Monday, November 19, 2007


"Of course I don't believe in 'the soul'," a friend of mine has commented on a number of occasions recently. What he is talking about is the claim about some disembodied entity which exists distinctly from the neural and physical networks that constitute the body. There can be no denying that this is what a lot of religious people have thought when they used the term too, and certain doctrines of the Catholic church have construed it that way. But, in fact, the best theological thinkers have never bought into this way of dividing up the human person - since persons-in-relation (a key Hebrew, biblical understanding with parallels in modern psychophysiologic / psychosomatic theory) are to be viewed in terms of the whole, rather than the sole. This is part of the burden of Kevin Boyd's article about the theological resonance of recent research from a series of laboratory tests conducted in both England and Switzerland (The body as religious evidence). It is also what I am saying in my recent address on Struggle, surprise and sainthood, published yesterday. The nub of the matter is in the second couple of paragraphs, but I'll provide context for those remarks:

"The Feast of All Souls enables us to locate ourselves in solidarity with all who have died while sustained by the quest for life. In prayer and remembrance, it invites us to experience, in the words of Iona Community founder George McLeod, “the terrifying thinness of the veil that appears to separate time and eternity”. The veil is ruptured again and again as those we have known pass on (yet remain with us), and as the love of God pours into history (yet remains elusive).

"The Letter to the Ephesians sets this out as an invitation to share in the design for life offered to us in Christ. This pattern for living in love, forgiveness and continual renewal is one “whose purpose is everywhere at work”, writes St Paul (or a close follower). He demonstrates this practically by arguing that both Gentiles and Jews must be welcome in God’s household. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has famously expressed it: “Christ, when he was lifted up, did not say ‘I draw some people to myself.’ He said ‘I draw all, all, all!’”

All Souls, indeed. For the soul, as St Augustine declared, and as modern theologians have elaborated, is not a disembodied spirit somehow temporarily trapped within the flesh (as ‘the religious’ suppose). It is, rather, as Leonardo Boff puts it, the whole, embodied person oriented towards the possibility of life rather than the thrall of death; personhood destined for communion rather than isolation.

"This proper theological understanding is the antithesis of body-spirit dualism, the source of many dangerous superstitions – and of the playfulness we see in today’s Hallowe'en, which I think can be understood as a commercialised echo of the way in which human beings tend to confuse God with the gods, and a parade of ghouls with the genuinely sinister forces that have captured the human spirit throughout history: from Nero and Salem right through to Auschwitz, the gulags, Cambodia’s Year Zero, the killing fields of Rwanda, Srebrenica, Israel-Palestine, Dafur and beyond.

"All Saints and All Souls is about the Gospel’s confrontation with all the manifestations of death, division and fear in our world. It calls us instead to a vision of the unity and fulfilment of the whole of life (past, present and future) in the presence of God."

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