A SOUL SERMON FOR UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the
See also On the Nature of
April 5, 2009
"Body am I, and soul"–thus speaks the child.
And why should one not speak like children?
Hundreds of millions of
Christians have been taught that they have been born with an eternal, immortal
soul, and yet the Bible does not support such a view nor do we usually use the
word in this way. The
ancient Greeks and Hindus believed in such a soul, but the ancient Hebrews and
early Christians did not.
For the past couple of months
I’ve been making a list of uses of the word soul in my reading and in the news.
I was paging through a National Geographic and found an article entitled
"The Soul of Russia," and it was about how the Russian Orthodox Church was alive
and well. The fact that it almost died out under the Soviets indicates that that
it was not assumed to be eternal or immortal.
Some reporter just called the
G-20 Summit with the "Summit without a Soul" and I had to disagree most
strongly. Queen Elizabeth enthusiastically shared hugs with Michelle Obama, and
at a photo-op she turned around and raised her arms in exasperation: "Why does
he [namely, Italy’s prime minister Berluzconi] have to talk so loud!" Earlier Berluzconi and other leaders were clowning around with Obama.
This was a real jiving, soul filled summit. All that was
missing was Bush the Great Back Massager.
Our common usage is obviously
very close to the meanings found in Soul Music and Soul Food. Here soul means
that which is vital and gives life. The biggest surprise in my research for
this sermon was what I found in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first
definition of soul is: "The principle of life in man and animals; animate
existence." The third definition is also relevant: "The emotional part of man’s
If you study the idea of soul in
Christian theology, you will find that it is not only eternal and immortal, but
that it is also, following the Greek philosopher Plato, unchanging and separate
from the body. Our common usage and common sense reject these ideas
completely. The soul is dynamic (not changing) and it is integrated with the
body and its feelings and emotions, not separate from it.
now take a look at this famous passage from the Hebrew
Bible: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the
ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (neshamah); and
man became a living being (nephesh)" (Gen. 2:7).
The root of the word
nephesh is "throat" and it is usually translated as "breath."
The best translators deliberately avoid the word "soul" here
because of misleading connotations of eternity, immortality, and immutability.
In 1 Cor. 15:42-49
the Apostle Paul
returns to this idea of Adam as a Dust Man, who will return to the dust if he
does not accept Jesus as the Second Adam. As opposed to Hindu and Greek ideas
of natural immortality, I call the Christian view "bestowed" immortality. It is
a supernatural addition to our resurrected bodies, which are totally left behind in
Greek and Hindu views. Christians are still body and soul together, but they are
now new beings in Christ with very different, probably very spooky, bodies.
There is no afterlife at all in
the Hebrew Bible: "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the
same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath (neshamah),
and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one
place; all are from the dust, and all turn to the dust again. Who knows whether
the spirit (ruah) of man goes upward and the spirit
(ruah) of the beast goes down to the
earth?" (Ecc. 3:19-21).
The Hebrew word for spirit is
ruah and it literally means "wind," and in Gen. 1:1 it is God’s ruah
that blows over the face of the deep (watery chaos) to create the heavens and
earth. God’s wind and breath is on loan from God to animate the lives of humans
and beasts. Please note that animals have "spirit" as much as humans do.
Here is a
wonderful passage from the Jewish Talmud: "There are three partners in man…his
father supplies the semen of the white substance out of which are formed the
child’s bones, sinews, nails, and the white of his eyes. His mother supplies the
semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair and
black of his eye. God gives him the soul and breath, beauty of features,
eyesight, hearing, speech, understanding, and discernment. When his time comes
to depart of this world, God takes his share and leaves the shares of his mother
and father with them." Please note the active rather than passive role of women
here, which is very rarely in ancient views of the development of the human
Christians will say that animals are not created in the image of God, so
that is what makes human beings unique. Archaeologists have discovered some
ancient texts that explain for the first time what the phrase
"in our image,
after our likeness" means in Genesis 1:26. It refers to the king as God’s
representative on earth. The phrase is never again mentioned in the Hebrew
Bible and when it is used in the New Testament it is the New Adam Christ that
stands for God as the image of God. Humans are in the image but only as
reflection not essence.
For more on the Hebrew idea of image of God see Barry Bandstra, Reading the
Old Testament (Wadsworth, 1995), p. 60-61.
When Indians called Mohandas K. Gandhi
"Mahatma," they were calling him
"great soul." Just like Greek psyche
and the Hebrew nephesh, the Sanskrit atman
Although atman also took on the meaning
of unchanging, eternal soul, it can also mean "individuated life force." A
Mahatma then is one who concentrates this life force better than any one else.
