January 27th, 2019
- Rev. Diane Rollert
I clearly remember the moment when it hit me. I must have been 10 or 11 years old, in school, being introduced to the basics of chemistry. I was sitting at my desk, finding myself mesmerized by that most intriguing visual representation of all reality, the periodic table of elements.
What a revelation to learn that each element had its own weight and properties, and that, alone and when joined with other elements, they formed molecules that became the substance of everything we experience. It was a complete shift in my thinking as a child, from seeing the world as it appeared, to considering a deeper truth, that everything was so much more complicated than you could ever imagine.
It was then that my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson, revealed this incomprehensible truth. “Scientists,” she said, “have been able to discover and define all the elements that a human being is made of, but they still don’t know how to bring those elements to life.”
“Whoa!” I remember thinking. If the essence of life couldn’t be discovered in the laboratory, then where did it come from? Where did I come from? Where did all the people in the world come from? My parents were atheists, so the answer that life came from God wasn’t going to be enough. To Mrs. Henderson’s credit, she left her students to seek their own answers.
That’s the great mystery, the big question, that humans have been trying to answer through religion and science forever. What is the essence, in all those ingredients of flesh, blood and breath, that gives us life? What is it that makes each one of us who we are — and whatever that thing is, does it exist before we are born and does it continue after we die?
Do you call that thing “the soul”?
There is so much history around the concept of the soul, of the essence of being. In Yoruba and other African traditions, in many Indigenous traditions and in the Japanese Shinto tradition, all things — humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers — are embodied with a spirit that exists beyond the human conception of time.
As the poet Mary Oliver, who sadly passed away this month, expresses it:
Some Questions You Might Ask
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
Whole libraries could be filled with each religious tradition’s musings on the definition of the soul. Then there’s all the work that scientists, and many charlatans, have done over the centuries to try to prove the existence of the soul. Does it really weigh three-quarters of an ounce? Go ahead and Google it. (The answer is no.) I’m not an expert in any of the following I’m about to say, but I’d like to offer you this rather heavy food for thought.
The ancient Greeks saw the soul as something uniquely human. It was the psyche — all that stuff within us that we can’t boil down into substance — our thoughts, our reason, our emotions, our perceptions. The I that is I that I can’t ever truly understand or fully define.
In Jewish tradition, it is God who breathes life into the first human being:
“Then Adonai, God, formed a person from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became” —in Hebrew, nephesh— “a living soul.”
Most versions of the Bible translate nephesh as “human being” so as not to be confused with a Christian sense of the soul as something immortal and immutable.
In the ancient Hebrew Psalm 139, you find these words:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
There is no mention of an afterlife to be found in the Torah, but the self, the living being, is defined as being made of flesh, blood, heart-mind, breath and spirit. When people die, Jews say, “May their life be for a blessing.” The memory of the life you lived on this earth is your legacy after death.
In Islam, the Qur’an speaks of Allah taking souls in death. The interpretations I’ve read explain that the physical body remains behind, but something, the soul, returns to Allah. In Hinduism, atman refers to the individual life force, as well as an unchanging, eternal soul.
But when the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi Tree, he couldn’t find the immortal soul that had been part of the Hindu doctrine he’d been taught from childhood. Instead, he came to the conclusion that nothing endures: “All things come into being and then go out of being; all things flow like a river.”
Buddhism teaches that there is this unique thing that is the self, a bundle of “body, feelings, perception, disposition and consciousness.” While there is no soul that continues on, our dispositions become the karma from our past life that must be worked out in the next life. When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was no longer reborn. He attained nirvana without a body.
In Christianity, the soul becomes something uniquely human, granted eternally by God that continues on after you die. Your acceptance of Christ leads you to immortality in heaven. Your rejection leads you to immortality in hell. In some Christian traditions, the soul also exists before you are born. It’s really worth considering what this means, because this concept of the immortality of the soul lives at the heart of the debate over a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy. Is the existence of the soul the beginning of human life? And if so, when does it begin and when does it end?
The Unitarians of the 19th century had a very different sense of the soul. They rejected the Puritan Calvinist tradition that surrounded them. In the 16th century, Calvin taught that long before time, God had already decided who would be the elect, who would end up in heaven and who would end up in hell after death. It’s a theology I’ve never fully understood. But Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and Dorothea Dix argued that God found joy in human beings working toward the moral perfection of their souls. The soul made you unique. What mattered was what you did with this gift here on earth, not in some next life.
The Unitarian Transcendentalists took it a step further. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw a great oversoul that connected us to each other, to God and to all of nature. In his essay, The Oversoul, he writes [please excuse the gendered language of the time]:
“…that great nature in which we rest... that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart... We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”
Why do we care if the soul exists or not? Why do we care if we go on living after death? In the end, I think it comes down to our very human anxiety about death that brings with it the universal pain of grief. I remember a dear friend, a brilliant doctor, who is member of the Latter Day Saints, explaining why the ceremony of families being sealed together for eternity is central to their faith. She told me that it gave her great reassurance to know that she would someday rejoin her loved ones in heaven.
Often when I do a memorial service, the families will emphasize that they, or the deceased, are agnostic or atheist. We’ll talk about the importance of legacy and what it means to keep alive what was most precious about their loved one. Even when there is pain and tension in relationships, there’s always something that lives on, that’s worth honouring and preserving. Still, I’m surprised how often people will ask me to read this reading that’s often attributed as a Hopi Prayer (which in fact was written by an American woman named Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932):
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain…
And so it continues…
Whether we believe in God or not, whether we believe in reincarnation or an afterlife or not, most of us want to believe that our loved ones will live on in some way.
I want to offer you this final story:
A mourner writes to her rabbi, “Ever since the death of my brother… I’m grappling with the concept of the soul. I wish I could believe in it. I am the type that needs rational arguments to convince me, and it seems the soul is too abstract for my mind. I know these things can’t be scientifically proven, but do I have to resort to blind faith to believe in the soul?”
The rabbi answers:
“The pain of losing a loved one is so deep because it is so final. You can never replace a person who you have lost. But what if you could?”
Imagine cloning your brother, the rabbi suggests. Imagine inserting all his memories into this newly cloned replica. “Would you be satisfied with a copy of your brother? Would his death be reversed when you met his clone? Would it end your pain?”
The rabbi continues, “I can’t imagine that the answer could be yes… Because something is missing. This is not your brother. He may have your brother’s voice… your brother’s manner and mind and memory, but he doesn’t have your brother’s soul. It just isn’t him.
“That’s what soul is… Above your body, beyond your personality, transcending genetics and even deeper than memory is the core of your being. It is soul that makes each person irreplaceable. You don’t need scientific proof of the soul, neither do you need blind faith. You know it to exist just as you know your own existence.”
I guess I hope that we never fully capture the essence of life. I’d love to think that some mysteries are eternal.
As for the soul, I think I’m caught between all the traditions. Of course, I’d love to see my loved ones in the next life, to hold them close again, to say all the things I didn’t get to say when they were alive. I’d like to believe that I am connected to the spirit of all things, living and not living. I’d like to accept that some part of me will move on to the next plane. I’d like to imagine that I will become a horse running free across the fields in my next life.
But all I can control is this life, and that’s work enough for one person.