“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
I have always admired C.S. Lewis with the respect due to a loyal opponent. He certainly wasn’t a mystic Christian, but he was no mindless fundamentalist. Although an apologist for a state religion I cannot condone or glorify, Lewis always wrote with a strong heart and intellect, and his arguments, though too boxy for my tastes, have helped create a significant minority population of what had become an endangered species: logically rigorous Protestants.
When his well-known quote was posted in the Pantheism Facebook group recently, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support it received. We pantheists can be rapacious in our picking apart of anything that smacks of an Abrahamic religion, but we should be gentle with ideas about the soul, no matter what the source. It is far from the most egregious idea advanced by theism that we exist beyond these temporal manifestations, and in fact if there is one broad topic with which pantheists can agree without playing a lot of word games, that should be it.
But that last line, “You have a body,” is where Lewis’ Cartesian dualism is showing. If I come to believe that I am a soul that has a body, I am in danger of making that most grave error of the ages –giving immortal status to the fictional “ghost in the room,” my ego. When that happens, the religion that would be a remedy for the ego becomes a kind of intellectual cryogenic fluid to preserve it, and the scourge of self-centered fundamentalism is the result.
To deny the soul on these same terms and offer nothing else, however, might be worse, because it does nothing to address the ghost nor to explain the extrasensory perception that there is some form of continuity of self beyond the lines drawn by ego. When we lose that sense, we have the modern malady of “the ghost in the machine:” an ego that feels trapped in the body, believing itself to be isolated from its surroundings that are actually part of itself, yearning for a freedom it could have now except for the belief that it can only find it in death.
Pantheism can address this quandary by using its holistic principles to accept the truth and intention of the soul-having or soul-being experience, while redefining what we mean by the concept.
The pantheist soul is not something we are nor something we have –it is not a “something” at all. It is an action, what the universe does through us to keep us mindful of our true expansive nature.
Part of the problem is that “soul” is one of the fuzziest words in the English language, and seems to mean something different every time it is used. By general consensus, though, it is an assertion that an individual being extends beyond or transcends the physical body. It is these immaterial aspects that animate the body and motivate it with intentionality in a way that inanimate minerals, immobile plants, and instinct-driven animals are not.
Wikipedia introduces the topic thusly:
“In many religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions, there is a belief in the incorporeal essence of a living being called the soul.
Soul or psyche (Greek: “psychē”, of “psychein”, “to breathe”) are the mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc.“
In the words of Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher of religion at Oxford University, “it is a frequent criticism of substance dualism that dualists cannot say what souls are. Souls are immaterial subjects of mental properties. They have sensations and thoughts, desires and beliefs, and perform intentional actions. Souls are essential parts of human beings”.
It bears noting that all of the mental faculties listed in both Swinburne and Wikipedia’s definition of soul are interactive processes. They transcend the body because they involve more than just one body acting in a vacuum of context. This is consistent with the panpsychism of my essay “All is Mind,” which proposes that the mind itself is the universal and inseparable interactive aspect of materiality.
Furthermore, though we may speak of these functions as nouns, they denote actions, not material things. While words like reason, feeling, desire, memory, consciousness, and perception can be nouns grammatically, their functionality is identical to their use as verbs. For instance, the Christian concept of “soul” is derived from the Torah’s use of the Hebrew “nephesh,” meaning “life, vital breath” –both nouns. But what is a life except the act of living? What is a breath except the act of breathing?
Does any thing live and breathe by itself, interacting and exchanging vital materials with no other things?
It stands to reason, then, that “soul,” as a local nexus of such interactive actions by an individual being, could also be one of those words that designates a function or activity rather than a thing, like “breath,” “heartbeat,” or “thought.” Such a notion of soul is not so much incorporeal as it is intercorporeal. To deny the soul on those terms would be akin to not seeing one’s breathing for all the breaths.
What would be the implications of using “soul” to denote an intercorporeal self? Is it still possible for the human soul to be immortal if it is inseparable from a human body that will inevitably become inanimate and decompose?
I would say yes to the latter, wholeheartedly and without reservation. In fact, the transformative function of an interactive soul points directly to the core contribution and purpose of pantheism as a theological construct: one cannot be a soul in isolation from other souls, or from a context that ultimately includes the infinite and eternal ground of all being. It is in realizing this, and releasing attachment to the interactive functions of one mortal body, that the soul gives us access to immortality.
Theism generally uses the word “soul” for an aspect of the self that survives the death of the body, and its function is to fuel the yearning for God while alive. It would be consistent with this usage, then, for a pantheist notion of soul as the activity of the true, natural self in its full eternal context, beyond its subjective experience of itself or an object of the analysis of others.
Pantheism asserts that we, each of us individually and all of us corporately, are the timeless essence of Existence, expressing itself in time as you and me, him and her, this and that, giving each its own unique perspective of the Whole. The experience of the pantheist soul – perhaps the verb “souling,” however clumsy for its newness, is the clearest way to convey it – is to be uniquely aware of the the universality of this expression.
The work of the pantheist soul – again, souling – is to relieve you of the sense that you are a worker, to let you be nothing other than Being itself, just as a heartbeat is nothing other than the heart beating, and a thought is nothing other than the mind thinking.
This notion of soul is in no way separate from the body, but it is the body in its holistic sense rather than the semantic “my body/her body/their bodies” and the inherent implied dualism. With body and soul as two aspects of a unity, it becomes much more clear that the self is an activity of the universe. In the famous words of Buckminster Fuller:
“I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process –an integral function of the universe.”
Language made you believe you were a noun; the pantheist notion of soul fixes that.
The function that we could call the pantheist soul, then, is simply Truth, abundant and belonging to all, reminding us of what we are when we are lost in the limiting ego. Where a duality of body and soul – or negation of soul, leaving the duality of self and other unchecked – leads to a sense of isolation, a non-duality of soul gives us both the Buddhist sense of interbeing (the “Oneness with everything” experience) and the opportunity to practice compassionate love for all from a unique perspective of soul. What more natural way could there be to put pantheism into practice, or follow the New Commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)
To tell people that they have no soul, while not untrue in the vernacular sense, is thus misleading, or at least squanders a great opportunity to connect a specious theistic idea with a life-enhancing truth to which we can all relate, because it is a real experience we all have that brings us closer to God (aka Reality as an interconnected web of Being) in our fragmentary thoughts.
One of pantheism’s most unlikely contemporary spokespersons, Jim Carrey, put it this way:
“I used to be a guy who was experiencing the world. And now I feel like the world and the universe experiencing a guy.”
So yes, to answer the initial question: As a pantheist, I do not have a soul, but soul definitely has me.
Originally published 4.9.17, revised 5.22.18 and 9.2.20