The soul – where does it come from?

By Brian Edgar

The Soul:Where does it come from?Where does it go to? In the twenty first century, just as much as at any time questions about human origins and destiny lie before us.  Where does humanity come from? What is our true nature? Where are we going?

This address was given at the Mind and its Potential conference, Sydney. This is a conference which integrates many different scientific, philosophical and religious traditions. The request was for an address from a Christian point of view which would address the issues implied in the title. It assumes a diverse audience interested in a wide range of spiritual matters.

In his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ the Venerable Bede records the advice given by a counsellor to King Edwin of Northumbria concerning the new teaching of the evangelist Paulinus about life after death.  The counsellor compared human life to the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting-hall at dinner on a winter’s day.  In the midst there is a fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, but after a few moments of comfort in the warmth of the room, he disappears out of another door into the wintry world from which he came. The point was made to the king that nothing was known of what went before this life or of what follows afterwards and that therefore, ‘if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’[i]

In the twenty first century, just as much as in the seventh, questions about human origins and destiny lie before us.  Where does humanity come from? What is our true nature? Where are we going?  In his day Edwin was advised by his counsellors to listen to the new concepts which came from Paulinus.  The question for us today is who we will listen to among the many voices that claim to bring new knowledge.

Following are four concepts which may help our understanding.  The first concerns the objective reality of the spiritual nature of the human person – understood in opposition to scientific reductionism but consistently with scientific research about consciousness as an emergent, even transcendent quality of persons. The second affirms the essential, ongoing importance of the physical body for understanding the person in both the present and future life.  This stands in opposition to spiritualisms which deny the ultimate significance of our embodied nature. There is a stress on the integrated, unitive nature of the person as a spiritual entity of both ‘body’ and ‘soul’. The third stresses the contingent nature of humanity as part of the cosmos. It locates the human person as a created entity, uniquely placed and with a calling to be with the divine. This repudiates those understandings of the person which deny either ultimate significance or human mortality.  The fourth point is a reminder of the significance and reality of human mortality, the ultimate question of life and about human destiny, of life beyond death and the possibility of the resurrection of the whole person.

These are the real issues of life, the questions which science, philosophy and religion should seek to answer. In the fourth century Augustine of Hippo said,

Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of river, the oceans that encircle the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves…  The field of my labours is my own self.  I’m not now investigating the tracts of the heavens or measuring the distance of the stars or trying to discover how the earth hangs in space.  I am investigating myself, my memory, my mind…  What then am I, my God?  What is my nature?[ii]

In the light of our greatly increased knowledge we join with Augustine in asking these questions, still searching for what it means to be human.

1. Spirituality: the objective reality of the spiritual nature of the person

It is a fundamental Christian conviction that human beings are ‘spiritual’ beings with consciousness, self-transcendence and the ability to form relationships with others and with God.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the language of ‘soul’ began to overlap with the more scientific language of ‘mind’ and ‘brain’. But although the terminology shifted, some of the central issues remained the same (How does soul relate to body? How does mind relate to brain?).  Today, questions traditionally asked in terms of ‘soul’ and ‘spirituality’, cannot be answered without reference to the radical scientific advances in mind/brain research and human consciousness.  Human consciousness is sometimes claimed to be one of the last great unsolved mysteries and the findings of neuroscience will always be of great significance for those interested in human spirituality, as any interpretation of human nature must take into account the fact that we live and lead our lives consciously.  There are, of course, a number of levels of consciousness[iii] and human spirituality is primarily concerned with the higher levels which involve a capacity for what may be called a ‘spiritual life’ which includes experiences of morality, religious experience, the sense of self, self-transcendence and an awareness of God.

Traditionally ‘soul language’ has fulfilled three important functions.  First and foremost, the soul has been understood as the point at which the human meets the divine, providing the human, spiritual capacity for knowing and relating to God. Secondly, it has provided a rationale for the unique moral value and status usually accorded the human person and for the moral determinations which people make. And thirdly, the notion of the soul has established the groundwork for the belief in the possibility of life after the death of the body.  The soul has been seen as providing continuity between this life and whatever life and existence there is beyond death.

An understanding of the soul depends upon the idea that humanity is ‘made in the image of God’.

So God created humankind in his image,

In the image of God he created them,

Male and female he created them.[iv]

The text does not specify more precisely the way in which humanity exists in the image of God and this has led to great speculation: does the image subsist in human consciousness, rationality, creativity, spirituality, relationality, sexuality or what?  While there has been a tendency to see the imago dei as related to these less tangible, and yet higher dimensions of human life, rather than to the more physical aspects of the body, ultimately, a dichotomy of body from soul cannot be justified and the image of God is to be found in the whole human person as a unified body-soul. Even more precisely, it has to be understood in relation to those passages in the writings of the Apostle Paul which (a) speak of Jesus Christ as the perfect ‘image of the invisible God’[v] and (b) to believers in Christ as being transformed into the image of Christ.[vi] That is, the spirituality of the human person is affirmed and ultimately explained as nothing other than the process whereby the person comes into relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Human spirituality is focused on knowing and experiencing the person of Jesus Christ and being aware of the love of God. ‘We are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)

An understanding such as this is, firstly, a defence of the common sense experience of the religious and spiritual lives of many people. It is consistent with the experience people have of transcendence and a conviction that life has meaning. The alternative is an ultimately meaningless existence. Secondly, it is a repudiation of reductionist scientific views of the person which seek to interpret the person solely in terms of physical phenomena.  Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) wrote in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘you’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’ It is a dramatic presentation of the meaning of being human, you are nothing other than nerve cells and molecules, especially given that it comes from a person who has iconic status in the history of biotechnology. But understanding humanity purely in terms of molecules and cells is absurd. Indeed, one wonders, ‘whether anyone would have bothered to read Crick’s book if he had started it as follows: ‘I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science, and the thoughts  expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the random behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’[vii] I am sure that Crick would like us to think that there was actually some meaning associated with the collection of letters, numbers and punctuation marks which make up his book. But if his theory of human nature is right, there is none.

Thirdly, it means that the person, being made ‘in the image of God’ and being called to be ‘transformed to the image of Christ’ is clearly human and not intrinsically divine. A realistic understanding of the person must take into account Auschwitz and the death of more than 12,000 children everyday from starvation and other preventable causes. The twentieth century alone saw the death of 100 million people in international wars and a further 100 million by political repression. An affirmation of humanity being made ‘in the image of God’ and the possibility of life after death cannot be taken as a denial of the most empirically demonstrable fact of all – that of human failure and deliberate wrong-doing! In spirituality as in law it must be accepted that individuals bear responsibility for their actions. There can be no denial of either the reality of wrong-doing (‘this is just a part of the universe’) or our responsibility for it (‘the devil made me do it’).  Any spirituality which does not address this cannot be respected.

To read the full article download it here: The Soul


[i] The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

[ii] Augustine, Confessions 9.

[iii] There is that basic consciousness which is the capacity to experience the external world through sense organs and to perform cognitive operations; there is a reflexive kind of consciousness in which people monitor what they experience and know; there is the highest level of consciousness, with complex awareness, which includes moral and religious experience.

[iv] Genesis 1:27.

[v] 2 Corinthians. 4:4; Colossians 1:15; cf Hebrews 1:3.

[vi] Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians. 15:49; 2 Corinthians. 3:18.

[vii] R.Carter, Body and Spirit, (unpublished paper).

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