It’s probably an understatement to say theologians, philosophers, and now neuroscientists and psychologists have been fascinated with the idea of the human soul since the beginning. Many of us have a passing familiarity with any number of the different ways humans think and talk about the soul. Because human beings exist in such a wide variety of global locations, it’s fair to say, where we find a community of humans, we find a parallel co-existing variety of cultural traditions, religions, spiritual practices, and all-encompassing philosophies which have helped humans analyze, contextualize, and even dogmatize their ideas and beliefs about the human soul.
A cursory glace at this variety of ideas and philosophies about the soul, reveals to us the always-astounding and beautifully creative-capacity for meaning-making for which the human brain is hard-wired, for example:
In the Bahá’i Tradition, the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality… and mystery (even the most gifted) mind (can probably never) unravel. The most revered Bahá’i teacher, Bahá’u’lláh, taught the soul not only continues to live after the physical death of the human body, it is in fact immortal. *
In the Hindu tradition, the Sanskrit term ‘Atman’ means inner-self or soul and, in the Vedanta school, it is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena. **
In the Islamic tradition, the Quran uses two words to refer to the soul: rūh (translated as pneuma or soul); and nafs (translated as self, ego, psyche or soul). The two terms are frequently used interchangeably, and rūh usually denotes the divine spirit or ‘breath of life;’ and nafs denotes one’s disposition or characteristics. ***
In the Jewish tradition, the soul is believed to have been given by God to Adam; and the quality of one’s soul is related to one’s performance of the commandments and reaching higher levels of understanding, and thus closeness to God. Judaism embraces the commemoration of the day of one’s death and not the birthday; for only toward the end of life’s struggles, tests and challenges can human souls be judged and credited for righteousness. ****
In the Christian tradition, the 5th century theologian, Augustine, described the soul as ‘a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body.’ Some subsequent theologians believe humans consist of body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). However, the majority of Biblical scholars contend the concepts of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are used interchangeably.
In the New Testament Paul writes, “The body wars against the soul…. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit… and I buffet my body, to keep it under control.”
In the teachings of the Catholic church, the term ‘soul’ refers to the innermost aspect of (a person); that which is of greatest value in (them); that by which they are most especially in God’s image: the soul signifies the spiritual principle in (humanity).
Generally speaking, Protestants believe in the existence of the soul, but fall into two major camps about what this means in terms of an afterlife. In Calvinist thought, the soul is immortal and its consciousness exists after physical death. In the Luther line of thought, the soul has mortality, but upon physical death, there is an unconscious ‘sleep’ until the resurrection of the dead.’ ****
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our Mormon friends and neighbors, believe the soul is the union of a pre-exiting God-made spirit and a temporal body, which is formed by physical conception on earth. ****
And if this isn’t enough variety for you, we can turn to our favorite tradition: Unitarian Universalism. I think for many UUs, a one-size-fits-all type of belief system doesn’t really work, and so maybe UUs are ‘all of the above’ philosophers. Some call us ‘cherry pickers’ because we like to pick and choose which parts of other traditions resonate with us individually. Personally, I think it’s ok to pick and choose, but we must do so with respect, intellectual honesty, and teach ourselves to articulate why we are drawn to any specific aspect of any specific tradition.
But I would caution, if you want to ‘cherry pick,’ please do your homework and be prepared to articulate the whys and wherefores of the personalized theology you end up creating for yourself.
Which also brings us to the other important thing when we’re talking about a theology of the soul. Until the advent of modern science, the existence and description of the soul were within the purview of religion and so the existence of a soul was pretty much a given. But today, a big part of this age-old discussion has come to include the question, does a ‘soul’ even actually exist?
I think it was Aristotle who laid the groundwork for this philosophical opening. Aristotle was fascinated with the human body and how all its parts worked together. He too got to thinking, what it is about the living energy that flows through the body and mind?
Aristotle defined the soul as the ‘first actuality’ of a naturally organized body, and he argued against its separate existence from the physical body. In Aristotle’s view, the primary activity, or full actualization, of a living thing constitutes its soul. For Aristotle, the soul is the organization of the form and matter of a natural being which allows it to strive for its full actualization.
Some scholars argue Aristotle saw the soul as a mortal whole and so it died when the body died. Other scholars argue Aristotle recognized a part of the soul as the ‘active intellect’ or ‘active mind,’ which is immortal and eternal. Even though this academic argument has never been resolved, it is clear Aristotle contended the soul is what helps humans find truth; and at the same time, he argued understanding the true purpose and the role of the soul is extremely difficult.
Because I embrace a Unitarian Universalist philosophy, I tend to ground my beliefs about the human soul in science first and metaphysics second. Regarded as the father of early modern medicine, Ibn Sina, is often known in the West as Avicenna. Influenced by Aristotle’s philosophy, Avicenna is one of the most important, but unrecognized, physician/astronomers/thinkers and writers within the Islamic Golden Age – the 8th to the 14th Centuries.
At the risk of over-simplifying his brilliance, what I understand about Avicenna’s philosophy is this: he further elaborated upon Aristotelian understanding of the soul. They both made distinction between the soul and the spirit, and Avicenna articulated the idea that the immortality of the soul is a consequence of its nature, and not a purpose to fulfill.
While he was imprisoned, Avicenna wrote his famous “Floating man” thought experiment to demonstrate human self-awareness and the substantial nature of the soul. He told his readers to imagine themselves suspended in the air, isolated from all sensations, which included no sensory contact with even their own bodies
He then argued the idea of the self is not logically dependent on any physical thing, and the soul should not be seen in relative terms, but as a primary given.
