Saturday, June 19, 2010

Soul Food I

 When was the last time you heard a sermon on the soul? I have heard a lot of sermons in my day, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone preach on what exactly a soul is.

 Nor for that matter have I heard a single lecture on the subject in seminary, and I can tell you that I have listened to upwards of 500 lectures during my course work.

 Why is this? How can something so important be so neglected?

Our soul is the part of us that lasts for eternity. It is vital to us, makes us who we are, makes us unique, is loved by God, and is the very concern of Christ and the Church.

 You would think we would hear more about it.

 I looked at two modern systematic theologies, both highly regarded, for a definition of soul. (Systematics, by the way, is doctrine that is formulated from the Old and New Testaments.) Both had lengthy discussions about the differing views of trichotomism, and dichotomism and monism, but only one had a definition of the soul: “The immaterial part of man; used interchangeably with spirit.”

 I don’t know about you, but that’s not much help to me.

 Another modern author calls the soul “imagination,” which I like fine, but again, this does not convey a lot of information. The great mystics of the Church, like St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton, write about the soul and the dark night of the soul, but don’t tell us what it is.

 The etymology, or history of a word can often be helpful for getting a sense of what it means. Interestingly, though, the origin of the word “soul” is unclear. No one really knows where it came from. When I learned this I wasn’t really surprised. It is a very difficult and mysterious word.

 The Greek word for soul, which our words psyche and psychological come from, is used 116 times in the New Testament, but there is some overlap between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yet again, though, there is no description of the soul.
 So I thought I would try my own. Here goes. 

 Our soul is our very essence, the divine spark of being that makes us unique, gives us our character, our personal substance, our moral compass, our thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, inspiration, and imagination. It is the divine gateway through which God pours His love and grace into us, and through us into others. If we have no soul we have nothing, and are nothing. We have no being without a soul.

 What have you always dreamed of but dare not venture? That is the imagination of your soul calling out to you.

 While all of this sounds grand, you will notice that my definition also includes things that we find negative. We all have insecurities about who we are, and we have negative thoughts and emotions. Our shortcomings, fears, and anxieties are all a part of our substance and soul too.

 We are made beings, but we are not made perfectly. In fact, as I’ve written before, we need to spend time appreciating the true poverty of who we are and the agendas we plan. This is a form of the brokenness of our soul.

 If we spend the time we should taking a good long look at who we really are (and not who someone else tells us we are or should be) then we see the wide range of talents, thoughts, feelings, worries, cares, loves, hatreds, anxieties and so on that compose the essential person we are. We then begin to see the complexity of a single soul. 

 Now, multiply that times the six billion other souls on Earth, each unique unto that person, and you begin to have a very small appreciation of the astounding complexity of human life. Mix in good and evil, and the causes of the troubles that sweep the face of the planet make themselves apparent.

 Clinical psychology does not recognize the soul because it cannot be scientifically proven. But I would tell you of my belief that many of our personal and social maladies come from diseases of the soul. 

 I could keep going, but by now you have an appreciation of the daunting task of describing the soul, and why we hear so little about it.

 Now for the follow up questions. If our soul is so vital to who we are, why do we pay so little attention to it? Why does the Church pay so little attention to it? After all, our soul is at the very core of what makes us human and unique to God. How much time do we spend listening to it? How much time do we spend caring for it? We have nothing else when we die, so surely our souls deserve more attention.

 These are deep questions that I’ll be exploring over the next few weeks. This is part of the aftermath that helps me make sense of life for the Breens in the year 2010.