The Idea of a Christian Soul and Its Intelligibility

Dr. Mark Harris is a professional physicist, ordained minister, and lecturer in the Religion and Science program of The University of Edinburgh’s Divinity School. As a physicist, Dr. Harris is known (along with Steve Bramwell) as the discoverer of “spin ice,” a model system that has had a dramatic influence on research in magnetism. As a theologian, Dr. Harris engages the overlap of the theological and scientific worldviews, particularly concerning issues such as creation, miracles, and the topic of this interview, the idea of the soul.

What are the contemporary way(s) of understanding the soul? Could you touch on the idea of “substance dualism,” as well as the layman’s understanding of the soul?

“Soul” is a very common word in English. We use it for all sorts of things generally to mean either the living essence of a person or whatever it is that contains the “real” them. We might talk about 100 souls lost at sea, meaning living human beings, or I might talk about my soul as being the deepest, most important part of me, where everything, my deepest values and feelings, reside. I do think we’ve become rather confused about it, though, lately. This is certainly the case for those of us in the West who are influenced by Christianity – we tend to understand it in very religious terms. And we often think of it in the terms you just mentioned – “substance dualism,” the idea that I am made up of two distinct entities, namely flesh and spirit or body and soul. And of course there is some toing and froing about whether spirit and soul are the same thing or distinct. But if we were to use that understanding of soul, namely substance dualism, we would typically think of my soul as containing the essential me, particularly after my death, that is, as carrying an immortal quality to it. It doesn’t need to be in close contact with the body, but it can live on. Many people might think of the afterlife as souls going to heaven.

Now this idea is often connected with Descartes – “I think therefore I am.” Here, the mind/soul contains the most important aspect of me, that which will live on after my body. But of course this idea goes as far back as Plato and perhaps earlier if we dig around in ancient myths. (Plato believed in the immortal soul and thought that physical reality was in some sense a lesser reality than the world of ideas and spirits). But in all of this there is great uncertainty about the soul, just as there is for the whole human condition when the mind is in consideration, thanks to things like evolutionary biology, for instance, which has taught us that we are animals like others (we might think about Desmond Morris and his famous study, “The Naked Ape”). Studies like this might lead us to questions like do animals have souls. Many people say they do, and there are religious traditions like Jainism which believe they do.

What separates us from animals? The traditional Christian belief was that we have souls and they don’t, but that is now largely disappearing, at least in popular conception. Also, the way that modern science has developed in the field of psychology or neuroscience – we’ve started to realize that a lot of the things we might have once attributed to the soul or mind we can now understand in terms of biology, for instance: subjects can be given stimulus and made to think of things and brain scans can be done which suggest that we can pinpoint what’s going on. And the same studies have been done for people who are praying. There is a sense in which the religious part of me can have a wholly biological explanation. And this leads to all sorts of questions and uncertainties about what exactly the soul is.

Do you see any problems with this notion of the soul from a philosophical point of view or from a Christian point of view?

I would say to that that it depends on your cosmology. With the advent of modern science, we have developed over the past few hundred years a very materialistic cosmology where everything is ultimately open to empirical verification or testing. There isn’t a single door in the universe that can’t be opened, that we can’t knock on it and find out what’s behind it. And so from a scientific point of view, we feel like the soul really ought to be in our grasp in scientific terms too. And the fact that it really isn’t, that we are still talking about a concept that we can barely even define, suggests that there is something deeper here. Similar questions arise when we start to try to talk about even more fundamental aspects of me that don’t have a religious connotation, things like mind and consciousness. The kinds of questions we’ve been asking about the soul turn out to be almost the same as people, including scientists, are currently asking about the mind: what is the mind and what is its relationship to the physical brain, or what is consciousness?

We are all aware that we are conscious beings – it is one of the most distinctive things about us. It seems to be the distinctive aspect that separates us from other animals. But what exactly is consciousness? There are as many answers are there are people working on it. It’s one of the great scientific mysteries of our day. The more we try to understand, the more problems arise, and the soul is right in the middle of this because it is effectively the religious dimension of our consciousness (or that’s the way I’m explaining it at the moment). The philosophical problems of the soul arise from that fact that we’ve inherited this Christian tradition where the soul is my religious dimension, the quintessential me, and yet science has brought in at the same time a much more materialistic view of cosmology which seems contradictory. Again, the soul is effectively in the middle of this.

Now, from a Christian perspective, I know some people feel very threatened when you suggest something like “the soul doesn’t exist.” It’s almost tantamount to saying something like “salvation doesn’t exist” or “God doesn’t exist.” You’re just made up of atoms, cells, and chemicals; there’s no part of you that can be saved. This is how some people read this. However, one of the things that theologians working on this have realized is that we are actually rediscovering the worldview of the Bible.

