Reinterpreting The Soul

My friend Ruby Sara at Pagan Godspell recently mentioned a conversation that she and I have been having concerning the nature and, essentially, the working value, of the reality or the concept of the soul. Here I’d like to explore my views on the subject.


My spiritual journey for the last several years has all concentrated around living as a complete, whole, fully integrated person. I would also call this a striving toward being an “authentic” person. For much of that time, this process has consisted of something quite similar to Jung’s process of Individuation, during which a person confronts and integrates their various “shadows.” For a basic primer in what I’m talking about, see Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Anyway, I bring this up because recently my dedication to wholeness has moved beyond merely the psychological and into the embodied. I have claimed my body as my own, and I will not degrade it to a status below any other of my integral parts. This has led me to a process wherein I am examining my personal theology to detect any tenant or belief that may be incongruous with a whole reclamation of myself. That is, I wish to excise any theological tenant that would make my belief system hypocritical and inauthentic.

In the history of science there have been various particles or substances that have been hypothesized or posited without having first been detected or “seen.” Examples of these hypothesized substances include various sub-atomic particles and, if my memory serves correctly, what is known as dark matter; detection may elude scientists for quite some time for a variety of reasons, such as if the hypothesized particles are too small to be detected by modern equipment. The point is that these substances are posited because their existence would simplify or facilitate various mathematical and physical processes.

I believe that the history of human religion and metaphysics has posited the soul in the same way that scientists posited dark matter–as something that would simplify and complete the great theological “equations”, which might include ‘What happens after I die?’ or ‘Where am I before I am born?’. Now, any particle hypothesized by scientists may, at some later date, be physically detected and verified, and the same may happen to the soul (some believe that this proof already exists, yet I am not convinced). The following is my line of thinking when questioning the existence of the soul:

Many contemporary theologies, including (I dare say) most Pagan theologies, posit the soul. Sometimes, the soul is a unified non-body Self that exists before birth and proceeds beyond death, whether into an afterlife or toward reincarnation; other theologies posit that the non-body Self is divided into various parts, which might include a ‘ghost,’ an ‘astral body,’ a ‘rational part,’ and so on. The following will concern itself with only that part of a Self that is believed to be capable of communication after death and which is usually thought to comprise the essence of the entire individual—that is, one is not “missing pieces” when interacting with these Self-parts. What I’m getting at is that I want to talk about souls in terms of communication, because during attempted communication with the dead seems to be the only time in which the living interact with a non-body Self but not with a body.

So, let’s say that I had a grandfather, “Francis”, who died when I was young, and that I would like (despite his death) to speak to him. There are various technologies within different traditions that suggest I would be able to do just that. However, these technologies do not claim to be able to bring back my grandfather’s body, only his ‘spirit’–his soul, or a part of his non-body. To me, this seems inauthentic because my grandfather was a person who lived and breathed and ate and drank and laughed and yelled and hit and cried on this Earth. I want to speak to my grandfather, not a part of him.

I believe that equating a soul or any non-body part with an individual’s essence necessarily heightens that part and diminishes all other parts. So if I am to regard the body as integral to an individual, I cannot posit a soul that contains that individual’s essential being. Even if some non-bodily part holds information for me, it would merely be an echo of life. Though I may be able to use a deceased person’s blood to extract a DNA sample, that exchange would not constitute communication with the individual; nor can information from a person’s divided post-life part constitute communication with the whole individual.

The ramifications of seeing the body as fundamental to a person would be monumental: I believe that a theology which operates without reference to the “essential” soul could 1) allow for a more authentically sensible theological perspective, since it would not be forced to deal with the unknowable conditions of post- and pre-birth, and 2) facilitate a reclamation of the body as integral to a person, thus ending history’s constant rejection of the flesh and anything socially related to the flesh such as women, sex, and aging.

At the same time, It would put an end to any form of Ancestor worship. One would not communicate with his or her Ancestors’ “parts” in the same way that he or she interacted with the whole, living being. In essence, any “spirits” flying around would be no more (though no less) worthy of reverence than a person’s corpse, since those extra-bodily parts could not be expected to hold command over the sort of beneficial agency ascribed to Ancestors, since those parts would be, essentially, agent-less remains. All that could remain would be the reverential remembrance of Ancestors, not an unauthentic attempt to preserve an Ancestor’s life (i.e., the time in which they may communicate with the living) beyond death.

