My book club is like an extended family. We have been going long enough that we have already seen three of our number pass away, one from suicide, one from illness and one from not-so-old-age. I mention this only to convey that our members, a sprinkling of bright, secular-minded, financial types, techies and assorted professionals, are all old enough to have experienced at least some of the dark side of life, as well as much of the pain and suffering we invariably inflict on ourselves as a result of our all-too-human frailties. Yet, the other day, my suggestion to read a book about how popular culture portrays the soul and the afterlife, was met with blank stares. After all, to the modern secular mind the soul and the afterlife are just mystical, superstitious beliefs, unworthy of consideration outside of a religious studies course.
Unfortunately, this is to see science and religion as at odds with each other, rather than as practices offering different responses to the human condition. While science attempts to explain, religion attempts to provide meaning. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, for which they will continue to require religion. To understand how popular culture treats the soul and the afterlife is to gain a greater understanding of the way we see ourselves as well as knowledge of our deepest yearnings.
On reflection, I should not have been too surprised at the book club’s reaction. After all, it’s difficult to even define the word ‘soul’, which is something like a person’s essence, more than personality and character, but immortal and with an ethical dimension. Like much in Christianity the idea of an immortal soul predated the Christian era. Socrates explained that the immortal soul, once freed from the body, is rewarded for good deeds and punished for evil ones. For Plato, man is meant to attain goodness and return to the Ideal through the experience of the transmigration of the soul. Christianity adopted some of these ideas so enthusiastically that Socrates and Plato were actually regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints.
In medieval manuscripts the soul is sometimes represented as a miniature baby inserted by God into an infant’s mouth at the moment of his or her birth. At death this baby is taken away by God or the Devil, depending on how well or poorly its owner had cared for it over the years. If we ditch the mysticism and the immortality, surely it does not stretch credulity to admit that there is something tender and vulnerable within us that needs care and attention throughout our life. It is something that at various times we are forced to acknowledge and respect, as when someone says, “I spent my life working as a bean counter, but my soul was never in it”. We can postpone addressing the soul’s needs, even avoiding them for a while, but sooner or later the soul makes its claim. We instinctively recognize people who have honored their soul just as we recognize those, who at the end of a lifetime of lies, deceits and subterfuges, have a soul so twisted that their face has begun to mirror it, contorted in a permanent expression of rage and despair.
Unfortunately, although psychology literally means the study of the soul (psyche), with few exceptions (such as James Hillman), we will not get much help from this field, which chooses rather to deal with complexes, types, temperaments and traits. So, atheists take heart, professionals may insist that souls abide only in the realms of magic, madness and religion, but if you carefully search within, you may still find yours, just make sure not to tell anyone.
“What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.” John Gray