This article first appeared in 2015. It seems very apropos to our present moment. Glory to God for all things.
I do not understand Zombies. When I was a child, Zombie movies were virtually non-existent. The word referred to something like a Golem in Jewish thought – a creature without a soul. It is properly a frightening thing – for that which we think of as the soul, is also the seat of compassion and kindness. A creature without a soul would be driven by something other – which can only be dangerous for everything and everyone around them. A Golem cannot be reasoned with or appealed to. Like a Zombie, it can only be killed.
So what is this soul, this something that makes us not a Zombie or a Golem?
A man is walking down the hallway in his home. A spider suddenly darts out from under some furniture. Without a thought, the man instinctively steps on it. For the man, the action is nothing more than a reflex, like scratching an itch. For the spider, it is the end of the world. Of course, we think of other human beings with greater regard than a spider. Killing another human being is murder. But sometimes, the unthinkable occurs, and a mass-murderer goes on a killing rampage, randomly shooting children or adults, until, exhausted, he ends his own life, or his life is ended for him. We use phrases such as “killing rampage” that sound like a fit of anger. Such rages have been described as far back as Homer, and somehow make tragic sense for us. But we are also realizing that there is a new phenomenon – not a rampage – but an exercise in existential meaninglessness. The killing takes place without anger or words, but mindlessly, like stepping on a spider. Soul-less actions?
Modernity holds that we do not have a soul. And, in other terms, it holds that we do not have a nature. Human beings are a collection of choices and decisions. We can be whatever we want to be, or whatever makes us happy. Of course, such decisions may involve other human beings so that we engage in contractual relationships, negotiating our mutual happiness. If I don’t kill you, you agree not to kill me. I want what you make, so I agree to pay you what you ask. You want someone to make your widgets, so I agree to work for you in the widget factory. We call this negotiated world the “market.” There we buy and sell our happiness, hoping that the market remains in an upward mood.
But is there such a thing as the soul? Where do we find it?
The soul cannot be observed like the liver or the heart. It is a quality that makes the brain more than a biological calculator. In the Scriptures, it is pretty much synonymous with “life.” But this is rooted in a world-view that understands a person’s life to be more than mere biology and instinct. Modern people may have difficulty agreeing that there is such a thing as the soul, but they would not want to be locked in a room with someone who does not have what the tradition calls “the soul.” And those who deny the soul’s existence may very well discover that they have locked themselves in just such a room.
A primary care for the soul in human history is the telling of stories – not just any stories – but soul stories. I have coined this phrase to help us think about myths. Many modern people think that ancient myths are stories that were told in an attempt to explain a universe that was not understood. And so we think that now that we understand everything, we have no more need for such stories. But myths are not stories of “how?” They are stories of “Why?” and “What does it mean?” and “How should I live?” The answer to such questions is found in the formative stories of every culture.
When Plato described his ideal society in The Republic, he required children to learn to play musical instruments and described it as a requirement of the soul. The soul requires beauty. The soul requires poetry and song. It requires the capacity to live and not merely consume.
A deep failure of modernity is its jettisoning of soul stories. Contemporary music is simply insufficient for the soul. The result can be a struggle for the life of the soul – to exist without being swallowed whole by the consumption that surrounds us. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
The stories of the Christian faith are soul stories. CS Lewis described the gospel as a myth, with the distinction of actually having happened. It is incumbent on Christians in the modern world to be sure that what they offer is the full meat of the Christian tradition and not merely another form of fast food.
Of course, there are other stories. The fathers of the Church did not dismiss the myths of the non-Christians around them. The simple fact is that every shred of knowledge that we possess today about the pre-Christian stories of Greece and Rome exist because Christians preserved them. There are currents within our culture that would largely jettison the study of classical literature, including what was once known as the “canon of literature.” The drive to elevate current political and social understanding over every previous understanding has made it common to neglect important stories for adolescent fiction and the like.
The contemporary landscape argues that we have been making disastrous decisions for several generations. Some are making a case that we have entered a cultural dark age. This judgment is perhaps too pessimistic, but it is not without merit. But it also makes the strong case that Christians need to sing. They need to paint and tell stories. They need to build beautiful temples and adorn them with lives of sacrifice and kindness. They need to nurture the life of the soul, both within themselves and within their children. And make no mistake, they need to sing rather than just listen to songs. They need to speak careful words with great intention rather than just hear them.
My soul, my soul arise!
Here is a contemporary treat, a Kyrie written by Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, a great soul. The Lord’s song is still being sung. Sing along.
Many thanks Father! Glory to God!
The soul . . . Requires the capacity to live and not merely consume.
Yes! Thank you, Father!
Thank you Father!
Another beautiful example here:
I agree that our culture has serious flaws. As I look and see the violence, the addiction and the brokenness of people I know it is our culture and not any weapon, substance or other distraction that is the real problem. It is our culture because it does not care for the soul. Our music is no longer inspiring and beautiful but raucous and crude. Art has become less than it was. Violence is incited in everything including speech. Our literature has become crass and profane. There seems nothing in our culture that cares for and feeds our souls any more.
Dear Father Stephen,
I also have something beautiful to share. I think you were the first one I ever heard speaking about beauty, so since then, I pay more attention to the subject. This is a wonderful retreat lecture by Fr. Andrew, I think it was the year following your participation in it. Meeting you then was truly a life-changing event for me 🙂
Thank you again.
