Scarcely a word in the theologian’s vocabulary is used more widely, and for more reasons, than the word “soul.” We characterize humans as composed of body and soul. We speak of the salvation of souls or the pastoral care of souls. More than one person has been set on the straight and narrow by hearing the Gospel line (somewhat imprecisely paraphrased), “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?” That question changed the life of Francis Xavier just as—to add a tiny personal testimony—it scared the fool out of me as a none-too-pious teenager when I heard it shouted out by a leather-lunged Redemptorist priest at a parish mission.
The concept of soul as something beautiful, powerful, subtle and engaging has spilled over into our daily vocabulary. Politicians speak of the “soul of the nation,” and we sing the haunting lyrics, “I love you, dear, body and soul,” and we know exactly what we mean by the chilling charge that something or someone is “soulless.” Soul in this generic sense means something, well, spiritual, or at least profoundly human. In the Bible it means something even more basic: the very breath of life that marks us as living human beings. It is worth noting that in the Hebrew, the word for soul translates as “spirit” and “breath” as well.
In the broadest terms of the theologian, whatever it is about us as human beings that makes us “in the image and likeness of God”—our capacity to wonder, to love, to seek beauty, to yearn beyond ourselves—all that makes us who we are precisely as humans is bound up somehow with having a soul or, to use a bit of theological jargon, to “be ensouled.”
For the older Catholic tradition, it was the soul that formed and informed us as human. The soul was what made us persons rather than mere bodies. When we say, theologically, that a person has a soul, what we mean is, there’s something spiritually distinct about us. This “something” was well described by the Second Vatican Council when its pastoral constitution on the church in the world (Gaudium et Spes) noted that any person who detects within himself or herself a spiritual immortal principle (the soul) is “not mocked by a deceptive fantasy springing from mere physical or social influences . . . (but) is getting to the very truth of the matter.”
The danger—theologians are always worrying about “the danger”—comes when we imagine the soul as a real, separate and discrete entity, living in the body but somehow not really part of us: a kind of temporary boarder. The modern British philosopher Gilbert Ryle has called this concept of the soul “the ghost in the machine.” Our contemporary ghostbusters are the folks working in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biophysiology and other arcane disciplines who are quick to tell us that “mind” or “consciousness” or “ego” or whatever name they give the ghost in the machine is nothing more than intelligence somehow connected to, and emerging from, biology.
The soul as “ghost in the machine” is a notion derived from the 17th-century French philosopher Descartes, and we would all be better off if, as they say in the Deep South, we were shut of it. As a matter of fact, most theologians have long been suspicious of any Cartesian body/spirit dichotomy, and have mightily resisted that model of the self.
However, older popular religious art did not help. Holy cards used to have pictures of diaphanous and ghostly figures “leaking out” of the body at death, or hovering amid the fires of purgatory, waiting to be fished heavenward by the Virgin Mary dangling a rosary. The implication of such art is this: Somehow, in my body, lives the real me, which will go at life’s end either up to heaven (probably via purgatory) or down to hell. I won’t be punished or rewarded, but my soul will (remember the Poor Souls in purgatory?). When I was a kid I always thought of my soul as looking a bit like Casper the Friendly Ghost and a bit like me, but in imminent danger of going “down there” if I stayed away from the confessional box too long.
Now, as a Christian believer, I would like to affirm that as humans we are connected to God and that we are more than the sum total of our chemistry; we are, in short, made in God’s image and likeness. Let me also stipulate that it is not my desire to deny the old catechism definition of humans as creatures composed of body and soul; this meditation is no exercise in debunking. What I very much deny, however, is that we are two things, body and soul, rather accidentally cobbled together—things that will fly apart at death to find their natural permanent resting places: the soul in the beyond and the body in the earth. When the old catechism said that we are creatures composed of body and soul, someone should have added a little explanatory note indicating that the key word is composed; we are not spirits who accidentally inhabit a body.
The doctrine that teaches that after death our souls, and exclusively our souls, live somewhere in eternity is called the doctrine of immortality. But immortality is not a characteristically Christian doctrine. Indeed, Christianity teaches something quite different from immortality in the pagan sense of the term. It teaches that in eternity we will live as we live now, as human persons composed of both body and soul.
The Christian vision of life after death is not that of shades living in the Elysian fields but of persons living with God (being with God is the state of being in heaven). The Christian faith teaches, in short, not immortality but resurrection. As a 1979 letter from the Vatican formulated it: The church believes in the resurrection of the dead; it further believes that this resurrection is a simple extension of the resurrection of Christ.
Immortality means that something spiritual survives death; resurrection means that people are raised up and transformed after death. In this view, death is simply a way station on the way to transformed life. That is why Paul, who devotes a long passage in his first letter to the Corinthians to all of the questions put to him about this mystery (what are our risen bodies going to look like? And so on), cries out at the end, in words now so famous as to be proverbial: “Death is swallowed up in victory/O Death, where is thy victory?/O Death, where is thy sting?” (ICor. 15:54-55).
Resurrection means more life and a perfect life—not as a disembodied spirit but as ourselves.
