Reinterpreting The Soul
September 24, 2009 7 Comments
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!