In a publication of a popular local website in my community, the “Lady Nona” offers a thoughtful reflection on feeding one’s soul. The author aptly writes, “Your soul is the one miracle that no one can explain; the believers can’t rationalize it, and the non-believers can’t deny it.” The article proceeds to offer some standard advice toward the type of meaningful activities one can engage in for this “soul feeding” including time with one’s children, grateful thinking, charitable giving, choosing love over hate, and forgiveness. While these activities and the assumed idea sound very positive, and while I find myself in whole-hearted agreement with the benefits of them, I must ask, why?
Where do this concept of the human soul and the benefits of these very activities come from? Are these merely universal human ideals common throughout history and society? I would argue that the author stands upon the shoulders of the Christian theological traditions which have shaped the moral core of western society even while she rejects the truth-claims of that tradition.
Allow me to highlight this tendency by briefly touching on a few of the points made. First, the existence of the human soul as a real and good aspect of the human being is neither universally believed throughout human history, nor universally taught even within the major global faiths but is rooted in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The book of Genesis describes humanity as created in the image and likeness of God, unique to all of creation. This teaches first, that God is personal even as he is the all-powerful Creator of our world. Secondly, it provides a context to human meaning and value. The rich theology which is first described in narrative form in Genesis and later expanded throughout the Bible teaches of a God who shapes and forms man, breathing his own life into humanity.
Naturalism which excludes a viewpoint of God has no basis for claiming the existence of a human soul which is somehow beyond the physical matter that makes up the mind and body of any particular person.
Furthermore, even the world faiths do not all provide such a foundation. The writings of traditional Hinduism, for example, teaches of the endless agony of the human soul which is preserved through reincarnation leading to a cycle of human pain. The hope of these teachings is the extinguishing of the soul and the ending of the cycle. Likewise, with Buddhism, there is no true self to attach to. Detachment from, rather than the development of, the human soul would be the proper aim.
The Christian tradition with its belief in the soul of every person that bears the image of God has provided the foundation for the divine dignity of each human being.
I could argue that the advice provided about practicing gratitude, forgiveness, nurturing our children, choosing love over hate, and charitable giving are all anchored in the teachings of the Bible and not self-evident. I will look at one: forgiveness.
The author encourages us to practice forgiveness, or specifically to “bury the hatchet.” The value of mercy or forgiveness has its roots in the teachings of the Bible. In the Christian tradition, the foundation for forgiveness toward others is the experience believers have of receiving forgiveness of so much more of their own sin from God. As we have been forgiven by him, we are to extend forgiveness toward others. The Christian tradition also provides a worldview which allows for even painful acts of forgiveness. How does one forgive another person, not just for small infringements upon them, but for the great and painful wrongs done? How does a grieving mother forgive the man who murdered her son? How does a soul-torn survivor of abuse forgive his abuser? How does a neglected daughter forgive her absentee father? The Christian tradition provides a basis for such forgiveness not as a command to be followed but a relationship to trust.
For the Christian, faith in God who promises to make all things right in the end and to work even painful circumstance for the good of his children provides a foundation of trust to allow us to let go of the unplayable debt owed to us by those who inflict great pain upon us. The Christian tradition teaches both that people are made in God’s image and also that every person’s soul has been warped by sin, therefore, all are in need of forgiveness and healing. The world is not comprised, therefore, of good people versus bad people. Instead, our world is filled with people who all share God’s image and share in the brokenness of sin which warps that nature. Some are more warped than others but none can claim to be without sin.
A final statement made in this article is worth comment. The author writes, “If you believe in a judgment day, I truly believe that the weight of our soul is what we will be judged on. The value of our soul is based on the positivity and love we emitted while we were on this planet and the care we had for those outside ourselves and outside our circle.”
I mentioned that no one can claim to be without sin, and that was almost accurate. Biblical Christianity claims that Jesus of Nazareth stands alone in this way. The Bible teaches that in Jesus, God himself entered into our world. He alone lived without sin. His death upon the cross provided the one great sacrifice to which millennia of Jewish sacrifices were a foreshadow. Furthermore, this Jesus after being dead and buried was raised to life again. This Jesus ascended back to the presence of God and he will one day judge each and every person.
We don’t have to guess about the criteria of that judgment because the Bible records his teachings on the matter. The value of the human soul is not determined by our acts. Instead, our value is determined by God who created us. We can know his value buy what he offers to pay for us. The Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). If we are judged based upon what we have earned, we receive death. We are also told that, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The mystery of the judgment of the human soul is that we have a Savior in Jesus who first died to offer us forgiveness and life, and one day will be our judge. We either receive this gift and with it eternal life or we reject the gift and receive the wages we have earned.
If you want to look more thoroughly on this Christian message of forgiveness in Christ, here is a great resource.