The ancient Hebrew anthropology, in which most of the Old Testament arose, didn’t really believe in the soul as a disembodied entity but instead saw the whole human being as a single material whole. If the Old Testament speaks of “soul,” it generally tends to mean “that being endowed with life, with God’s breath,” or it might sometimes mean “the essential me” but understood as a physical me. So the idea that you want to split the human being up, into two different parts, a physical part and a soul part, is largely alien to the worldview of the Bible.

In many ways, what we’re doing in asking questions about the soul and raising the status of the physical through science is essentially getting back to what the people of the Bible knew. And that is why a lot of the theological writings around this will talk about the circular historical narrative, whereby we are rediscovering what the people of the Bible always knew, that the human being is a living whole. When dead, we are dead. We have to wait for resurrection. And there is a sense in which too strong a belief in substance dualism weakens the idea of resurrection at the heart of Christianity. The Church has over the last two thousand years struggled with this: the Hebrew notion that the human is one living entity which will hope for resurrection from God, but at the same time this more Greek idea that there is a spiritual reality which will always live on.

I think you’ve raised some of the important issues surrounding the topic. In particular, you’ve highlighted the importance of the doctrine of resurrection, a doctrine which figures centrally in many controversies in the history of the Church, for example, that of the Cathar heresy in the 12th century or the Gnostics in the early Church, where the goodness of the material world was challenged. What about the Church Fathers? How do their views of the soul differ from these contemporary ones?

When I speak of the Church Fathers, I mean those Christian theologians from the time of what is often called the “Apostolic Fathers,” extending from the beginning of the 2nd century, after the New Testament was written, up to about the 5th century Council of Chalcedon, when the nature of Christ as having a human and divine nature was settled in at least one part of Christianity. This was the classical age when most of Christian theology was fought over and formulated. And of course, the idea of the soul is a very central idea. The historical narrative tends to see our idea of the soul as crystallizing during this time. At the beginning of this period, most Christians came from a Jewish background and tended to have a monist understanding of the soul, meaning that the human being is one physical entity and that we hope for resurrection from God. But by the end of this period the Church found itself in a state where it believed in the immortal soul, as well as the resurrection of the physical body, and therefore theologians had to try to reconcile this by talking about the soul existing apart from the body and being rejoined to the body at the resurrection, thereby introducing a sort of intermediate state when the two are separated. This was a way of bridging the gap between the Hebrew anthropology and the Greek anthropology.

Now that’s the way that the historical narrative tends to work, but when you start to look at the writings of individual Church Fathers, you realize that they were actually much more subtle and sophisticated than this historical narrative suggests. In the fourth century, quite a lot of theologians sprouted up asking questions about this topic in light of the condemnation of the teaching of Apollinarius, who had denied that Jesus had a human soul. It was mostly agreed that Jesus had a soul (especially after the condemnation), but there was a need to explain just what that meant.

Gregory of Nyssa (c.329-389/90) wrote a whole treatise on the subject of the soul and resurrection, wherein he went into great depth about what it means to have a soul and to say that I will be raised from the dead. He tended to see the soul in metaphorical terms as a way of speaking about the human being in religious terms, but he is hard to pin down – at times, he seems like a substance dualist but at others times talks as if the soul is just the body talked about from a religious angle. One of the ideas he is best known for is (in Greek) epektasis, the ascent of the soul, and he wrote great mystical works about the ascent of the soul toward God. You can almost read this as if it is a kind of spiritual journey which has no bearing on my body at all, but when you look closely you realize that he is talking about an embodied journey, an ascent which happens in this life as much in the next. So, his idea of salvation is not being something that you just win, that you are suddenly granted so that one day you are not saved and the next you are, but is instead a state of becoming, a gradual process that we are always going through in this life and the next too.

His friend Gregory of Nazianzus (c.335-c.395) was very keen on the idea of the soul and said in response to Apollinarius that we must keep the soul because the soul is the battleground for salvation; it is where sin is effectively to be found in the human condition. If you take away the soul, there is nothing for Christ to save me through. Thus, he tended to see the soul as the interface between the human being and God, and the dividing wall which Christ needed to break down in order to solve the problem of sin and to bring salvation to humans.

As you mentioned earlier, it seems that many people today think of the soul as a kind of mystical reality or as just a kind of metaphor for their emotions or identity. Whether coming from an atheistic perspective or a theistic perspective, the soul is seen as this reality which we can’t really grasp in the same way that we grasp most of the other things we talk about. What do you think about this? Can the idea of the soul be built on more solid foundations than that? Is there an intellectual justification for the idea of a soul, or is it is really just this mystical, unseen reality? Or is there a way to reconcile these two answers?