To me, such a life-centered, flesh-centered, sense and body-centered theology seems more authentic, more rational, more ecologically, and more poetically sound. O if only we could truly accept a theology of the living, not the dead, and a theology that reclaims the value of the body!


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

7 Responses to Reinterpreting The Soul

  1. Ali says:

    I really admire this process of integration that you talk about and the depths to which it’s brought you. The problem of the “soul” has been bothering me for a while, too, off and on anyway, and I find that while intellectually I can agree whole-heartedly (or whole-mindedly?) with what you’ve laid out, I still continue to have experiences that make me wonder.

    For instance, several years ago, a good friend of mine died while I was out of town on vacation with my family. The night he died, I had an intense, vivid dream that he came to me, surrounded by warm, penetrating light, and apologized for not saying goodbye, embracing me tightly as the whole experience kind of shoved me back into alert wakefulness. This was three days before I would actually hear of his death, and at the time I thought it was just my own subconscious playing a trick on me, referencing how we’d never gone out for coffee one last time before I left town. But on the other hand, the power and intensity of the experience has rarely been rivaled, so that even then I could not considered it “only a dream” without feeling I was being a bit dishonest.

    There are other experiences that I’ve had that make me seriously wonder about the existence of some nonmaterial or nonphysical aspect to self, or at least to reality as a larger whole. Because I do value my embodiment so highly, I feel I can’t simply ignore such experiences — they, too, are embodied experiences, sensations I have felt and sensed with my physical being, and they should be taken just as seriously as the experience of listening to a beautiful song or feeling warm sun on my skin. But how do I reconcile these?

    Recently when I had a really unpleasant hospital experience, I wrote in a kind of half-confused, half-weakened state about my relationship with my body and my sense of embodiment, and I pondered some kind of “theory of memory” as an explanation of the soul:

    My body remembers. And because my body remembers, it reaches out for connection with these things even when they are absent. If there is a Presence, a god or goddess of the sea, it arises from the body of the ocean as my sense of self and spirit arises from my own body. (Perhaps it, too, can reach out towards me, and I can feel that stretching entering in.) The physical memory my body has of the ocean or the sunlight re-creates them in their fullness and power, manifests their presence again. And that is where their spirit exists: not hovering half-bored like a slick film over the material world, but in the places where our two bodies meet, and respond, and remember.

    I don’t even really know what I meant by it, exactly… but it’s an idea I think I may end up pursuing more in the future. In any case, I think we need to value story and poetry, and the sense of Wholeness-more-than-the-sum-of-physical-parts that these things and art and music can bring, so I don’t think I’m willing to denounce all forms of spirit-relationship based on the force of my reason alone. 😉

  2. Ali says:

    (I’m really really sorry for leaving such long comments! It’s rare that I read a blog post that sparks so many ideas and responses in me, and it seems I’m just a bit obsessive about sharing them. Can I blame being a Gemini? Anyway, thank you for writing–it’s a pleasure to find a blog like yours.)

    • cartweel says:

      Hey, No Problem! I really enjoy long responses, because they give me a lot to think about—and oh is your “memory theory” worthy of thought! I, too, have pondered something like a “muscle memory” for our brains and for our hearts, one which may produce many of the experience we describe as out-of-body or divine. Perhaps.

      I especially think that this comment of yours is interesting: “Because I do value my embodiment so highly, I feel I can’t simply ignore such experiences — they, too, are embodied experiences, sensations I have felt and sensed with my physical being, and they should be taken just as seriously as the experience of listening to a beautiful song or feeling warm sun on my skin.” Absolutely we must acknowledge our experiences, though we must be willing to approach them from a variety of different view points—that is, both the divine, the bio-chemical, and the social. I think that we must do so if we are to live fully authentic lives.

