Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Soul

The idea that human beings are a composite of physical and spiritual elements is as old as humanity itself. As such it has served well. Many still think that each of us "contains" an irreducible element which is in some sense indestructible. But this concept of "soul" no longer stands up to examination. Likewise, the philosophical concept of a "mind" fixed somewhere in the human brain is ever harder to sustain. The answer lies entirely elsewhere.

The word "soul" carries a common meaning quite distant from its more technical uses in philosophy and religion. It's not until this meaning is probed more deeply that its great difficulties come into focus.

As a concept, however, the idea of "soul" has been around for thousands of years. We know from Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back some 4 000 years that most people thought of an after-life or second world into which people would pass when they died. It seems that humans have always conceived of this world as contiguous to the next. Because the physical body clearly dies and decays, it must have an aspect which continues after death and this has been known as the "soul".

In Homer's Greece the soul was a shadowy, indistinct entity. It is talked of as psyche (the breath of life) or thymos (the life force). Later the two terms become psyche kai thymos (soul and life-force). Still later they merge into plain psyche or the permanent, though hidden, part of a personality. In the Hebrew Old Testament humans are intensely physical. There is mention of nephesh or human spirit which goes to Sheol, a sort of shadowy underworld rather like the Hades of Greek mythology.

The origins of the idea of a personal soul are no doubt buried deep beyond recovery in the earliest human cultures. But perhaps it arose from the sense almost all of us have - that there is something inside me which is eternal, that it is impossible for me merely to cease to exist one day. 

Modern exponents of general systems theory propose that each of us is a system of many parts, open to the outside world. The notion of a person "having" a soul (the secular counterpart being the mind) derives from the way we experience ourselves. Looking at ourselves one way, we perceive ourselves as purely physical - an incredibly complex organism comprising multiple parts. Looking at ourselves another way, we experience ourselves as being. Neither way is either right or better than the other. The latter way, however, can lead to the belief that the "me" which is so much more than the sum of the parts which comprise the physical system has an independent existence.

The Greek philosopher Plato was among the first of those who formulated an thought-through concept of soul. Before him, however, Pythagoras and his followers, asserted that it was better to immerse oneself in the so-called purity of abstraction. This was in turn best evinced in the study of numbers, which could be built up from a base into a towering edifice of theorems. 

The pyramid of abstract propositions was self-evidently perfect, since to change one element of it brought the whole crashing down. Ordinary, money-grubbing life did not show this completeness and was therefore of less worth than the love of wisdom sought by philosophers. Plato echoed the idea of philosophy in his Republic:

... the lover of wisdom associating with the divine order will himself become orderly and divine.

He goes on in his Timaeus:

... he who has been earnest in the love of knowledge and true wisdom ... must have thoughts immortal and divine ... and insofar as human nature is capable of sharing in immortality, he also must be completely immortal.

Given this outlook, it was natural to suggest, as did Pythagoras, that in each of us there resides a perfect and therefore lasting element. He went on from there to propose the transmigration of souls - what we commonly know today as reincarnation (though some suppose that at about this time the idea of reincarnation was introduced through Greek contact with Indian thinkers).

Plato, no doubt building on Pythagoras (or rather, the Pythagorean school of philosophy), went on to propose that reality consists of two aspects. The first aspect is "form" or true being. It is this reality which is expressed in matter, which is in turn in the process of becoming real or realising its inherent potential. So too with people. Each of us has a real, perfect counterpart which we seek to realise in the imperfect present. His was essentially a dualistic universe consisting of two aspects. There was real Form and semi-real matter. The latter is a reflection of the real or ideal world, rather like shadows cast by a light on a wall. Dualism has persisted to this day as a way of construing the world.

We know that a primitive soul/body dualism was dealt with differently in other parts of the world in ancient times. The Jews in Maccabean times (168 bce) developed Hellenistic thinking (in turn influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism) into a doctrine of bodily resurrection. This no doubt influenced early Christianity through the Pharisees, a Jewish school of theology which taught resurrection. 

Christians, however, have held from the earliest times that resurrection is of the entire person, consisting of soul and body. In the New Testament the Greek word psyche means "life" (in opposition to soma or "body"). This life, for Paul, means our inner life or, in modern terms, the "power of personality". Paul uses psukikos for life of the physical body, and pneumatikos for the resurrection or "spiritual" body.

Today these words have issued in the loosely-used terms "spiritual" or "spiritual life" - apparently meaning a dimension of life to be distinguished from "ordinary" life. The same dualism of "composite being" is to be found in varying forms in Hinduism, traditional Chinese religion and Islam.

