word, “Souls” above the door.  If you walked in and looked among the tables and bins and racks, what would you expect to find?  We are familiar with a variety of soul concepts, such as the soul present at birth (or before) that lingers beyond our death as a ghost or in heaven or hell.  We also know such party line concepts from various religious and secular traditions as immortality, reincarnation, moral beacon, spark of divinity, connection to the universe, and personality, or conscience, or life force.  Many of these definitions ascribe divine like attributes to the soul. 

What I’d like to do this morning is crack our respective definitions with the tap of some very basic questions.  Did any of you have to memorize  long lists of questions and definitive answers as part of catechism in Sunday School?  Let’s try that.  If you believe that the soul is X, then what are the implications of your definition.  For example, can the soul evolve from the efforts of the individual or external forces or is static and complete?    

We can consider the topic of the soul from virtually any point on the theological map.  If you are a Humanist, for example, at what point do humans develop a soul, however you define it (perhaps as personality, conscience, or cognition).  Does the soul grow and change like the rest of us, and if so, how should an ethical society address the resulting variability?

If you are a theist, when does God endow humans with souls?.  Is it at birth or death or other points along life’s continuum?  Are all souls the same?

In early Jewish writings, the spirit of God was a powerful wind, the Ruach Elohim.  The ruach of a human was breath given him by God, as in the creation story when God creates man out of clay and then breathes life into him.  The loss of this breath equals death, so the human spirit, or soul, was simply and powerfully our life force, framed by birth and death.  Later Jewish writings more rigorously segregated life of the body and the existence of a separate soul. 

Like the Jews, the Greeks regarded psyche, translated as soul, as this vital force that leaves us at death, but by about 400 BC, Plato attributed inspiration and art and ecstasy to this psyche.  Later, in the century before Jesus, the Jewish Saducees believed in the immortality of the human soul, a view that Jesus adopted, too.  

The Medieval Jewish theologian Maimonides envisioned the soul as the source of five activities which we tend to separate as physical, mental and emotional.  He saw the soul as the repository of nutritional need, sensation, imagination, emotion, and rationality.   His model is especially intriguing in this way:  Our immortality depends on the quality of or life.  By exercising free will well or poorly, we determine our own immortality or extinction.  I rather like that.  Later theologians defined living well as we would expect: moral action and loving God. 

Hinduism and Buddhism contend that matter is illusory and Soul is reality.  To Hindus, all reality is within Brahma, or Ultimate reality.  Our soul is our connection to this broader reality, and it is only in exercising our souls through meditation, study, prayer, action, that perceive this veiled reality. 

The early Christian Church and its theologians were surprisingly uninterested in the soul as we conceive of it today.  Their big concern was free will and divine grace.  This was an active tug of war since humans were seen as basically sinful, if left to our own devices.  It was God’s gift of grace that elevates us from this lowly state.  Catholicism, Orthodoxy churches, and Protestantism variously described the execution of this grace, through the seven sacraments, personal action, or just Jesus’s sacrificial death.

The Holy Spirit is probably the least clear member of the Trinity, Christianity’s name for God, but its 20th century incarnation appears to be that divine spark within, or that communication from God to us individually.  When people have a peak religious experience, such as a conversion experience, the Holy Spirit has entered them.

The prevailing Christian view is that people have souls as long as they live and afterward, too.  However, this position was not always held, even for Christ.

The early ecumenical councils held contentious battles about the nature of his divinity: Was he 1/2 man, 1/2 god?  Were those components differentially discernible? For example, was he God when he was performed miracles and man when he was hurt or hungry? At what point did he become divine? Timing was narrowed down to three "finalists": at baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him, at death, when the heavens opened up, and at birth, which finally became the orthodox view.  The apocryphal gospels are fascinating because of their heavy handed ways of advocating for one interpretation or another, as are the contorted stories about Mary's own miraculous birth (to render her body worthy to carry the Christ child).   

By extension then, is our parentage important to our souls' health and development?  If you harbor a psychological interpretation of soul, you would probably argue yes.  Certainly there are individuals and families that are markedly more soulful, spiritual than others.  A theist would deny a parental role, I assume.  Do we differentially distinguish our souls from our humanity? Most UU's favor a more holistic view, but I would be interested in hearing from any of you who would separate those threads of being.

In Genesis, the soul correlates to a specialized, moral knowledge that humans lack and then gain. Although God can prevent Adam and Eve from accessing the Tree of Life, He cannot remove the wisdom they have already gained from the other tree. Western educators have argued since Rousseau about whether children's minds are tabulae rasae, or blank slates, to be filled by parents and teachers, or whether children have some inherent knowledge that can be educed, or brought out, by good teaching. Does this suggest that infants and small children lack souls? Not so long ago, Catholic doctrine held that unbaptized babies went to Limbo, unable to enter heaven, but certainly not evil enough to visit hell.  Perhaps the soul develops a bit at a time as we gain knowledge of good and evil, along a moral development model.  In such a case, we could conceive of children, and adults, with larger and smaller souls, just as we distinguish between strength and intellect. 

Our legal system appears to argue this point frequently in criminal cases.  If a murderer cannot distinguish good from evil, cannot understand that the murder was wrong, he is punished differently than one who can.  States with a death penalty, such as ours, for example, cannot impose it.  In a rather nice irony, a criminal who "has become like one of us, with his knowledge of good and evil," can be put to death, and one who has not "become like one of us, with his knowledge of good and evil" will live.

What about animals?  My belief in souls is shaky enough for me to dismiss the idea that animals have them, and Genesis's version would certainly leave little room for them either. However, Genesis begs a certain question: what about beings that never act evilly?  If animals act on instinct with neither evil knowledge nor intention, they may lack this definition of soul but that does not impose any hierarchical ranking of goodness, does it?  Which is morally superior, to know the difference between good and evil and behave badly, or to not know the difference between good and evil and behave well?

There have been a number of interesting studies of animals, particularly animals with higher cognitive functions, such as apes, whales, and dolphins,  that document not only language and humor, which many of us know, but also what appear to be senseless acts of violence, such as murder unrelated to territory, hierarchy or family unit, and rape.

Given this variety of positions, what is your definition of soul?  I’ll tell you my working definition: for each individual, the soul mirrors what s/he perceives God to be. For those who believe that God is immortal, the soul probably is, too.  For those who believe that God is nature and all within it, then soul is our connection to that all around us.  For atheists, it is those aspects of our personality that are not chemically or organically defined, like talent or inspiration.  So as you consider one of your positions, such as “soul” think about other positions that may intertwine, such as “God” and mind, body, soul interconnections.    

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