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If I Only Had a Soul

Old Testament Lesson: Ecclesiastes 3:18-22

New Testament Lesson: Luke 12:16-20

Text: Mark 8:36-37

A few weeks ago I preached on the occasion of Disney merging with ABC. I viewed it as a case of the Principalities and Powers grouping for another attack on poor humanity. Well, this week, we have seen another such merger between King Kong and Godzilla, Time Warner and Ted Turner. One can only imagine all the wheeling and dealing that went into the merger. We can look to Marvin Candel for an analysis on CNN, but then we could hardly expect that to be very impartial, could we? We might study the reaction of the stock market to the news, but then I'm not sure we would find out the most important financial fact, since it seems never to show up on the Standard & Poorer's Listing, not in the Wall Street Journal or in Forbes Magazine.

But it does show up in Mark 8:36-37. How did Turner come out in this deal? The calculus is really pretty simple. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to forfeit his soul?" It's a rhetorical question, one that requires and expects the answer, "nothing." There would be no profit. The proverb doesn't tell us whether the one who has gained the whole earth and all the glory of its kingdoms but at the precious cost of his soul has made an even trade, or whether he has made the same sort of deal the unsuspecting Indians made when they sold Manhattan Island for a few dollars' worth of beads.

But I kind of think the latter is what's intended. You've come out on the short end of the deal. You're left holding the bag, just like Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone: there's a devastating war, and the only one to survive is a hen-pecked bookworm. He had always wanted nothing so much as to be allowed to read in peace. And this small luxury no one would allow him. But now here he is alone with whole libraries full of volumes, and no one to interrupt him! And wouldn't you know it? He drops his glasses and picks them up shattered! And no opticians are left! He's got the whole world--but to no purpose.

Interestingly, the same deal is offered to Jesus himself in the Temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke. Satan appears to Jesus and boasts that the whole world is at his personal disposal. Like a newly elected president, he can fill all the posts with his loyal cronies. And if Jesus will swear fealty to him, he can have anything he wants. But there will be one little string attached: he will have mortgaged his soul. No, Jesus decides, it's not worth it. A bad investment.

In a modern gospel, Jesus Christ Superstar, the voice of Judas speaks from the twentieth century and ponders: "If you'd have come today you'd have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication." Good question. I've got an answer. Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that had Jesus appeared in our day, the offer of the devil would have been that Jesus should take advantage of the media to publicize his message. But Jesus still would have turned him down. He wouldn't have wanted to have to edit his message for the sake of higher ratings.

Mark has appended another saying in a similar vein: "For what can a man give in exchange for his life?" Another rhetorical question. The idea is the same in one of the Psalms which says that all the riches of the wicked cannot buy another day of life for them once the Grim Reaper comes to call. You can't bribe him. At most you can play a game of chess with him, and even then you're doomed. He cheats.

Your life is so precious that it cannot be gotten back out of hock. When you try you realize what a beating you took on the deal. You got only a few measly bucks when you pawned it, but the pawnshop owner recognized the value of this pearl of great price. And he won't part with it no matter how much you offer. It's out of the question for you to redeem it, to buy it back, once it's gone.

In this pair of sayings the same word, psuche, is used for "soul" in the first one, "life" in the second. It could mean either one in either verse. I have just given you the meanings that make most sense to me as I read the text. But it's not absolutely clear. And that lack of clarity is a good reflection of the lack of clarity on a related issue. Namely, what is the soul, anyway? And do you have one? Does anybody? Of course, that depends on what it is supposed to be in the first place.

Theravada Buddhism teaches the anatta doctrine, the doctrine of no soul. I will let the cat out the bag and admit right up front that I agree with this. There is none, so we don't have one. But the question remains: what is this soul that we don't have?

The Buddhists aren't denying that you have what it is you are referring to when you call it a soul. They just mean that you're taking a metaphor too literally. Just as Augustine said about evil. There is no such thing as evil. Evil isn't a thing, and we shouldn't think so even though we should go right on resisting evil, fighting evil, hating evil. Because "evil" is a name for a condition, not some kind of an essence or substance. Insofar as anything has become evil it has lost something--namely the goodness it had by simply existing. Evil is good gone bad. A lack of, a draining away of, good. Just as there is no such thing as silence. Rather, silence is the absence of a thing, namely sound. There is no such thing as cold. It is just a shorthand way of referring to the absence of heat, which is something.

