So I recently attended and presented at a conference on the soul and body at Oxford. It seems, however, that the theme actually shifted to talking about identity generally, which was identified as the soul, rather than the soul as a separate thing.
A reason for this shift was a general skepticism surrounding the idea of a platonic soul. If you are unaware of that term, it is the conception of the soul most frequently portrayed in popular media. A sort of “ghosty” type of thing that is identifiable as us, and yet has no material form. While some medieval theologians might have taken exception to the fact that it is sometimes portrayed as visible, the idea still seems to accurately reflect this idea of the soul. According to that view, then, people are essentially embodied souls. In other words, the you that is you (i.e. your soul) is simply occupying and manipulating your body, which is not you.
The problem is, this is not the biblical view of the soul. It is clearly platonic (whether we have Augustine or Rene Descartes or someone/something else to thank for its pervasiveness is another issue). The Hebrew Bible always and only refers to people as entire units. There is nothing separate from the body. When someone loses an arm, their body doesn’t lose an arm the person does. There isn’t a separate soul. Alister McGrath noted that if you take every instance of the word soul in the Old Testament and replace it with life, the verses would read just the same, and sometimes more clearly than by retaining the word soul. I feel comfortable sharing this bit of his talk, of course, because it is a fairly uncontroversial (and not generally disputed claim); I doubt he’d object.
The New Testament doesn’t seem to help very much either with the idea of a Platonic soul. In fact, the New Testament is adamant that the thing which is raised and transformed into an eternal thing is the entire body, not jut a separate soul. That’s why Jesus’ bodily resurrection is important. That’s what Paul is going on and on about in 1 Corinthians 15. There isn’t a separate soul independent of our bodies. Instead our identity (or soul) is a way of talking about ourselves, and in particular our minds, even if it “emerges” in some way. This is a very subtle shift in thinking that I think might be very important.
While I certainly believe that God can and will transform our bodies into something new and eternal when Christ returns, this has the potential to transform our thinking about the physical world. If we are platonists about the soul, then we devalue the physical body. This leads to all sorts of problems. The body then becomes something of a prison to escape, something that is constantly our adversary, not who we are. This can lead to self-loathing, self-abuse, willingness to take abuse and unhealthy attitudes about sex (for instance, the idea that, even when married, sex should not really be a source of pleasure ever). It also leads to a devaluing of other aspects of creation. But if, instead, we believe that our bodies are the source of our identity/soul rather than something our soul inhabits, then we begin to value it. We feel we must take care of it and, within appropriate ways we can celebrate aspects of it: athletic ability, a good steak (in moderation), a slowly sipped cup of coffee. We can appreciate our physical stuff, because that’s the thing that we are, and that’s what Jesus is redeeming and beginning to transform. It also means we value other people’s bodies. They are not tools to be used for personal gain, objects to be oggled, but when you see someone else’s physical form you are looking at another person. That is important and is something we’ve lost. If we begin to recapture it, it means that our bodies, our blood and sweat and tears, our aches and pains and joys, the tickling that my kids love, the feeling of a warm mug in cold hands, all of this matters in a way we can’t even fathom yet.
But what do you think? Should we instead hang on to the platonic notion of the soul? Does it have more biblical grounding than I’m giving it credit? Does this idea have some other pitfalls?