Gandhi is the Mahatma becomes he inspired the nation to action;
he was a charismatic leader who brought live and vitality to the movement for
Indian independence. Most significantly he proved that political action and
spirituality can be brought together in a positive way.
Let’s now move on to Buddhism where I believe there is
also some misunderstanding about the nature of the soul. During his long night
of meditation under the Bo Tree, the Buddha found no evidence for the basic
Hindu doctrines that he was taught. Through his ESP vision the Buddha looked
high and low for the Hindu Godhead Brahman and the eternal and unchanging soul
that was our share of the Brahman. What the Buddha discovered has been
confirmed by contemporary physics: no thing, not even an atom, endures; all
things come into being and then go out of being; all things flow like a river.
Many later Buddhists assumed that
because Buddha did not find the Hindu immortal soul that he did not believe in a
soul or even a self. But this is correct only if you define the soul as
eternal, immortal, and unchanging. While the Buddha rejected this idea, he
still believed that every human and animal still were "living beings" in the
sense of Gen. 2:7. The Sanskrit equivalent of nephesh is jiva,
and there is a deeper comparison between the Hebrews and the Buddhists than
first meets the eye. My Indian graduate student and I have written an article
about this that can be found at
e-mail me at ngier∂uidaho.edu for a PDF
file that has all the diacritical correctly printed.
Both the Buddhists and the
Hebrews believe in a bundle theory of the self. We have seen one version of the
components of the Hebrew bundle in the passage from the Talmud above. The
Hebrew Bible itself lists at least five components of the Hebrew self: flesh,
blood, heart-mind, breath, and spirit. When God brings these parts together
then we become living beings.
The Buddhist bundle also has five
different components, but it works, except for the major difference of divine
creation, in the same way. The parts are the body, feelings, perception,
disposition, and consciousness, and function together as living being. What is
striking in contrast to the Old Testament view is how earthy and materialistic
the Hebrew view of the soul is. The Buddhist view is much more psychological.
Let’s take a moment and test the
Buddha’s theory. Sit quietly with your ideas closed, look into yourself, and
see if the Buddha is not correct in saying that all that we experience is a flow
of feelings, perceptions, and memories. This unified bundle is all that we are
and what we call our self. If you have found something different, then share
your discoveries in the comment period. In this exercise we have discovered our
Buddha souls, our jiva souls, which makes us living perhaps even
One might ask how the doctrine of
reincarnation works with this bundle theory of the soul? The answer is that it
works much better than the idea of an immortal soul, because how can karma ride
on this pure soul from life to life? (It simply cannot.) In the Buddha’s view
karma is primarily concentrated in our dispositions and they are carried over
into the next body so we are left to work out the sins of our past life.
How does this view work for the
Buddha, who, presumably after his Enlightenment, had no karma? Early Buddhism
distinguished between Nirvana while in a body and Nirvana without a body. Karma
accrues because of craving, clinging, and attachment. Contrary to widespread
misconception, there is nothing wrong with ordinary desires such as food and,
for lay Buddhists, sexual desire for procreation.
At the age of 45, according to
the accounts of his Enlightenment, the Buddha stopped all craving and clinging
and thereby reached Nirvana, a goal that any human, using the Buddha’s
techniques, can attain. All of us can become Buddhas and attain Nirvana while
in the body and live an enlightened life of ordinary desires without
attachments. At the end of their lives all Buddhas, because they have no karmic
debt, are not reborn and attain Nirvana without a body.
Finally, let me turn to
Confucius, who was insistent on focusing on this life and was agnostic about all
things dealing with the afterlife. With regard to the idea of the soul/self,
Confucius is in basic agreement with the Hebrews and the Buddhists. The
Confucian self is one in which thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the body are
seen as one continuum.
Confucius believed, just as the
Buddhists and Hebrews, that one is not truly a person unless you are good
relationships with others. The center of the Confucian self is the "heart-mind"
(by far the best translation of Chinese word is xin) and the heart-mind
is the seat of the development of the virtues that are so central to Confucian
ethics. These virtues are courage, benevolence, wisdom, and integrity.
Conclusion of the sermon: a
Buddhist reading of "Across the Wide Missouri." Done ad lib.
Reynolds was singer and song writer most famous for "Little Boxes" and "The
Magic Penny." But I discovered an essay on the soul at
that I found
moving and profound. Her belief that the soul is not an unchanging, immortal
essence but "something we accumulate in the course of living" is very much in
line with dynamic concepts of self found in Buddhism and the Hebrew Bible.
might have known about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and might even have
read his classic work I and Thou. In any case she is right to say that
"the soul is not an inner pearl. It is a patina created as an individual
functions in a community. The soul is a function of communal being." This idea
that the self is a social construction is not new: it also can be found in
Buddhist, African, and Hebrew thought.