On the Soul

On the Soul

A. Nicholas Lash

“Any attempt to speak sensibly of God as ‘spirit’ must first take the long road through an effort to recapture a less distorted understanding of what being human means.

“Discussion about how ‘consciousness’ is best understood is at present a very lively field in a wide range of scientific disciplines and in philosophy. Are ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ for example, best understood as different kinds of thing, as different entities? Those who answer ‘Yes’ are ‘substance dualists,’ because they think of mind and matter as two substances, or things. Unfortunately, most scientists and many philosophers are poor historians, thus perpetuating by assertion the widespread but quite mistaken belief that traditional Christianity is committed to some form of substance dualism. In a conference in which he and I took part a few years ago, I took issue with the philosopher John Searle for referring to ‘traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on.’ Where mind and matter are concerned, I pointed out that, in the tradition going back to Aristotle, ‘mind’ might be best defined as ‘the capacity for behavior of the complicated and symbolic kinds which constitute the linguistic, social, moral, economic, scientific, cultural, and other characteristic activities of human beings in society.’

“Think of your mind, then, not as a ‘thing,’ stuck somewhere in your head, but as your abiliity to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do: they make plans, tell stories, dream dreams, and construct elaborate systems of organization and behavior. And then try to think in a similar way about the distinction between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul.’ In a similar way, but not identically. The distinction is similar because to speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is, like talk of ‘minds,’ to speak of our ability to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do. However, talk of ‘minds’ stops there, where as to talk of ourselves as ‘souls’ is (if what we say is to be within earshot of classical Christianity) to go further. To speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is to recognize our creatureliness, to acknowledge that everything we are and have is gift; that we are ‘gift-things’ that have been given the capacity and duty to return the gift we are in praise and celebration.

“There is a quite straightforward distinction between, for example, a pineapple and its shape. But nobody supposes that its ‘shape’ is a second, different kind of thing, somewhere inside (or perhaps on the surface of) the pineapple! Think of the soul as the ‘shape’ of a human life: the body’s history, identity, direction — and, we hope, its destiny in God.

“As well as the distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ and the distinction between ‘soul’ and ‘body,’ there is another distinction familiar to every reader of the Scriptures, between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh.’ To recover some sense of the way in which this distinction works, however, we have to get back behind not only the ‘substance dualisms’ of modernity, but also behind all forms of the distinction between the body and the soul. The biblical distinction is not between living systems and their capacities (as distinctions between mind and matter, souls and body, are) but between things coming alive, and things crumbling into dust; between not-life, or life-gone-wrong, and life: true life, real life, God’s life and all creation’s life in God. The central metaphor is that of wind, the breath of life, the breath God is and breathes. Whether, sent forth from God, breathing all creatures into being, renewing the Earth and filling it with good things; whether whispering gently to Elijah, or making ‘the oaks to whirl, and [stripping] the forests bare’; or breathing peace on the disciples for the forgiveness of sins — it is one wind, one spirit, which ‘blows where it wills’ and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. To confess God as Spirit is to tell the story of the world as something, from its beginning to its end, given to come alive.”

from Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, (Ashgate, 2004), 34-36.

B. Herbert McCabe

To say, then that the cat ‘has a soul’ or ‘has life’ is not to say that there is an extra invisible organ or an ‘entelechy’ that the Pavlovian or behaviorist has overlooked. It is not to add to the description of the cat; it is to say what sort of descriptions are appropriate to it; it is to say what sort of being a cat is; it is to say ‘what it took for it to be a cat’ in the first place. It is to say which investigative techniques are appropriate to it and which are merely dealing with abstractions from the total reality.

from On Aquinas, (Continuum, 2008), 30.

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