I don’t know much about God, or Gods in general; I only know what I have read and what others are happy to tell me. But I began wondering a day or so ago about the following question: do Gods have souls? The question is fraught with difficulties—defining God and defining the soul being the biggest two. Some Christian readers may even think it a silly question because the Bible describes God as spirit (John 4:24). Is it possible for spirits to have souls? In the Christian West we popularly think of ourselves as “having” souls; that is to say, an eternal immaterial aspect of a human being that leaves the material body on death. But God in the Judeo-Christian tradition does not have a material body, so how could God have a soul? Spirits (if spirits there be) have neither shape nor distinguishing form. So how can invisible spirit be indwelled by a shapeless, formless soul? The Bible says that we human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6); so if we have a soul wouldn’t it logically follow that God, our prototype, also has a soul? Perhaps we do not have (as we think) souls (psyche) in the Greek sense:
In Homer the psyche is what leaves the body on death (i.e. life, or breath?) but also an insubstantial image of the dead person existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body (and perhaps entering another) is well established by the 5th century B.C.E.1
Like God, soul is also a slippery concept. We human beings don’t all agree that there is an eternal immaterial aspect of the human being that leaves the body on death. There most certainly is, however, an animating principle in all living beings, which the authors of Genesis recognized as appertaining to Adam (Gen 2:7): “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (which is translated in the RSV as “being”).2 Adam was created a living soul (psyche is the Greek word; nephesh is the Hebrew word). So perhaps we do not “have” soul; we are soul; that is, we are simply animated matter having no eternal aspect and when our matter loses its animation (i.e., dies) our matter returns to the dust from whence it came—at least that appears to be the Hebrew concept.
There is a third way of thinking about “soul” that I want to consider in connection with the question do Gods have souls. Soul by this third (dictionary) definition is “a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by black American performers,”3 particularly in “soul music,” which “is characterized by intensity of feelings and earthiness.”4 Soul by this last definition suggests, among other things, the capability of being touched to the core, among other things, by tragedies of the human condition. Does God in Western religious traditions evince such a capability? We find a few such moments in his youth during the Israelite phase of his maturation process into Christianity. Since his conversion to Christianity, however, some of his earliest votaries have been far more optimistic as to God’s ability to be deeply touched by the tragedies of the human condition; nevertheless, before his conversion, God’s behavior as depicted in the Old Testament was scarcely up to Christian standards.
If God is spirit, one can only wonder how spirits possess the capability of “feeling” deeply about anything. Feeling is one of the basic physical senses, which comes to be applied to one’s emotional demeanor. One can also wonder how it comes about that soul can be so intimately associated with spirit. At least two authors in the New Testament find spirit and soul to be two different immaterial aspects of the human constitution (1 Thess 5:23; Hebrews 4:12).
Truth be told: we humans invent our Gods;5 given that, why should we not, if we chose, conceive of a Great Eternal Invisible Spirit with soul in spite of Western religious traditions? The prospect of a soulless God is a terrifying thought.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Christopher Rowe, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1428.
2In the Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint) psyche translates the Hebrew nephesh, which is rendered as “being” in the RSV.
3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul.”
4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul music.”
5Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: “God does not Exist,” May 17, 2016.
T'was a wonderful morning here for a walk, Charlie,
To me, belief in “soul” as something that migrates outside the body when one dies is alien to my view of the world. For the sake of argument, however, I like what Lord Herbert of Chibury (De religione gentilum, chapter 15) quoted from Cicero’s “On the Nature of Gods,” that good people “...may be thought to have the gods themselves living within their souls.” These consecrated gods were called “Mind, Piety, Faith & Virtue.” It seems the feeling among some was that external worship of gods was irrelevant when humans possessed within themselves certain characteristics of “good.” The second definition of “soul” in my dictionary (Oxford Desk Dictionary) is “the moral or emotional or intellectual nature of a person or animal.” With this definition, if one envisions a god (or more), the god would seem derive from this nature (or these thoughts) unless one used a book like the Bible, Qur’an, Vedas, etc., to influence one’s understanding of “god”; soul would “create” god, in the same way a writer creates a protagonist of a story or an inventor creates a “thingamabob.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Re: Gods & souls
I appreciate Dennis' comments about human and animal souls as they agree with my soul. Like Cicero & Charlie, Dennis appears to also be a scholar, and humans benefit from their thoughts. They are gifts to humanity! The Oxford Desk Dictionary definition seemed "spot on".