Early Christians seem to have held in creative tension both physical resurrection and the neo-Platonic philosophy of body-soul dualism. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74), who influenced Christian theology deeply right up to the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, held that a person's soul left the body at death. But it was an attenuated form of personality until united with the body at the general resurrection at the end of the world. 

Roman Catholic councils have held as essential the teaching that the soul of each person is created by God at conception and then infused into the embryo. Present Christian liturgy and prayer at times of death, burial and memorial generally assume a permanent soul which passes on into heaven to life of immortal bliss with God, or into hell for an equally eternal life of torment.

Platonic dualism has been carried forward in modern times by philosophers. Rene Descartes held that there is an irreconcilable difference between thinking substance (what we call mind) and extended substance (or matter). An ongoing difficulty with this view is to explain how mind and matter interact, as they plainly do. Henri Bergson  in Mind and Memory defined matter as possessing the qualities we perceive in it (like colour and texture). Mind is in effect memory, by which we store up past perceptions and modify our present actions which would otherwise be purely mechanical.

For some, the soul becomes a sort of "shadow person". This is a spiritual person, but sufficiently human to be identified as a particular individual. The spiritual or "astral" body escapes from its corpse to proceed on a journey to "the other side". In the late 20th century, much attention has been given to "near-death experiences" in which people whose physical processes have ceased for a short time report certain characteristics of starting to "cross over".

In short, the idea that human beings consist of two parts - body and soul - is alive and well. Many if not most so-called "New Age" spiritualities tout the idea in a wide range of variations.

But does the dualist concept stand up to reason?

There are numerous difficulties, of which those below are but a few:

  • Many in the Western culture have been brought up to test the truth of things by searching for evidence. In this case, therefore, they would ask, "If there's such a thing as a soul, of what does it consist? How do I distinguish between an entity with a soul, and one without? Are humans the only beings with this thing? Even light and energy have mass: so how much do souls weigh? Can we see a soul? If so, what frequencies of light enable us to see it?" As far as I know, these and a host of similar questions have never been answered in the sense that the answers have been demonstrated in the same way that the existence of electricity or electrons or fire have been "proved". It seems as though the soul has been removed from empirical enquiry. If so, then it is a concept difficult for Westerners today to fully understand.

  • It may be that souls are real only in a subjective sense. That is, that we can experience the soul only internally - perhaps as thought or emotion or a combination of the two. If so, surely everyone must know that souls exist? Does the fact that not everyone reports the experience of a soul indicate that some people have them and some not? We know roughly how the physical side of humans works. We can even observe thoughts and emotions as electro-chemical brain activity. Is it possible to observe the soul at work in people? If not, why not?

  • It might be that souls of dead people can cross over from whatever dimension they inhabit into ours and back again. If a soul is incorporeal (without a material body or presence) then how do we identify who it is? When I identify "me" as a unique individual, I can do so only by indicating a certain arrangement of atoms and physical processes, a particular configuration of a particular physical and psychological system.. How does a soul differ from this? If a bodiless entity can communicate with us, does it use sound waves the way we do? If it uses some other medium, can we trace the origin and physical effects of a soul's communication? If not, how might a soul communicate with us? If it uses a medium other than one we can identify and analyse, is that medium unique to the soul or is it to be found elsewhere?

  • Another possibility is that we know about souls because God has revealed their existence and nature to us, communicating the information by some means like inspired writings or prophetic utterance. But this only pushes the problem back a step. If there is a revelation about souls, by what criteria are we to distinguish between "soul" as revealed to us by God, and "soul" as a concept thought up by humans? If God has revealed this to some but not to others, to whom has God revealed the information and to whom not? Is the Greek version the right one, or the Jewish one, or the Islamic one? Why has the revelation been given to some and not to others?

  • Ultimately, we communicate meaning to each other in words. Which of the wide range of meanings of the word "soul" is the correct one, and on what basis? Are we sure that the word "soul" corresponds to some real entity in the objective world? (Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind argues persuasively against this conclusion.) The word "soul" should, like other words, indicate some quality of humanity. But if I say that someone behaves in a certain way "because" he or she "has" a soul, all I'm doing is to describe the behaviour in terms of an unidentifiable phenomenon. Only when I can point to the substance called "soul" does such an explanation work.

All-in-all the concept of "soul" can only be held, it seems to me, as a matter of "faith" - and then only if faith is thought of as an attitude towards reality which does not require empirical, epistemological or rational support.

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