“On Having a Soul” From earliest times we’ve wondered at ourselves. There’s more to man than meets the eye! Central to that process is the awareness that we’re more than matter-in-motion, that there’s something peculiar, something “spiritual” about us. We sense a “soulish” dimension to our being, and we routinely wonder exactly it means to “have a soul” or to “be a soul.” Responding to that hunger, the pastor of a community church in Belgrade, Montana, David Hansen, seeks to engage us in a soul-seeking endeavor in a delightful treatise entitled A Little Handbook on Having a Soul (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1997). He writes because as a busy pastor he has “become convinced that many devout Christians have slowly lost their understanding and appreciation for what their soul is and how it operates. Unfortunately, the results of modern biblical scholarship have reinforced the problem” (p. 12). Modern scholars, seeking to avoid the dreaded “dualism” of Greek philosophy, have so lauded the oneness of the human being that the “soul receded into the background. It sank into the body, so to speak, and thus our view of what it means to be human has resigned itself to a definite materialism” (p. 13). The “body” has received much attention, but the body really doesn’t need “saving” since it was never lost, it was never responsible for human sin. Furthermore, a soul which is collapsed into a body seems beyond saving! Thus Hansen endeavors to define and restore the “soul.” Ministering to Montanans, who live close to the soil and understand the intricacies and mysteries of life, he finds (especially when officiating at funerals) that where “life is not a theory but a set of chores, there is an unshakable belief in eternal life” (p. 25). To the folks he knows best, the soul is what survives death; “the soul is what goes to heaven” (p. 27). Delving into biblical sources, Hansen finds the same truth, amply evident in such passages as Jesus’ words to the dying thief who gained entrance to Paradise through faith in Him. Beyond this, however, it becomes difficult to determine exactly what the soul is! In a profound sense, “the soul is empty” Hansen says. In the emptiness of pain we often find our true self. “Without the soul’s emptiness, there is no space for meeting God. This is why the one essential thing we have to say about the architecture of the soul is that it is empty” (p. 41). An Old Testament scholar, Walter Wolff, defines the Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, as “needy man.” The soul is more of an open jar than a packed suitcase. “It is a bucket, not a geyser” (p. 42). This leads Hansen to direct our attention to “the event of the breathing of the soul by the Holy Spirit of God” (p. 43). The Lord and Giver of Life, “The Holy Spirit continually generates the soul–metaphorically, breathes it. The ‘Breath of Life’ is not exactly the Holy Spirit. It is the event of the Holy Spirit generating Human life” (p. 43). At death, this Spirit-breathed soul, if saved through grace, is sustained in its existence by the Holy Spirit. “The soul is like a sea sponge,” Hansen says. “The sponge fills itself with what it is in–seawater. Using flagella to move the water in and through and out of its body, the sponge draws seawater in, harvests oxygen and nutrients, metabolizes them and exhales carbon dioxide and other nutrients” (p. 44). Similarly, “the soul is filled with what it is in” (p. 44). Christians who “are in Christ” are “filled with the Holy Spirit” (p. 44). Having sought to define the soul in part one, Hansen turns to discerning “the soul at work” in part two of his treatise. Beauty, goodness, truth, and holiness best describe its manifestations. The beauty of the trout stream where the author fishes helps him understand Jonathan Edwards’ declaration that God is “‘infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is, but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory'” (p. 85). If we would more routinely immerse ourselves in the beauties of God’s handiwork, sustained and permeated by “the Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit, perhaps we’d have more “soul!” Goodness and truth and holiness Hansen finds in people he’s known: a retarded man who blessed the town with his simple goodness; his own father, saved out of alcoholism, who sang and preached the Gospel and who was ultimately healed by the Truth; a group of women studying the Bible at church, finding in Christ the final answer to their deepest questions. They illustrate the burden of part three: the soul redeemed. For the soul is engaged in a battle. Just as rivers are polluted and destroyed, so too are souls. Sponge-like, we breath in toxic vapors if we’re immersed in pollution. Consequently, “Sin’s origins are not in the soul itself, but the potential for sin originates in the soul’s emptiness” (p. 134). So “Sin is the refusal to exercise faith in the veracity of God to keep soul and body alive” (p. 134). Since Adam’s fall, we’ve battled with God. Unwilling to let the “I AM THAT I AM” be God, we seek to set up ourselves as autonomous centers of self-existence. “We fill our empty souls, made to be cathedrals, with false divinity–idols–with dreams and schemes and denial” (p. 135). It’s this soul, this sinful self, which needs saving. This Christ came to do. “In faith union with Christ, our souls claim all that belongs to Christ: grace, life and salvation” (p. 152). “All human souls are generated in the image of God. In Christ we are regenerated in the image of the divine Son of God, and specifically in the image of his death and resurrection” (p. 153). This is a delightful work! Hansen blends personal anecdotes with probing biblical and theological analyses. He wanders the fields and savors the streams of Montana, soaking in its beauty and absorbing its integrity. Simultaneously he explores the Scriptures and applies the classical treasures of the Church (Calvin and Barth, Luther and Bonhoeffer). And he helps remind us of the importance of what’s too often missing in our preaching and teaching: man’s eternal soul.
