How comfortable are we in talking about “the soul”? I must admit that I do not often use the term myself, and this reflects a wider tendency in both the church and wider society to move away from talk of “the soul” in favour of words such as “identity”, “individuality” or “personhood”.
However, the Anglican priest and theologian W.H. Vanstone (whose best-known book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, I blogged about last year) argues against this abandonment of “soul talk” in the closing chapter of his final book, Fare Well In Christ. Canon Vanstone writes:
It is quite recently, within my own lifetime, that the word “soul” has drifted out of common and colloquial usage. Its use is confined to strictly and specifically religious gatherings and occasions. (pp.141f.)
He continues by observing that “the reason for this is not difficult to see”. The traditional belief in the soul as something that inhabits the body (and departs at death) was rendered untenable, in most people’s eyes, by scientific investigation of the human body:
Science denied what religion taught; science dismissed as a non-entity “the soul” which was constantly being referred to in religious teaching and practice. Religious teaching was misleading and even fraudulent in telling us that we have a soul. Surely the conviction, or at least the suspicion, that religion is fraudulent in this respect is the cause not only of the drift of the word “soul” out of common usage but also of what we call “the decline of religion” in the present century. (p.142)
Vanstone argues, however, that we still need the language of the “soul” in order to express “the mystery of what I have so far called ‘my identity’”. He writes:
We should admit that the soul is not in the body; but we can still speak of “body and soul” as our forebears did. My soul is what I have, or am, in addition to my body, and it would be an improvement to our language if we all spoke of this addition as “my soul” rather than “my identity”, “my individuality”, “my uniqueness” or “my personhood”. (p.143)
Now in many ways I think Vanstone has a point – and his preference for the “religious” language of “soul” over the “scientific” language of “identity” reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s attempt, at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, to reinstate the term “the heavens” in place of “outer space”.
However, I’m less keen on his references to the soul being “what I have, or am, in addition to my body” – which, in the context, would appear to mean in addition to what can be scientifically described or analysed, whether in our physical bodies or our minds. This seems to be a “soul of the gaps” argument, analogous to the old “God of the gaps”, and suffering from the same problems: first, the marooning of the soul (or God) in the ever-smaller “gaps” left by scientific investigation, and second (and more importantly) the conceding to science of its claim to give the sole and exhaustive account of everything outside the “gaps”.
I’ve said before that I think the proper Christian response to science is not to try to pick holes in the story that science tells (or to seize on any “gaps” left in science’s story), but rather to insist that science “is not the only story that can, or needs to, be told” – that different accounts or descriptions of reality can be more or less useful in different circumstances and for different purposes.
I wonder if the same principle can be applied to talk of the “soul”: that the soul is not the “something else” which is left after science has completed its examination of our bodies and minds, but rather that talking about the “soul” is another way of telling the story about who and what we are, another way of organising and arranging the data about our bodies and (especially) our minds – one that expresses the mystery of “my awareness that I am I and your awareness that you are you”, and the wonder evoked by that mystery, more adequately than scientific-sounding notions of “individuality” or “personhood”.