  3. gospelpagan says:

    Thanks for articulating this. I think that the work of becoming an authentic, whole person is pretty much The Work, and that vetting oneself against one’s changing ideas is the bedrock of spiritual growth – would that more of us did that in such a conscious way! I have a few thoughts…

    1. I almost completely agree with you regarding your thoughts on embodiment and the importance of re-understanding the body as fundamental to the person…you take it out further than I do is all. It’s an interesting extrapolation – to conclude that speaking to the soul-part of one’s ancestors is an incomplete interaction due to a lack of body. But, I maintain that it is possible to be fully embodied *and* believe in extra-corporeal existences and experiences without denigrating the Flesh, or dismissing our incarnate bodies. I do not think, for instance, that the theory of the soul is really the bedrock of that problem, or at least, not the single origin, certainly. For example, pure scientific rationalism, a theory that posits no soul and no afterlife (and is not, I’m aware, what you’re advocating), hasn’t done wonders for our behavior towards the planet and the marginalized body either.

    2. Your theory would not put an end to ancestor worship as a practice. It may cut off the notion of ancestor “contact,” but you yourself have noted that the reverence of the memory of one’s loved ones and their ancestral connections to the past is valid. But, and I’ve said this to you before, I still don’t really understand why it is so problematic to speak to a “part” of your beloved dead, even if you believe that the complete person, the whole person, is that person who is embodied and who you remember – why must you have all or nothing (i.e. – to have the whole, corporeal and complete being in front of you, or no contact at all)?

    3. And, to your last sentence – death *is* a part of life, and an authentic theology of the living would have to include a theology of the dead. It’s cliched but true – you cannot have one without the other. I do think it’s interesting to ponder how even *more* precious our living existence becomes if we consider a worldview without an afterlife, and one that concentrates so much on corporeal, sensate experience – I think there’s a lot of value there…tons even. But it is also, historically as far back as we can tell, one of the primary modus operandi of human beings to ponder our selves pre-birth and post-death – these being Immensities, Unknowables, Mysteries.

    And then, I have to mention, on the ground, there is the matter of comfort – a religion that predicates itself on compassion and community cannot function without some kind of Story of Death for those who live on without their loved ones. So if you want to eliminate the notion of soul (and an afterlife) from the religious worldview, and if you propose your way of total embodiment is a better way, you are going to have to come up with a theology of Death in some form…you can’t NOT come up with one. Atheists believe that they experience No Thing when they die (the unfathomable Full Stop), and that’s just as much a myth (and as such, just as weighty – I am not using “myth” in the derogatory sense) as the idea that one is presented before a Seat of Judgment, or gets reincarnated as a woodchuck or a politician. We have no idea, period, of what happens – therefore, unless you consistently posit the great “Dunno” (which is not illegitimate, just, well, less interesting – where’s the art/story/myth/poetry in that?) in response to this Great Human Question, every other answer *is* a theory, and you need to consider how that theory works on the ground in the face of grief and the human need for succor and grace.


  4. Cartwheel, awesome post! Your ideas about a “soulless” paganism (please pardon the pun) are fascinating, and well-deserving of the long comments in response. 🙂 I’d like to add one myself… I’ve had vague ideas on this topic before, but your post has really forced me to crystallize them — for that I thank you!

    I absolutely agree that it is wrong to posit some kind of “essential self” that is separable from the body. It is, I think, a false dualism.

    A similar false dualism is the separation of the self from its experiences. Would you be the same “you” if you had had different experiences, or made different choices? I don’t think so. My feeling is that you are, in a literal sense, defined by your experiences and your choices.

    So… You can think of a Self as being nothing more or less than a trajectory of experiences and choices. The Self doesn’t experience things; it isn’t separate from its experiences, or from its choices. The Self is these experiences and choices.

    From this viewpoint, embodiment is one of the experiences that defines a Self. So is disembodiment. A Self doesn’t take on a body, and then discard it, and maybe take on another. Instead, embodiment and disembodiment are experiences that go to make up a Self.

    These aren’t new ideas, I reckon…

    From The Illuminatus!:
    “Then what is real?” George demanded. “Mary, the Queen of May, or Kali, the Mother of Murderers, or Eris, who synthesizes both?”
    “The trip is real,” Hagbard said. “The images you encounter along the way are all unreal. If you keep moving, and pass them, you eventually discover that.”
    “Solipsism. Sophomore solipsism,” Joe answered.
    “No.” Hagbard grinned. “The solipsist thinks the tripper is real.”

  5. Pingback: Earth-Centered: A Theology (Part One) « Pagan Godspell

  6. Pingback: Bodies in Space « Flame in Bloom

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