How can this be? I don’t know. What about the period between death and resurrection? Sincere Christians have held different views on that matter. What is the resurrection of the dead “like”? My fellow theologians don’t know either, although that hasn’t stopped them from writing a lot about it. Even the 1979 letter from the Vatican said we need to be careful how we understand this business; it advises a due caution when confronted with biblical language, and a willingness to get behind the language to the realities it represents.
The people who seem to have the most insight into the mystery of resurrection are our creative writers, and that’s because they have the power to imagine what a resurrected life might look like. In my estimation, the writer who has best imagined the resurrection is the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
In 1888 Hopkins wrote an extraordinary poem with the mouth-filling title, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” The burden of the poem is that while everything in the world is in a state of flux and change that’s capped by death and, further, that the sheer vastness of time and space obliterate everything, there is a counterpoint the Christian hope of the resurrection. Let Hopkins’s final, dazzling lines express the essence of that hope:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,/I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,/Is immortal diamond.
It seems almost obscene to paraphrase those lines, especially with chemical lingo, but Hopkins in essence was saying this of the resurrection: We (note: not our soul but we) are carbon, combustible carbon in fact, like a matchstick or kindling. Instead of dust, however, God is going to turn us (note: us, not our souls) into diamonds. We will be the same people, but we will not be what we were.
Saint Augustine said something quite similar centuries before. Perhaps Hopkins knew the passage where the bishops of Hippo thinks about the great fire at the end of the world, a fire that transforms us into “immortal bodies with the obvious purpose of furnishing the world, now renewed for the better, with a fitting population of human beings, renewed for the better, even in the flesh” (The City of God xx.16).
While we are tossing around literary formulations, let me mention one more writer of whom I am inordinately fond: the late Walker Percy. Notre Dame gave him the Laetare Medal and an honorary doctorate a year before he died, and it pleased me more than I can say to see that fey old man go up to the podium to deliver a few words, pleased me more than the whole procession of industrialists, politicians and other success stories who normally decorate the commencement stage.
Percy was a Southerner and a medical doctor and a reader of philosophy and a convert to the Catholic faith (who came to the church via a reading of the existentialists while he was recuperating from tuberculosis) and, a bit late in life, a very good novelist. He had a lot of convictions on a lot of topics but his bedrock conviction, one pertinent to these ruminations, was this: Human beings are not essentially “spirits” who accidentally dwell in bodies, nor are they mere material computers reducible to biology.
Percy didn’t talk about his conviction in terms of the resurrection of the dead, but he talked about it constantly in terms of the living. He was aware of two common traps: One he called angelism and the other bestialism. Both mistakes bring with them folly, stupidity and evil, but of quite different kinds.
Angelism—since it fixates on the spiritual side of a person (the soul)—tends to despise the goods of the world as unworthy of serious attention. It dismisses important things like children, good whiskey, friends, lovers and watching football on crisp fall afternoons. Angelism may be detected, to paraphrase H. L. Mencken’s description of the Puritan, in those who tremble at the thought that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.
Bestialism, by contrast, sees no value beyond sensate reaction. Bestialism may be seen in the actions of the compulsive eater, the devotee of pornography, the 40-year-old adolescent who never grew up, the seducer who knows nothing beyond seduction.
In Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins (1971), the alcoholic hero of the story, Doctor Thomas More, suffers from both temptations. After a bungled suicide attempt, he is lying in the hospital, his wrists neatly stitched up, when he cries out:
“Dear God, I can see it now, why can’t I see it at other times, that it is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs nor angels. . . .”
Percy, I think, would advise us (it is good advice) not to think of “saving our souls” or “purifying our souls” in too literal a sense of the term. “Saving our soul” is only a shorthand way of talking about becoming Christian adults. “Purifying our souls” is old catechism talk which means growing up.
There is another reason why we should think less about our souls (or anybody’s souls for that matter) and more about our person and other persons. Catholic Christendom has a bedrock conviction that if we don’t take creation seriously, we miss the whole point of our faith. Our creation story tells us that God created the first man and woman out of the slime of the earth, breathed life (i.e., souls) into those creatures, and pronounced that creation “very good.” Secondly, Jesus was part of that creation, and what had been pronounced very good became, through the Incarnation, excellent. Jesus became a person; he was not a spirit who simply put on—as one of my undergraduates so pungently phrased it—a Jesus suit.
- Another Cunningham Classic
- Like what you see? Check out the other Lawrence Cunningham entry in our Magazine Classics collection: "Out of Practice," from Spring 1997.
Now, here is the point: In an extraordinary passage Jesus tells us who gets saved and why. Everyone is saved who can look at another person in need (not that you don’t have to peer into their soul, just notice whether or not they are in distress) and see Another Person (Jesus) in that individual. And when people ask, when did we see Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison, He will answer: “When you did it to the least of the brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
And here is the moral: Use the word soul freely, but do not take it too seriously. And for heaven’s sake, don’t root around looking for it inside yourself, as if it were a wind in the cave. Let soul stand for everything good we stand for in ourselves and everything good we hope for in others; and love God above all things, and everyone else like ourselves.
As for the soul, leave it to the poets and the other artists who come closest to understanding it. And the scientists? Let them be as tentative as the theologians while they stand before something that is so mysterious and yet so much a part of who we are.
Lawrence Cunningham was chair of Notre Dame's theology department from 1992 to 1997.