I myself don’t believe in the soul. I don’t think it exists as a thing-in-itself. And I have come across many Christians who feel very threatened by this position. They can’t imagine how a Christian or a theologian could possibly say you don’t have a soul. Nonetheless, I still use the language of “soul” because I find it a very useful metaphor for talking about me from a religious angle, and this is how I read Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. What I take away from them is their deeply spiritual theology about the human being searching for God, ascending towards God, being the battleground for salvation, while all still happening in the body. I like their use of the term “soul” as a way of describing this while not necessarily thinking of it as a thing-in-itself, that is, the kind of thing that can be pried away from my body. And so, I use the term as the best term we have to denote that mysterious interface between us and God. I’m not much of a dualist at all: I don’t tend to believe in the existence of a world of spirits, another dimension of reality I can perceive only “through the glass darkly.” I tend to think there is the physical world and there is God the Creator, and we exist in relationship with that God. My soul is effectively the bridge, what we call in the science of religion, “the causal link” between God and the world, between Creator and creature.

But is there justification for using that word? Christians often seem to be afraid of science when it comes to things like the soul. Can science, for example neuroscience, prove that there’s no such thing as the soul? From the atheist perspective, there seems to be a “case closed” mentality because we can supposedly explain all these things without appeal to a “soul” or at least will be able to do so in the future after more scientific discoveries. From the Christian perspective, there is a knee-jerk fear that science could disprove the existence of the soul. How should we view developments in scientific inquiry about such matters, committed as they are to some idea of the soul?

Well, we have to consider how we define the term “soul.” Often times it is connected to a religious context, which is why atheists are suspicious of the term. On the one hand, if we understand the soul from a religious angle as being a human person in supernatural or spiritual existence, then there’s nothing science can say one way or the other concerning it because science doesn’t have the tools to go into that dimension, if you like. And this is exactly the kind of argument that is often used against “New Atheism”: science may be able to explain a lot of what we see, touch, taste, etc., but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. This same argument can be applied to the question of the existence of the soul.

On the other hand, the fact that modern cognitive a biological research and neuroscience have done an awful lot to understand the brain suggests that everything that once was attributed to the soul can be understood in physical terms, which suggests that the term soul or the idea of a soul as a separate thing is becoming redundant. But I personally think, hearkening back to the Church Fathers, that there is always a case for viewing the human person from a religious angle and then soul is a useful piece of terminology. Even setting this aside, one of the things that is particularly interesting is that whilst a non-believer might have great problems with the term soul because of its religious connotations, that same person is usually very comfortable talking about his or her own consciousness or own mind, and yet science can do little to prove that we have anything of the sort, apart from our neurons, synapses, cells, etc. that science can talk about it. So, consciousness is in effect a pseudoscientific concept that we cannot describe in scientific terms and perhaps, as some cognitive scientists argue, will never understand in scientific terms.

Thus, we have ideas of things like consciousness that look rather like the idea of the soul. And so to answer the specific question of whether science has disproved the idea of the soul, I think the answer is no, and I can’t see any reason why it ever should. On the other hand, science allows us to use language more carefully and I’d love it if we one day understood consciousness more completely and I’m sure that would allow us to define our terms more carefully. But at the moment it’s very mysterious, just like the soul.

So, in one way, then, there is room for encouragement, even from the religious perspective, since we are breaking away from a concept of the soul as an independent reality disconnected from the physical world. For it may be that by moving away from a concept of the soul that isn’t actually that useful, we can now talk about it in a way that doesn’t threaten Christians since they’ve always believed in the resurrection of the body.

One of the great weaknesses of the dualistic understanding of the human being is that, taken too far, it ends in pure Gnosticism or Manichaeism. Essentially, this is the idea that physical reality is evil and that we must retreat to the ivory tower of the mind away from an evil material world and find salvation in an escape from the world. One of the things that I think we’ve discovered, rediscovered really, in recent years through this emphasis away from the immortal, immaterial soul and back on the full reality of the physical human condition, is the idea of incarnation, that God came to be a part of this reality that we feel and hear and touch and see, not as something ethereal locked in an ivory tower.

So in abandoning substance dualism, should Christians feel like they’ve found a desperate escape from modern critiques, or is this really rather a recovery of what Christianity has always taught?

Theology operates in a very different way from science. Science can make what appears to be objective progress, allowing us to understand more and more of the natural world over time. Theology, however, operates in a reflective mode, meaning that there is a certain body of data (Scripture, Church tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers, etc.) and one is constantly reinterpreting this in each successive generation. One way of looking at this is to say that we have rediscovered an angle that was understood 2000 years ago, but in another way we have advanced, deepening our understanding of that ancient idea and science has helped us in this.

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