Posts Tagged ‘soul’

Never Mind?

May 11, 2006

I had a conversation the other day with someone who was making the point that we have to use our spirits and not our souls to know things. At one level, I agreed with this person about that. In case you aren’t familiar with the distinction, I should clarify that I run in circles where folks distinguish between a person’s spirit and his/her soul. The distinction is biblically based, although I see no regularity to how different New Testament writers use these two terms in relation to one another. There are a few instances where the two seem to be equated, and there are other instances where they are spoken of as separate things.

Unfortunately, the Greco-Roman roots of our heritage predispose us to think, like Aristotle, in terms of parts or substances when we turn inward to contemplate the age-old question, “What is Man?” So when we think about the difference between soul and spirit, we think about two separate parts or substances of ourselves (which are not so easily separated from one another) in addition to our physical substance (our bodies). In case you’re interested, a person who subdivides human nature into three parts like this is called a “trichotomist.” Aren’t we all glad there’s a name for it!

To illustrate my point, you can check out how some of the greatest writers along this line interpret Hebrews 4:12, where the writer says that the Word of God can penetrate to the division of soul and spirit. Grammatically, this verse simply says that both soul and spirit (i.e. the deepest reaches of our selves) are laid open by the discerning movements of God in our hearts. However, many of my favorite writers have argued at one point or another that this verse teaches that our soul must be separated from our spirit in order for God to do His deeper work in our hearts. Much is made of this separation, and one is left with the impression in the end that our spirits must be active while the rest of ourselves must somehow be uninvolved.

But just try to imagine any meanigful activity within our hearts that does not involve the rest of us. It doesn’t actually work that way. Our minds and our emotions and our wills are involved in every interaction between God’s Spirit and ours. I’m not saying that they are completely indistinguishable; in fact I’d argue (as I have elsewhere before) that it’s important for us to understand some kind of a distinction between our spirits (which are not dependent upon our brains or hormones or other natural faculties) and our souls (which are the product of those things). But believing in a distinction between soul and spirit does not necessitate that we divorce the one from the other as if one were legitimate and the other were not. To do so would unnecessarily restrict life to a fraction of what it should become.

I think our minds, emotions, and wills need to be engaged in our relationships with God and with each other. Personally, I find that if I neglect my mind for long periods of time, I eventually experience a disconnect from which it is difficult to recover. I periodically move into this strange kind of detachment from my own spiritual life, I guess similar to an out of body experience, in which I’m outside of myself looking down upon myself wonder what all the fuss is about. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar problem. What I’m saying is that my mind needs to be engaged in my spiritual life or eventually my spiritual life will grow to become irrelevant to the rest of my life. And that just won’t do.

For the record, I still believe that my spirit is the only thing that can access the things of God. My spirit is made to interact with God’s Spirit, and my spirit is something over and above my natural faculties (intelligence, passions, determination, and senses). I must never conclude that simply because I have engaged my brain or my emotions I have therefore done a spiritual act. But on the other hand, I cannot conceive of a spiritual activity without the necessary involvement of the rest of me.

So I will follow what I believe is the Lord’s guidance into seeking, searching, and questioning things as they arise in my life. I will not suppose that to pursue these things as the drive to do so compels me will somehow draw me away from my spiritual life. On the contrary, I find these things eventually settle me back into the arms of the One that made me a curious person to begin with. He is patient with His children, and He knows what makes us tick. He will use these things to bring us ever closer into the center of Himself.


God is not a Gnostic

November 28, 2005

Seeing that my attention span was unusually short, even for me, during Thanksgiving week, I sorted through the piles of books I keep littered around the back seat of my car in search of something that could hold my attention for several days of vacation. I settled upon a book of erotic poetry.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of course, if you knew me well you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I spent my Thanksgiving week meditating on such a thing. You may be disappointed to hear that it was a commentary on the Song of Solomon written by Tremper Longman, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I suppose it goes without saying that I enjoyed making my way through this book, and I had no trouble finishing it. In the process I was struck by a couple of realizations that I’d like to share:

