DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Do people have souls?
T
he idea that we consist of body and soul is as old as the hills. For some this might mean that it can be easily written off, like a passing fashion in shoes. Others think that venerable ideas, unlike old horses, should not necessarily be put out to pasture.

Our need for the soul appears to derive from a powerful, though natural, dislike of death. It can be depressing to think that we all will cease for ever.

Traditional Christianity provides comfort through the doctrine of an immortal soul - an idea which has been weakened by the realisation that it owes more to Greek philosophy than to the Bible. More recently, the discovery that soul-talk involves a wrong use of language [1] appears to have terminally deconstructed old ideas about immortality.

To illustrate: Let's imagine we could dissect a human down to the last atom. We should be able to discover the soul somewhere, in some form. Renee Descartes proposed that it resides in the pineal gland.

But if we talk about the soul in this way, we make a category error. It's rather like a visitor being escorted round the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, England. In the quarter-full debating chamber a Member of Parliament is droning on; another is making desultory notes; one appears to be asleep. "Thanks," says the visitor, "but where is Parliament?"

The visitor is making a category error in supposing that Parliament is a thing. It is actually a phenomenon emerging out of an organisation of things. To talk of the soul is to make the same category error. "Yes," we say, "I see Joe Bloggs. But where is the immortal Joe?"

The point is that each of us is a total system which can be disrupted to a certain point, beyond which it ceases to function. We call that death. If only part of the system continues after death, it cannot be termed a person because it is not the complete system. In other words, how will I know that a soul is Joe Bloggs unless I encounter the entire system which once was Joe?

Christian thinkers have long recognised this problem. One solution has been to suggest that God will reassemble the dead as living bodies on the last day, rather as a dismantled machine might be put together again. Thomas Aquinas said that souls exist in a diminished state until reunited with their bodies.

The problem is that the open system we call a person depends upon the operation of an entire universe for his or her existence. If you and I are to be called "alive" we must have a space-time continuum to be alive in. At what point in time between birth and death am I the true me? The eternal me cannot be only the person I am at death; it must also incorporate the person I was throughout life. Am I more "me" at the height of my mature powers than as a frail eighty-year-old or as a mewling, puking infant?

As I see it, the concept of soul is not a viable way ahead if we are to hope that death isn't the end for each of us.

Rather, we might try accepting that when we die we stay dead. That is the only viable conclusion if life is a property of the universe, not of individual organisms like you and me.

It seems we must trust that if the Creator of the universe cares a jot about us as individuals, there is another plan which is beyond our limited, space-time-bound imaginations.

[1] See The Ghost in the Machine by Gilbert Ryle
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I begin by asking, do non-sentient, non-conscious animals have souls? I don�t know for certain but I doubt they do. They are unable to communicate with each other by exchanging ideas through propositional speech. In other words, they lack consciousness.

Through propositional speech, humans create personalities that others recognize. Personhood is created with each one becoming unique in the cosmos, identifiable by certain characteristics.

These characteristics or persona are the basis of soul. Soul is the disembodied presence of each human being. Soul confirms individual worth and significance.

When I speak to a friend or loved one on the phone I am speaking with his or her soul. There is a direct exchange of ideas and sentiment. When these people are dead I continue to sense their presence and appreciate their souls.

The crunch in this discussion occurs when it is asserted that the soul is immortal. This assertion brings together previous discussions on life after death and whether or not there is a non-material reality. If there is no reality beyond the material then soul will be considered but a mere transient phenomenon ending abruptly with physical death.

Those who believe in a non-material reality and a creator God will consider the soul as the bridge between material reality and the Kingdom of God.

No proof can be mustered for a non-material reality. It must also be said that some philosophers have raised doubts about material reality. Thus, the issue once again returns to personal choice. How does this world work best for you? I would not fear embracing the idea that every soul is unique and worthy in the eyes of God.

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