Nonviolent Bible Interpretation IV: Soul

Last time we looked at how a structure of military power (empire) was able to recruit Christian meaning (the cross) to its side. This time we looked at the way Christianity adopted a shaping concept from its surrounding milieu, one which quickly became the object of desire in a mimetic Christian worldview.

The Hebrew concept of soul (nephesh) is not defined in the bible but is presented in a variety of existential meanings. (Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon says nephesh is translated 44 different ways in LXX, grouped under four main headings, of “creature,” “person,” “life,” “desire.” ) In contrast the Greek concept of the soul is clearly defined, chiefly by binary opposition, by what it is not: i.e. immortal (not dying), immaterial (not matter), simple (without parts). This is an effect of mimetic construction, holding something back through desire, from forces which threaten it (death, decay, multiplicity). Add in intellect, and shazam, you have the immortal soul!

As someone in the group said this Greek way of thinking was “black and white,” while the Hebrews thought in fuzzy edges. The metaphysical or essential clarity of the concept helped in establishing it as supreme object at stake in a dispute between heaven and hell. Its core value as an individual thing or commodity helped turn Christian salvation into a salvationist business with rival companies offering competing deals.

Today neural science and Mimetic Anthropology show us that the human soul cannot be separated from the material relationships whereby the body identifies spontaneously and holistically with the other. The soul is whole-self human communication.

At Matthew 22:37 we see  clearly that Jesus is not thinking in Greek dualist terms, he talks of a tripartite humanity (heart, soul, mind). He uses these terms as aspects of the human self, but they are not fixed essences, neither are they exclusive. At Matt. 10:28 we hear “both soul and body” can be destroyed in Gehenna, i.e. death can be the outcome for personal human life (the soul) along with the flesh. Gehenna is an apocalyptic image, a place of fire, of endless violence, and must be understood in contrast to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of life. Jesus’ words suggest the intense pain of the self when the God of life is refused in favor of endless generative violence. His image must also be understood from the present perspective of the apocalyptic moment and its clarity of choice now: the outcome of loss is “to be feared.” It is a precipice we stand upon, not the architecture of the precipice itself as became fixed in the imagination of the Middle Ages.

Paul makes no significant use of the concept “soul.”

Reading Tertullian’s De Anima (On The Soul) we saw how the distinctive Christian concept emerged. Tertullian describes the origin of the soul as separate but simultaneous with the origin of the body: a living immortal soul, passed down from Adam, arrives at the moment of sexual discharge at the same instant as the body is conceived. The body comes in the fluid, the soul in the warmth. “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us? And do we not experience a faintness and prostration along with a dimness of sight? This must be the soul-producing seed…” (Chapter 27)

Tertullian (160–225CE) was strongly influenced by the materialist/spiritual “fire” of Stoicism. Augustine (354–430) was much more inclined to the other-worldly philosophy of Plato (specifically Neoplatoism) where the soul arrived individually from heaven. At the same time Tertullian’s “traducianism” (the soul passed down from Adam) had the huge advantage of explaining original sin. Throughout his life Augustine hesitated between versions of the-soul-from-heaven (pre-existent souls or souls specifically created by God for each act of conception) and traducianism. He never came down finally on one side or the other, and there has to be a reason. I believe he instinctively favored the heavenly soul, conforming to the Neoplatonic vision of the Confessions, and yet he adopted Tertullian’s theory of sexual generation to provide the scenario wherein original sin is transmitted. It was precisely the involuntary desire-led character of sexual arousal which signaled the fall of Adam and the communication of original sin. “(C)arnal concupiscence (libido), which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. 1, see chapters 7 & 27.)

From Augustine onward the die was cast: the combination of a soul created directly in heaven and original sin generatively transmitted in sex became fixed teaching in Aquinas and was quietly assumed and carried over by Luther in his account of justification. The soul thus became the fearful battleground of church powers and crisis-ridden human conscience seeking salvation.

But today the soul is more and more inseparable from the body, a complex made up of billions of cells, individual propagating units, all in communication with one another via electrical and chemical signals. The meaning, function and purpose of this complex can be understood simply as communication, i.e. the soul. Jesus is a revolutionized human body whose communication (soul) is peace. As the Risen Christ he offers this new meaning to all bodies. As Risen his communication is also beyond death. We do not know how it works but we believe that at the point of death any human soul can reach out in communication with Christ and so find life. “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).


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