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To understand why a Montana pastor struggles with the “soul” question, it is helpful to read William Barrett’s Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer (New York: Anchor Books, 1987). Barrett is one of the finest philosophers in America (author of a highly-acclaimed study of existentialism, Irrational Man) and he explains the historical development which has led to our current malaise: in banishing an independent, substantial mind–a real site of consciousness independent of the body– we seem to have experienced a true death of soul. He holds to the rather old-fashioned notion that we are what we think! More profoundly than social and economic forces, intellectual movements shape human destiny. So philosophy makes a difference. Even more, religion makes a difference! Indeed: “The religious question is ultimately at the center of all philosophy, even if it be by way of rejection” (p. 56). During the past 400 years, Western Civilization has slowly sacrificed its religious center, and that explains the “death of soul” which afflicts us. The enormity of what’s developed stands revealed in the pernicious “deconstructionism” which so pervades contemporary academic circles, flowering in the soil composted by Heidegger and Sartre. In Sartre, we find an advocate of unlimited human autonomy–even the freedom to construct ourselves. Deconstructionists, Barrett says, “would have us give up the notion of the self altogether; we have simply to learn to ‘desubstantialize’ our thinking” (p. 128). When nothing has substance, we can at least pretend to make anything anything we choose. In this brave new world, a poem means whatever we choose it to mean. “Everything’s relative.” Such views, seriously espoused, a total repudiation of the West’s philosophical tradition. How we slid from the common sense of Aristotle, who insisted “that actuality is prior to potentiality” (p. 136), to Sartre and Derrida, who claim we make up our own reality, is the burden of this book. The story begins in the seventeenth century, the revolutionary epoch which incubated modernity in the hothouse of “the New Science.” The physical world, Nature, was approached as a vast machine, finely tuned in accord with mechanistic, mathematical principles. This was “perhaps as great a revolution as ever befell mankind,” though its import remained obscure since “the minds of the individuals who created this science were all solidly planted in the mind of God” (p 3). The great scientists, such as Newton, were sincerely committed to a theistic worldview, despite the subtle materialism of their science. Yet, ultimately, as less devout scientists appropriated their mindset, the work they did “would eventually tear Western civilization loose from its religious moorings” (p. 4), and we would inherit a scientific materialism which rigidly imposes its manacles on contemporary thought. Nothing more oppresses us than this rigid orthodoxy! “If our culture is to take a new turn,” Barrett thinks, “and resolve some of its most troubling questions, it will only be when, at long last, it is able to come to philosophic terms with this scientific materialism” (p. 57). Primarily, it estranges us from our rightful home: creation. This alienation was brilliantly summed up by Pascal at the very beginning of the revolution: “‘When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened, and I am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and this time been allotted to me? The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me'” (p. 8). The finite, friendly cosmos of Medieval Man, has been replaced by the “eternal silence” of an infinite space indwelt by isolated bits of matter-in-motion. Pascal’s contemporary, Rene Descartes, tried to find a place for man in the material world by lifting his mind out of it. The body and the soul were, for him, only tenuously joined. The non-material soul or mind is what makes us truly human. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (“perhaps the last of the great Christian philosophers,” in Barrett’s opinion) picked up on Descartes’ quest and sought to conceptualize an “energic universe” which avoids the reductionistic materialism of Newton et al. To Leibnitz, the real stuff in the universe is spirit, not matter. Leitnitzian “monads” rather than Newtonian atoms make up all that is. The body is spiritualized rather than the spirit physicalized. In Barrett’s judgment, the failure to follow Leibnitz doomed modernity to the loss of soul we now observe. The British empiricists, of course, refused to embrace Leibnitz! In David Hume we encounter, fully-formed, “the secular world of modernity” (p. 43). To Hume, human thought is nothing more than processed perceptions. The “mind” is reduced to matter–much as it is in those computer models of the mind we find in popular publications. Indeed, “the self, he tells us, is only a heap of perceptions. The I, or ego, suffered here a blow from which the fragmentation of the Modern Age has never rescued it” (p. 46). The philosopher who most clearly sought to respond to Hume, Immanuel Kant, has left his signature on all of us. Better than his predecessors, he fundamentally grasped the implications of modern science. His thought exerted enormous influence, and the ripples of what he taught still wash over Western philosophy. In Kant the Rationalists and Empiricists came together, and from him stem such disparate movements as Idealism, Positivism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism. “The poet Heinrich Heine compares him, rather sensationally, to Robespierre . . . who brought in the Reign of Terror and destroyed the ancien regime. So Kant laid waste the traditional arguments for God and undermined theology” (p. 51). What Kant tried to do was to place the mind at