And one more quote 🙂
“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
How are we supposed to talk about and view autistic people who look like they are doing“soulless” actions that can be manipulated by therapy and by applying scientific methods that sound pretty much like a calculator. I know it sounds cold but if applying science to autistic (artistic often times) people improves their behavior, that makes them more social and makes the parents’ lives better too.
I would suggest that we broaden and better understand what “soul-less” actions mean. I know many autistic people/children. I have never thought “soul/less” when observing them.
Sorry Father, I didn’t mean to imply you thought that. I never thought that either. Since part of your article was talking about how we are more and more comfortable with the idea that we are bodies without souls (we only know what we observe), I was afraid that some will treat people as though they are just a body. For example, I believe Iceland recently announced they have erradicated autism because of abortions. That sounds like a mass murder to me. Who will they eradicate next? Maybe my comment wasn’t relevant. But I was looking for your thoughts on how to combat that “soulless” idea of society that targets autistic and many other people who are not treated fairly and with dignity by society often times.
By the way, I studied Classics and I agree that poetry is good for the soul in many ways. I guess it would be important since God spoke to his people through the psalms and proverbs. But Greco-Roman literature and culture often contains grotesque, violent, and irrational aspects to it that are often downplayed and I think we tend to play up the parts that elevate the “soul.” But they still had a very different idea, I think, about the soul than we do as Christians. So I’ve struggled with the value of Greco-Roman civilization because it has tended in my experience to overshadow or maybe even distort the beauty and depth of the Semitic soul in understanding the faith. I hope all of that makes sense.
Thank you, Fr. Freeman for a thought provoking article!!
“There are currents within our culture that would largely jettison the study of classical literature, including what was once known as the “canon of literature.” The drive to elevate current political and social understanding over every previous understanding has made it common to neglect important stories for adolescent fiction and the like.”
I went back into the fray, refreshed from the retreat. It will be Beowulf to Solzhenitsyn by May for my Brit. and World Lit. class. Please pray for this grey-haired dinosaur teacher, and those coming after her.
Thank you, that clarifies your comment. It is, of course, inherently the case that every human being as a soul, from the very moment of conception, and is of infinite value.
I think the neglect of the soul is also a mark of thinking we have no soul. I think the culture values us, not as souls, but as consumers and production units…little more.
Father thank you .
The mythological narratives that are being created today, as we speak, reflect a total amnesia of Christ, and who we are. They are based not on God’s gift of rationality, and His logismi, instead, they are crafted by selfish desires…mostly personal emotions and preference, sprinkled with some social consciousness.
The boast from Iceland was that Downs Syndrome (a genetic disorder that can be identified in utero, unlike autism) had been eradicated. This doesn’t affect your point, but I just wanted to clarify. One of my children who has autism and ADHD has had several classmates and friends with Downs Syndrome, who are some of the most wonderful people and brightest souls on the face of the planet. The news from Iceland is indeed deeply tragic!
Thank you, Karen, for clarifying that for me. A diagnosis is needed now that I think of it. I also have family members living with those types of conditions. I agree! They are gifts of the community.
What Jordan Peterson has been advocating is very similar to this. And he’s found a great hunger for it. But he seems to be, at base, an atheist and his prescriptions, while wise, can not take people the whole way back to sanity. We must!
No doubt these are things that we should practice. Forgive me, but “we must” becomes another project. Practice it and acquire the Spirit of Peace. Souls will be saved around us. But if our focus becomes on the moral project of what we must do for others, we’ll lose our way and arrive right back where we should not be.
Nothing to forgive. Thanks for the correction.
I was actually hoping to prompt your thoughts on Peterson. My “must” wasn’t really about a social program, but about the young men in my life who are attracted to Peterson’s message. They’re skeptical of modernity and are hungry for a message other than nihilism. Peterson speaks a lot of wisdom but I think his approach has some basic and critical flaws. But it finds far greater resonance with tradition-mindedyoung young men than does the public witness of the Church. Is there anything beyond the st seraphim option to speak into this hunger?
I’ve not read or listened to Peterson, thus, I’ve only seen excerpts. He has good points, but certainly lacks a center that probably only the Christian faith could give him.
Modernity is a “Christian” project – a heretical Christian project. For that matter, Islam is a Christian heresy, but that’s another discussion. Modernity can, I think, only be addressed by correcting its heretical nature.
Much that I came to understand viz. the modern project came through my studies with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke. It introduced me to a line of thought and analysis that unmasked modernity (heck, it was the first thing to actually make me aware that “modernity” was a thing and not just a natural progression of history).
Reading and working with Hauerwas made me aware of a very diverse conversation about modernity that has been taking place for a long time. For my own part, I used that analysis together with Orthodox theology. Hauerwas’ one weakness is his own life – he is a Protestant who doesn’t believe in Protestantism. He attends an Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill. His wife is a Methodist minister (or was when I knew him). But he’s honest about this problem. Many students of his have wound up as Catholics, simply, I think because his arguments viz. tradition and the sacraments lead them to that conclusion. I’ve told him he should be Orthodox. For my money, only Orthodoxy really answers the questions he raises.
All of that is to say that I suggest reading him if you’re thinking about the questions of modernity. Resident Aliens, which he wrote with Will Willimon, is a good place to start.
Regarding young men–our Catechumens at the moment are almost entirely young men–14/3. And most of the people who come to Vespers are young men. Not sure why, but something is definitely resonating. It’s not unusual for the men to come–without their wives being interested.