First, I was floored by the intensity of sexuality in this book of the Bible. Once you get what these folks in the Song are saying, it’ll really get your blood going. Longman approaches the book with a presupposition that I find I can accept wholeheartedly: While both Jewish and Christian expositors have interpreted this book strictly allegorically from the time of the earliest surviving commentaries, it was originally written as an intimate love song—an ode to marital consummation. Because we Christians so enjoy the symbolism of Christ and His Bride woven into the fabric of marriage itself, we are quickly persuaded to jump to an entirely symbolic interpretation of this book of the Bible. But as Longman skillfully argues, there is nothing in the text of the Song itself which would suggest that it was written as anything other than a song about sexual enjoyment. Longman takes the view (and I find that I agree here as well) that this is a collection of love songs, not a linear story of one couple’s relationship. Once you get over the notion that this book can only be of value as an allegory about more “spiritual” things, the need to discover some narrative unity in this book recedes into the background.

As I began making my way through this book with that in mind, the eroticism of the text leapt off the page and grabbed my attention with force. Listen to some of these statements:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee—turn, my lover, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether.” (2:17)

Sounds like a pretty scene, right? Only there is no such place as “Bether.” Never was. So you have to look into the etymology of the word for insight. It turns out that the word “bether” means “to bisect,” so that she seems to be referring to a bisected mountain…you get where I’m going with this…but keep reading. In chapter four, after the man has finished praising her breasts as “twins of a gazelle,” he announces that he will go “to the mountain of myrrh and to the hills of frankincense” (4:6). To what exactly did I previously think he was referring here? I can’t remember anymore. I must have skimmed over it as so much flowery fluff and poetic puffery. Well, I doubt I’ll read it that way ever again.

It only gets more explicit from there. At the end of chapter four, our “young stag” unfolds a potpourri of garden images which teem over with alluring sights and smells as he describes the woman’s physical beauty. He tells her, “You are a garden fountain, a well of a living water, streaming down from Lebanon.” In case you haven’t caught up, he’s not limiting his admiring gaze to the woman’s upper half here. I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a Bible teacher of any stripe inform you that Ancient Near Eastern poets often employed such imagery when admiring a woman’s pelvic region. She responds to his advances thusly: “Let my lover come into his garden and eat its choice fruit” (4:16). The chorus of listeners exults in this passionate interchange and proclaims their approval with one voice: “Eat friends, drink! Be intoxicated, lovers!”(5:1). The next chapter only takes this bold revelry further on.

But I’ll stop now for you to regain your original color, and I’ll leave it to you to dig beyond the symbols and euphemisms into the intended meaning of the last two chapters of the Song of Songs. They’re pretty steamy, and Longman (who is an excellent Hebrew scholar) unpacks those references which the casual reader will miss until it becomes obvious that God wanted a book in the Holy Scriptures which openly celebrates sex! Which brings me to point number two:

We have a Bible that institutionalizes the enjoyment of sex! Do you realize how important that is? It’s no small thing at all. For a faith tradition so rooted in the transcendence of God, the otherness of God, a tribute to sex comes as a shock to the system for those with the nerve to look straight on without averting their eyes. It’s downright embarrassing! If God has a sense of humor (and I’m certain He does) then one of His greatest laughs must have come from including erotic poetry in the scriptural canon of the same religion that brought you monks, nuns, and a celibate priesthood!

Now, lest you think I am picking on only Catholics here, let this also be a check for us Protestants against our own inherent asceticism and Gnostic separation of that which is “spiritual” from that which is not. This danger becomes particularly acute if, like me, you run in circles that stress a difference between “soul” and “spirit.” Sometimes in our zeal we talk as if a human being can be neatly split up into separate and mutually exclusive substances; but that kind of compartmental thinking would sound strange in the ears of the authors of the Bible.

Let us recall how in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman were naked and felt no shame. Their enjoyment of one another was the product of God’s decree that they “be fruitful and multiply.” It was only after they “had their eyes opened” that they saw themselves differently. To this day, only human beings (particularly civilized human beings) show shame when it comes to sex. Consequently, the forbiddenness of this act fuels a trillion-dollar entertainment industry. But look underneath this fixation on sexuality and see that something good is drawing them towards perhaps the most beautiful picture of something eternal that this world has ever seen.

Yes, marriage (and certainly the marriage bed) pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church. But in our effort to see the thing signified we should not miss the enjoyment of the sign itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some gardening…