the center of the world. The mind, actively organizing data from sense experience, enables us to envision reality. To Kant, this “I” is a transcendental ego which essentially constructs the world outside it. Just as mathematics stems from the mind’s structure, so, to Kant, all thought takes its structure from the mind’s innate categories. Thus our “consciousness is not just a blank consciousness; it has an I, an ego, accompanying it. That I that makes the mark today must in some sense be the same I that placed a mark yesterday and will place yet another mark tomorrow . . . ‘In some sense,’ but what sense? Ah, that is the nub of the whole question about the human soul as we are and shall be dealing with it throughout” (p. 64). Scientists, following the mathematical mode of reasoning, have in fact constructed a world in line with human categories and desires. Science has, inexorably it seems, incubated technology. In fact, “once one has grasped the unitary phenomenon that is science-technology, one realizes that it is a single human project, and the project moreover under which the history of the past three and a half centuries, the history of our modern epoch, has been and is being played out” (p. 73). This was a momentous step. What we’ve done, Kant says, marks “a turn in human reason, and consequently a transformation of our human being in its deepest attitudes toward the world. Humankind turned away from a passive, to a more active, role in its struggle with nature. Life is given us to be mastered, not as something to drift along with” (pp. 73-74). Imposing our will on the world, shaping it according to the dictates of our mind, works out the Kantian imperative. Kant studied and admired Francis Bacon, whose precept, “Knowledge is power” gained sophisticated amplification in his thought. Kant’s acceptance of a mathematically-grounded, scientific-technological model for thought meant, ironically in the long run, the loss of soul, for his offspring turned against him. This is especially evident when one considers Kant’s unsuccessful effort to tack together reasons for believing in God after demolishing traditional reasons for doing so. As revolutionary as any of Kant’s endeavors was his dismissal of the cosmological and teleological proofs for God’s existence. Rejecting Leibnitz’s principle of sufficient reason, or causality, as legitimate in dealing with divine things, Kant even denied the need for assuming the existence of any Necessary Being. “When he says the idea of a Necessary Being does not have definite content, he does not mean to say it is ‘meaningless,’ but only that it is not a clear-cut concept, like those of science, about which proof and disproof are possible. Here Kant introduces his distinction between ideas and concepts. The idea of God is not meaningless, because it can never become like a strict concept in science; it belongs to another order of mind and lays claim upon other portions of our being” (p. 83). Thus the God who is lost in the cosmos is rediscovered, by Kant, in the moral and aesthetic consciousness of man. In a prescient passage, Kant wrote: “Granted that the pure moral law inexorably binds every man as a command (not as a rule of prudence), the righteous man may say: I will that there be a God, that my existence in this world be also an existence in a pure world of the understanding outside the system of natural connections, and finally that my duration be endless'” (p. 101). To Barrett, Kant’s injunction–“I will that there be a God!”–is filled with foreboding. “I will that there be a God!–one can hardly imagine such an assertion from a St. Augustine or St. Thomas. There the language in approaching God is one of humility and hunger” (p. 102. Not so, with Kant! “Indeed,” says Barrett, “Kant’s language here already portends the Nietzschean will to power. Everything turns on the resolute and solitary will of the individual” (p. 103). Nietzsche, of course, willed that God not be, but he simply follows Kant’s man-centered, ultimately self-contained philosophy. Kant’s inward turn had momentous consequences, for modern history has largely played out his vision. Tragically, Barrett holds, for all his talk about “mind” and “transcendental ego,” Kant lacks what a truthful philosophy needs: an authentic, concrete, existential center of consciousness, the soul. Barrett finds no substance in Kant’s depiction of the self. In his judgment, we must discern the actuality, the substantiality of the soul if we are to regain what’s been lost in modern times. To do so takes us back to Aristotle, for whom “primary substance” means a specific object–this computer, this desk, something which “persists through change,” albeit altered in the process. The “self, ” Barrett insists, is that which has an identity which persists. Thus I have been the same who I am since my being began. This substantial self has tended to dissolve in modern philosophy. Thus today we encounter variations of a “mindless behaviorism” which reduces the human self to a passive participant in various forms of social activity. Countering this movement, for Barrett, stands the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard, a prophetic, poetic religious thinker. His views, Barrett thinks, “should be of the utmost significance for philosophy and philosophers” (p. 123). For Kierkegaard treasured and trumpeted the worth of the individual soul. In him we hear renewed Jesus’ question: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Indeed, Barrett concludes: “What shall it profit a whole civilization, or culture, if it gains knowledge and power over the material world, but loses any adequate idea of the conscious mind, the human self, at the center of all that power?” (p. 166). Barrett explains the history of philosophy as it should be done! Clear language, cogent examples, comprehensive synthesis–all make for an enjoyable as well as enlightening read! To understand why we’re where we’re at, read Barrett!