Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Reviving the Soul

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word "soul," and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every human pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brian than there are starts in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes "soul" would do nicely.

(Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Chid I Read Books: Essays, page 8)


  1. And yet the problem with the word "soul" is its metaphysical baggage, especially as relates to Plotinian dualism and the resulting scholastic speculation that separates the soul almost as much as possible from the whole creation, asking then whether other creatures have one, and what kind, and proposing that God doesn't love creatures, and act for creatures, but only for souls -- and then, only human, rational souls, and then in judgment over same.

  2. Soul as nexus of the self is an interesting idea. I like it. It is a bit of a nod toward Buddhism. Have you considered Alzheimer's? When the brain is damaged or diseased, what happens to the soul?

  3. Well, I was not going to comment, but I think I will.... I am sorry for being a pest, Clint, and feel free to delete my comment.

    First, when I read Robinson's statement, I thought: "So that's why Jesus died for us! He knew how valuable we are!" I have heard it said that Christ would have died even if there were only one person on earth.

    The Medieval Church took a lot of ridicule for saying that the Earth is the center of the Universe. Well, maybe it is. How many humans, with brains and "souls," are out there, anyway?

    Matthew: As far as I know, Scholasticism died out about 400 years ago. Are you sure you are not just digging onto the past, and re-hashing some anti-Catholic pattern of thought?

    Wesley: The soul and the brain are separate entities. I had a friend whose wife died of Alzheimer's. He used to say, before she died: "She's with the angels." We cannot underestimate the power of God. There is a lot in the Bible about looking after our parents after "they lose their minds."