What is a soul?

April 1, 2010

What is the soul? Are we born with it or do we acquire it? Is it the same thing as the”mind?” Is it eternal? What happens to it when our body dies? Is it even separable from the body? Is it learned? Does everyone have one? Is it even real?

Religions and philosophies all have different answers to these questions. A recent article from NPR showcased a study  done by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” in which subjects experienced a brief magnetic pulse to a certain area of the brain which resulted in a shift in their moral reasoning. Subjects were told of a woman who believed she was putting sugar into her friend’s coffee who in actuality was putting in poison and of a woman putting sugar into  someone’s coffee believing it was poison. Without the magnetic pulse, the subjects judged the accidental poisoner as forgivable and condemned the accidental sweetener. During the pulse, the subjects judged the woman who meant to poison but instead sweetened as okay but the other as in the wrong. The writer of this article states that this is typical of the reasoning of very young children who in similar studies are apt to say that a little girl who accidentally breaks 4 teacups is  “naughtier” than a little girl breaking one teacup on purpose— the concept of judging intentions doesn’t emerge until later in the child’s development. In this magnetic study, the magnets caused the subjects to reason in the same way (read the story here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125304448

The author concluded with a statement questioning the very existence of the soul: if something as basic as moral reasoning can be influenced so scientifically, is there any need or room for the existence of the soul?

Well… first off, the person making that comment seems to have a very narrow box for what the definition or concept of the soul even is. I think all spiritual philosophies that posit the existence of the soul conceive it to be something much bigger than just a moral reasoning tool. After all, there are many psychological illnesses that inhibit moral reasoning in worse ways than this particular study, yet most religious folks wouldn’t question whether someone with a particular mental illness has a soul.

Our soul is our essence… it is what makes us “us.” It’s what makes us an individual. As such, it’s influenced by decisions we make, beliefs we have, genetics we inherit, situations we encounter, things we learn, and the lives we lead. I’m sure many will cry out in disgust at that idea, that any part of our soul can develop or change, that any part of it is influenced by the “material” world– but I think it’s the only way to explain the complete transformations that some people make in their lives. You don’t “gain” a soul, it’s something that’s there when you open your eyes for the first time in this world–but I believe you do “develop” it as you live and learn.

Does everyone have a soul? Yes. Is the soul merely a moral compass? No. Yet the soul does function in helping us discern truth; our soul helps us determine what is “right,” but there are so many other factors at stake in that as well.

In a post-modern, progressive Christian context, what claims can I make for myself about the soul and its “eternal” qualities? “The Heart of Christianity” author Marcus Borg has often written that he is an agnostic when it comes to the afterlife, that it’s impossible to know what exactly awaits and so the best thing is to do our best and most righteous now, and to savor every minute of life that we can. I think that’s a good grounding place, although I do make some “heavenly” claims out of faith and hope. The Hebrew religion we made our identity out of never spent much time on the afterlife; when it mentioned it, most often it was in regards to “Sheol,” an eternal land of the dead where all went and no divisions based on morality or faith were made. As any who have studied religion, politics and history in many areas can attest, during and after Medieval times, “Hell” became a selling point to attact devotees and fill pews as the Christian church spread. I won’t recount too much “heaven” and “hell” thought here, but you can check out previous articles I’ve written in those areas if you scroll to the bottom of the page and hit the “religion” tab. My own faith and hope claims insist on some essence of continuation of the soul, though. From my context I believe that a bit of inner Divinity is present in all of us; I believe that I can access that Divinity and use it to bring the good out of me and into the world to transform people and situations in those instances where I correctly align myself with the One true Creator and Spirit. I believe that when I seek justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, I am accessing that divine spark within me and in my best moments it may temporarily fill me. Better humans than I find ways to live in that space where they are almost always filled with and sharing that Divinity, mine are few and far between even when my intentions are good. So that inner soul, that piece of God within me, I believe, will live on after my body fails. Will it fill a new body in a new earth? Or will it travel back to the source of creation and be reunited with its Creator? Of that, I am agnostic in the truest sense, in that I do not know. Yet as I’ve written before, I believe those that seek the spiritual and to live true and have believed in mercy and Justice and Creation, whatever names, terms and concepts they have attached to it, their inner essence will live on. For those that haven’t, I can’t make any clear claims. I do feel that at the worst, they will cease to be; but I can’t fully claim there is ever a point in which any soul has no hope for restoration and completion.

So a magnet study that muddies our minds and causes us to make sub-par moral decisions doesn’t make me doubt the existence of the soul. The soul is much, much more than moral reasoning.

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