Thank you, but I am not nor will I ever be a biblical scholar, and certainly never have even one percent of the knowledge of Charlie. I do consider myself a scholar, but in a different discipline. Before retiring, my field was learning theory as it applied to language acquisition, writing and reading. I taught disabled students, second language learners, and some classes and workshops to instruct teachers about what I had learned. Scholarship about history, theology and religious texts is an interest I began primarily resulting from a seminar conducted by Charlie Hedrick and Roy Hoover around twenty years ago, continued vigorously since then, but without the schooling essential to scholarship in those areas. I’m trying to learn ancient Greek as fast as my antique brain will function to facilitate my understanding.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Re: I do consider myself a scholar,...
You clearly think, write, and live as a scholar. I extend my thanks and admiration to you....along with Charlie.
Dennis and Jim,
The dictionary definition of "scholar" that appeals most to me considerably narrows the field, I think. But there are a number of definitions of scholar not quite as narrowing, so I suppose one could pick and choose between several definitions that will considerably open up the designation "scholar" to a larger number of people in a given field of learning. Although I suppose one could use the designation "a scholar's scholar" to indicate that while many of us can be considered scholars by any number of the dictionary definitions, only a few of us receive the respect of scholar's scholar. Here is the definition that considerably narrows the field for me.
A scholar is "a learned person; especially one who has the attitudes (such as curiosity, perseverance, initiative, originality) considered essential for learning--including all those endeavoring to be original thinkers in any field of learning." What do you think?
I associate the word "scholar" with school. I define it as one who has been schooled in a particular academic discipline and who has proven his or her merit in that area (to peers, through papers, research, etc.).
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie!
I looked up your newest book online, "Unmasking Biblical Truths," and read the endorsements. The one written by Glenna S. Jackson really captures the essence of your enduring appeal with students and truth-seekers... And I quote: "The irony of writing with no axes to grind and nothing at stake, but on topics with many axes to grind and everything at stake, can be accomplished only by a retired academic of religion with the articulation, wisdom, and probity of Charlie Hedrick.” (I had to look up probity) I couldn't have said it better myself, many thanks to you.
1) Who taught you to, for lack of a better phrase, "have no axes to grind?" Were you born with that in your nature?
2) With regard to being animated matter- do you know exactly what kind of energy animates us? Can you say precisely where our consciousness comes from? What makes my consciousness (animation) separate from yours?
3) I'm not sure I know the difference between God having a spirit and God having a soul... How are they different? How are spirit and soul different? In other words- why are "feelings" only limited to physical senses... Can't the spirit and/or soul experience feelings too? If not, why?
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
I think that the definitions of "scholar" that you and Dennis have offered are both solid. I would add a bit more detail and some critique.
A scholar is a person who has significantly more verbal intelligence, as measured by IQ, than 99% of the population, and who applies the most stringent rational processes of investigation, which is both a strength and a weakness, to find the truths of a particular area of study. The best scholars are able to explain the weaknesses of their methods and conclusions to those less well-trained.
Now I'm wondering why Jesus said of scribes (scholars): "Be on guard against the scholars who like to parade around in long robes, and who love to be addressed properly in the marketplaces, and who prefer important seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets." (Luke 20:45-46; cf. Mark 12:38-39; Matt 23:5-7; Luke 11:43: primary sources Mark and Q).)
A couple questions:
1. Do you agree with the Jesus Seminar which changed the traditional translation of "scribes" to "scholars?"
2. How are we to think of the function of these persons?
I would have left the term as "scribes" on the basis that scribes in the New Testament period were "professionals engaged in the interpretation and teaching of Torah." That to me is something very different from what we mean by "scholar" today. Describing the scribe as a scholar is at the very least misleading. See the excellent entry "Scribes" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
1. Actually I do have an axe to grind. I describe it in this way: reason should be the last arbiter rather than religious faith. What Glenna was talking about, I think, was that one should state the truth as one sees it courageously without wavering. Or in the words of Robert Funk: do not dissemble! See his posthumous preface to "When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys" edited by Hedrick, Polebridge, 2008. I learned that scholars should not dissemble from Funk.
2. I think the life force, whatever it is comes from "Mother Nature." Humans all possess the capability of consciousness if they are alive.
3. Like I said at the beginning of the essay, I don't know much about God or Gods in General. I only know what I read and what people are more than happy to tell me. And that goes for spirits and souls as well.
RE: 2. where does consciousness come from?
Though I was not asked I may be more specific than you to answer human consciousnesses comes from the same source as all our thoughts and emotions, e.g. brain matter, chemistry, and electricity. Amazing though we are, "mother nature", continues to evolve us and all the universe.
Re: 3. Gods, spirits, souls...
I might also answer the source of Gods, spirits, & souls are subsets of our thoughts and emotions and so products of our brain matter, chemistry, & electricity. These facts are difficult for many to comprehend today especially for those who have little knowledge & understanding of science and the laws of the universe, let alone those who lived thousands of years ago.
Post a Comment