Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Measuring Soul

Let's assume humans have souls.

But what is a soul? It is easy–and common–to conceptualize the soul in accessible, tangible, everyday ways. The young man in the car next to you at the stop light, nodding his head and shoulders back and forth to a 1970s funk beat. A woman and her young daughter sitting on a grassy sand dune, warm-lazy in the setting Pacific sun, relaxed and inspired. The tears of a wife welcoming her husband back from war. The passionate speech of a civil-rights leader resonating in tone and substance across a vast lawn packed with people. To these, one might attach the notion of the soul at work, the soul touched, the soul giving, the soul embracing.

But what we are talking about here are the effects, or some attributes at least, of the soul. That goes only so far toward telling us what it is.

It "is" something. But what?

Christianity tells us that the soul is beyond biology, yet an embodiment of the true spirit of each human being. For those who make the effort, their souls are embraced by God even when their bodies have become lonely lumps of carbon. Other religions offer similar ideas, most often of something fundamentally super-physiological, part of the universe, somehow connected with God, gods, the afterlife, or Nature.

That’s a start. And maybe that’s the end of our ability to describe it. But I’m convinced there’s something more, more "is."

A coffee cup "is" something. It’s ceramic or glass, has mass, reflects light so has color, is utilitarian.

Exhalation of breath "is." It is gas, mostly nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen. It is water vapor. It contains tiny microbes. It carries odor. It relieves mammals of waste products. It feels like relief when air has been held too long in the lungs. Weight lifters and kick boxers use it to guide their thrusts.

A photon "is." Physicists describe it as both a wave and a particle. It is a package of energy, but has no mass. It can be measured by complicated processes or by the skin as it darkens then burns during a day at the beach. It is heat, microwave energy, X-ray, ultraviolet, and visible light, and other radiation. It is the reason Bill in San Diego, when he turns on his local T.V. station, sees the sprightly, eager anchorwoman laughing at ridiculous, bad jokes every night. And so, in the way light is radio and T.V., at least, a photon can seem like magic.
And so does the soul. It’s elusive. Hard to understand. Yet right here. Right there. Alive. Evident. Like magic.

But it’s not really magic at all.

I suggest that the soul is a reservoir of the subconscious that drives our personalities, our loves, our presence in the world. A key to the "true" person, not the one with arthritis or the one with red hair. Not the one who can’t drive very well or who plumbs or who writes legal briefs. Rather, the engine of conscience, the "is" of what it is to be one unique human being, the underlying self that drives the bigger self that is more accessible. But, even more importantly, this "self" is not "self" at all. It is really God at work in every person. And in that way it is pure Nature.

I also propose this. Even the most advanced science of 1,000 years from now will not be able to measure the soul as anything more than an idea or a feeling.

But so what?

It is not measuring the soul that allows us to understand it. God measures it, but not with scales. And He certainly understands souls in ways that humans cannot. In the soul we find kindred with God.

But I believe even we humans are able to understand it better than we do. And it seems to me there is only one good way to do this. It requires using the soul. Pushing it. Challenging it. Putting it to work. That means doing good things that are hard to do that cause you to reach deep into your humanity, maybe for something good you haven’t found yet.

That means struggling to find truth and make it real in your life. That means putting yourself aside so much that it is painful. That means fighting for the truth and for what is right. That means pushing boundaries, questioning the status quo and the statements and opinions of others. That means questioning your own assumptions. That means being critical and skeptical and cautious.

But it also means being joyous and alive and an embodiment of the good you want in the world. It means being creative, and using imagination. And finding your heart of hearts and making it work.

It is one thing to feel and acknowledge beauty. Perfect tree bark in perfect, clear, warm afternoon light. The intricacy of the irises of your dog’s eyes as he looks at you and loves you unconditionally. A canvasback duck paddling in puddles of rippling steel-gray sheen on a farm pond. Your lover’s hair and the smell on the top of her head.

It is one thing to do "good deeds." A dollar and a kind word to the homeless man in a wheelchair with a dog. An unexpected phone call to a lost friend. Anonymous giving to charities. Sacrificing one’s comfort and pleasure and convenience for others. Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote, giving that makes the giver hurt. Or, for that matter, giving that makes the giver less secure in any number of ways.

It is said things like these are "good for the soul."

It is another thing, however, to look inside, grab what beauty is there, and send it out. Then make more of it, and send that out, too. Take C.S. Lewis at his essential word: escaping or losing the self that surrounds the soul reveals God. Realizing human frailty and incapacity and inability reveals God. Stripping away so much of the humanity that is imperfect is the only way to truly understand the soul.

And when that happens, one then will realize what the soul is good for. That is when the soul finds its song.

1 Comments:

Blogger ajmac said...

Very good insights and thoughts here.

You are certainly right to suggest that the soul is the place in which we come closest to God. If the Hebrew and Christian Bible is to be believed, and we humans bear God's image, then the soul must be the repository for the Imago Dei. God is Spirit and his followers worship Him in spirit and in truth, we are told. In other words, God the Father has no physical body and so His image is purely soul or spirit. If we are to connect with Him, we must do so at the level of the soul.

Our souls bear God's image in at least one important way: we exercise free will as God does. Of course, our will is considerable less expansive than His. For one thing, we are limited by time. We cannot change the past or the future. We exercise our will only in the present, even as He exercises His will over all time and eternity. For another thing, our power is limited so that we can will only certain things to happen. I can will my hair shorter by cutting it with scissors. But I can never will my hair to be longer than it presently is.

So, if I were to live the ideal life, I would exercise dominion over those things over which I have power or control, such as my attitude, my actions, and my determination to be joyful, and not let those things over which I have no control, including the past, the future and others' actions, trouble me.

This is the sine qua non of Christian discipline.

10:33 AM  

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