The Arab philosopher, al-Nafis defined the soul as nothing other than ‘what a human indicates by saying ‘I’. *****
By the time we reach the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas expanded upon Aristotle’s notion of ‘the first actuality’ of the living body. He argued that since the knower becomes what he knows, the soul is definitely not corporeal (or physical matter) … Therefore, the soul has an operation which does not rely on a body organ, and therefore the soul can exist without a body. Furthermore, since the rational soul of human beings is a subsistent form and not something made of matter and form, it cannot be destroyed in any natural process.
Well alrighty then! When I encounter great thinkers laying out great ideas like this, not only do I feel pretty intimidated – my brain tends to get overwhelmed and my eyes start to glaze over! But, when this sensation passes and I give myself time to think about the points
being made, I usually find a way to relate what I think someone like Aquinas is saying to something tangible in my own life…
…. Which also is one of the reasons I think many of us have been drawn to Unitarian Universalism. Because we are a church, we offer a nice variety of old familiar ‘churchy’ comforts, like for example, our unison covenant, familiar hymns and songs, perhaps a prayer or inspirational poem. Some of us find solace in the joys and concerns and singing Spirit of Life. But historically, UU church-goers commonly cite the sermon or program and intellectual stimulation as their favorite reason for coming on Sundays.
Because Unitarian Universalism is a doctrine-free tradition, we are free to select from that always-astounding always beautifully creative variety of philosophical, religious, and secular traditions which inspire and nourish us spiritually and challenge us intellectually.
Today I’ve included a hop-skip-and jump historical overview of human thoughts about the soul. From Greece’s Aristotle, to Persia’s Avicenna, to the pre- Renaissance ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the human soul has been thought about, talked about, written about, and memorialized in every shape and form one can imagine.
But for me, it boils down to one thing: each of us must do the work – the thinking, the questioning, and the pondering which lead us to make a choice: do you believe in a soul or do you not believe in a soul? When you can answer that question for yourself, then so much of your own personal theology will become more clear and, hopefully, meaningful.
I’d like to leave you with a personal story which is the reason I came to believe in the existence of the soul. Oh I’d read Aristotle and Aquinas, and I’d searched for answers to this question in just about every place my mind and body could experience, but it was my niece, Shannon, who made me a believer in the existence of the human soul.
In the late fall of 2003, our Wyoming family had made plans to go to Laramie for a UW football game. Our niece Shannon and her girlfriend, Erin, left Lander a couple of days early so they could hang out with my son Jake, who lived in Laramie and was hosting the festivities. The day before the big game, Shannon and Erin decided to go to Ft. Collins to shop and have lunch. The weather forecast was for snow and cold, and Jake suggested perhaps they should hold off since that highway could get miserable with winter weather. But the girls promised they’d head back early, and so they went shopping. The weather did turn miserable and the road froze over with patches of black ice. Even though it was her vehicle, Erin was uncomfortable driving, so asked Shannon to drive.
Unfortunately, the black ice turned deadly and when their vehicle spun into the other lane, Shannon and Erin were hit broadside by an oncoming semi. To our great heartbreak, Erin was killed instantly and Shannon was trapped for several hours before they could extract her and transport her to Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins. Of course, this is any family’s worst nightmare, to get that phone call.
After all the notifications were made and plans changed, my youngest sister, Jeanette, and I headed to Ft. Collins to help our sister and brother-in-law however we could.
Shannon was in a medically-induced coma and had various internal injuries; including a tear in the sac around her heart and so part of the heavy sedation was to keep her heart rate low and steady. Our sister and brother-in-law needed to return to Lander to attend Erin’s funeral and to make arrangements for leave from their jobs, so Jeanette and I took over the 24-hour vigils sitting in the hospital room with Shannon.
Several days had passed, and we’d come to see how Shannon was trying to heal from within. The psychologist and neurologist told us the trauma had, in essence, shattered her sense of self and part of the healing process was those scattered pieces coming back together. Even though she was sedated, there were times we could tell she was tying to communicate with us, and so we had a small dry erase board and marker next to the bed. Eventually Shannon would lift her hand and use her fingers to indicate she wanted to write something. Sometimes it looked like scribbling, one time she went through a period where she wrote coherent phrases in Spanish.
One night, it was late, and I was sitting in the chair beside her bed, and I noticed the heart monitor started beeping. This was not a good sign because she needed to stay calm. The nurse came in to check and everything else was ok. So I told the nurse I would try to calm Shannon myself and so the nurse left.
For some reason I’ll never know, I decided not to talk to Shannon out loud. Instead I focused my mind and began telling my beloved niece a story I used to tell her when she was little. I thought the story of a beautiful little girl who loved her dog, and one day the two of them were going for a hike on their favorite mountain trail. I kept thinking this story, never saying a word out loud, and as the story about the mountain flowers, the cold clear stream, the blue sky, and happy frolicking girl and her dog progressed – Shannon’s heart rate leveled off. About then, the nurse came back into the room to check the monitor and I stopped ‘thinking’ the story. As the nurse was finishing up her fussing, Shannon reached up and motioned with her fingers for the markers and dry erase board. When the nurse left. I handed them to Shannon, and she very clearly wrote, ‘finish the story.’
Sources: (Citations from Wikipedia)
* Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, Illinois:
** WJ Johnson (2009), A Dictionary of Hinduism, Oxford University Press
*** The Quran
*****Richard Marius Martin Luther: the Christian between God and death1999
Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. (on-line) February 2014
***** Nahyan A.G. Fancy (2006) Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection: The Interaction of Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in the Works of Ibn al-Nafis. University of Notre Dame, 2015