The Christian tradition—since I presuppose this starting-point—is resolutely in favor of the soul. The ancients, particularly Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, understood the soul as the bearer of the imago dei. The tradition was mostly unanimous in defining the soul as the center of reason and immortality (Tertullian). Everything essential to the human person is to be found in the soul. The Reformation played with the tradition and augmented it, but did not depart from essentialism. Calvin calls the soul an “immortal essence,” the “seat of the divine image,” and the “seat of intelligence” trapped within the “prison” of the body. Protestants basically stuck to the classical bifurcation between the soul and body—in which the soul (as the seat of reason) rules over the body (as the seat of emotions and appetites).
I do not have time to traverse the modern terrain of the soul. Karl Barth famously defined the human person as the “soul of the body,” by which he maintained the elevation of the soul as the center of human identity, but all while insisting upon the closest unity of soul and body. Barth rejected any kind of bifurcation, and he explicitly rejects Calvin’s anthropology by denying that the soul is connected to divinity and the body to earthly material. Rather, both soul and body are earthly and temporal, and there is nothing divine located it the human person.
Since then, the attack against the soul has become standard fare. Dualism itself has been severely censured in this age of late modernity. We live in a time of fragmentation, in which both unity and dualism are hard to sustain. Our scientific frame of reference has analyzed the human person biologically to discover the material origins for all the impulses that ancient writers attributed to some “spark of divinity” within us. The soul is no longer necessary to explain morality or feelings of the divine presence. The human person has been demythologized, and reason is no longer seen as some divine gift—now that we know the abysmal depths to which it can lead us.
So where are we now? For all the intellectual arguments against the soul, we still live in a culture that finds use for the term. See, for example, the Harry Potter series. In the most recent book, we discover that Voldemort has divided up his soul and placed it in various hidden objects in order to keep him alive on earth beyond the death of his body. This is fascinating. The soul is a kind of rarefied matter capable of being (physically?) split up. It is entirely separate from the body, nor is it identifiable with any rational faculty; the soul is not the mind, as in much of the Christian tradition. The soul, in this story, is essentially a material conscious—the center of morality, rather than the seat of intelligence. Voldemort is capable of thinking and acting perfectly fine, while his soul is split up in different physical locales. Moreover, to split up the soul, one must commit murder. The connection between the soul and the moral faculty is presumed here. Perhaps Rowling has Kant on her mind.
In his recent article for Books & Culture, entitled, “A New Way to Be Human,” Kevin Corcoran sketches out what he calls a “Christian materialist alternative to the soul.” He rejects soul/body dualism, and he also rejects the false dichotomy “that if we're not immaterial and immortal souls, then we must be nothing more than human animals, physical organisms, or biological beasts.” He then proposes that there is “a materialism available that accounts for our being animals without being merely animals.” What is his proposal?
How can one be an animal without being identical with an animal? Think about it this way. I am willing to bet that most of you believe that a particular copper statue is constituted by a particular piece of copper. But I'm also willing to bet that you agree that the piece of copper could conceivably outlast the statue, that is, that the piece of copper could continue in existence even if the statue should not. Suppose, for example, that the piece of copper composing the statue is hammered flat. This would cause the statue to cease to exist but not the piece of copper. Moreover, the piece of copper could have existed for some time before the statue came into existence. The statue is a piece of copper even if it is not identical with the piece of copper. The statue can't be identical with the piece of copper because the piece of copper can exist without the statue existing.I do not wish to analyze the details of his argument; I leave that to you. I simply want to suggest that perhaps the word “soul” needs to be redefined. Or perhaps it has already been redefined through its contemporary use.
Here is my proposal. I propose we think of the relationship between a particular human person and his or her biological body in the same way. We are animals in the sense that we are wholly constituted by our bodies; every material part of me is a part of the biological body that constitutes me and I have no immaterial parts—just like the statue and the copper. We human beings are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them. To borrow words U2's Bono used for more poetic ends, "We are one, but we're not the same."
The materialist view of human persons I am proposing is compatible with every important Christian belief related to human nature, including beliefs about the afterlife and the claim that human beings have been created in the image of God. Indeed the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation are actually more hospitable to a materialist view of human nature than they are to the more extreme versions of dualism.
Bruce McCormack says that the word “soul” simply means that we are more than the sum of our biological parts. This could be taken in a number of different ways, but in the end, it is most compatible with Corcoran’s suggestion. McCormack identifies the center of our identity in the soul, but that merely indicates the extension of our unique identity beyond the particular embodied form in which we presently exist. There is nothing immaterial or divine within us; but we are not defined solely by this particular material body. In other words, to use the Latin phrase associated with the extra Calvinisticum, our identity extends etiam extra carnem—also beyond the flesh.
There is more that needs to be said concerning nominalism and essentialism, as well as the various kinds of Christian materialism. I should also point out that Richard Beck of Experimental Theology argues in one of his posts on universalism that with the demise of Cartesian soul/body dualism, there will be an attendant demise of the notion of free will. As he states:
The doctrine of the soul is only important in that it allows a mechanism for free will. For what other reason would we care if the soul existed or not? If I have no soul why should I care? Immortality isn't really an issue, because the vision in the bible is of a bodily resurrection. No, the fear of not having a soul isn't about immortality, it's about free will and moral accountability.With the demise of free will, the best soteriological explanation—the one that will still make sense after the death of the soul—will be universalism. I leave you to ponder the merits of Beck’s suggestion.
Questions to ponder:
- What is the function of the word, “soul”? What does it actually accomplish?
- Is there a need for talk about the soul?
- Can we speak of the soul today in light of current neuroscience, psychology, and the Darwinian revolution?
- Is Corcoran’s proposal attractive? Is Christian materialism the way of the future?
- If McCormack is right, that the soul simply indicates that we are more than the sum of our parts, what then is the relation between the “we” and the “parts”?
- Is free will doomed to extinction? Are we on the verge of seeing the demise of talk about free choices along with the demise of the soul?
- Is immortality itself a notion that still makes sense? What about the resurrection of the body?
- Even if we do not know what is “true,” can we make an argument for which position is best for the church today?