In the Theravada text, The Questions of King Menander, a Buddhist monk explains to a Hellenistic king that there is no soul as such. To do this, he inspects the king's chariot. He points first to the axle, then to the cab, then to the horses, the wheels, and so on, asking at each point whether this is the chariot. Of course, none of them is. It is the combination of these varied components. And the whole is not really greater than the sum of its parts. It is just a name for the sum of the parts. To make an abstraction like "the chariot" into a substantial thing would be mystification.

What he has done is to deconstruct the concept of the soul or self. He has taken it apart so as better to understand how it functions. And when we do that we discover that we know it better, and yet that we do not know it at all, as there is nothing real to know. There is no Santa, there are generous parents. You get the presents, but it doesn't work the way you thought it did. The rain falls because of the water cycle, not because Zeus pulls a lever. But fall it does.

Buddhists lay bare the composite character of what had seemed whole, simple, single, and perfect, the seamless garment of the soul. It is not transcendental, not presuppositional. It is already derived, already a function of something else. It is just a name for the collection of mental phenomena called thoughts, instincts, feelings, and perceptions. These exist, sure they do. But there is nothing holding them together or making them a soul, if by this we imagine some sort of immortal spark that abides unchanging the death of the body.

But direct reference, literal description, as Wittgenstein showed, is not the only language game in town. I would like to approach the idea of the soul first from the standpoint of language philosophy, linguistic analysis. The meaning of a term lies in the way we usually use it. What do we seem to be talking about when we use this elusive word, "soul"? And I know no better example of soul-talk than the pair of sayings from Mark's gospel. What is it that is more valuable than the whole world, which to possess is far better than to possess the kingdoms of the world? What is it that can never be bought back once it has been foolishly squandered away?

What profit has been made when one gains the whole world but has to pay for it with his soul? None. No profit, because what you paid with is infinitely more precious that what you paid for. And the metaphor seems to imply that you are still there, still alive, to feel the chagrin at your stupidity. Just like the wretched character Charles Herbert in Arthur Machen's tale "The Great God Pan."

So here I don't think it implies that your soul is simply your life force, your breath, as it does seem to mean in Luke's parable of the Rich Fool. "This night your soul is required of you." In other words, tonight, you have to return that borrowed life you lived. You checked the book out, and now it's due, and the librarian has come for it. Hand it over. The irony is that the Rich Fool spent all his time preparing for a future that will never come. He should have slowed down and enjoyed it while he still had some of it left!

No, I think that Mark's warning about the trade of one's soul for the riches of the world implies something else. What is this soul? It makes most sense to me to suggest that it refers to your integrity. As Heidegger says, the authenticity of your existence. As Tillich puts it, the living of your days in obedience to the law of your own being. You can disobey yourself, you know. You do, every time you cast aside your better judgment. Every time you decide to stifle your conscience. And when you do, you whittle away at yourself, much as the drug addict wears away his health.

And you experience this as a loss of self-respect. A sense of self-hatred. In the moment of temptation you were divided. You could have gone the way of the law of your being, the real you, the blueprint of you. But instead you went astray, off the track, as when we say a person who has gone mad is "off his rocker." You became the slacker, you became the black sheep. You turned into Hyde as Jeckyll stood by helplessly and watched. But now, now that the deed is done, and you despise yourself. You have reverted to Dr. Jeckyll. You hate what you did. Even though it was as if someone else had done it, someone named Mr. Hyde, you know it was you, and you hate the you that did it. You hate yourself. You are less than you were.

And the more you give in, the less you become. When you have lost yourself, you have come to the point where you can no longer bear the accusing voice of conscience, so you silence it for good. Like Poe's antiheroes in "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." As the Epistle of Titus says, you have seared your conscience; all the nerve endings are dead. You feel nothing anymore. Like frostbite.

And then you have lost the last precious shred of you. These moral compromises may have been the steps up the ladder to power, to wealth. By them you may have attained the world. The world is your oyster. The world is at your feet. But what is left of your soul? Of yourself? Nothing. You have lost your soul. Satan doesn't have it trapped in a bag or a bottle somewhere, like in "The Devil and Daniel Webster." No, it's not a thing.

It's not ectoplasm, a peculiar notion that refutes itself as soon as you say it. A gas? A mist? That's what Jesus is telling you not to lose? Like the air in a tire? I don't think so! You don't have a soul, because you don't really have integrity, authenticity. No, you live integrity. You do integrity. As John's gospel says, you do the truth. So you don't have a soul. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take care not to lose it.

But there is another meaning. There is another important way in which we use the word soul, or for that matter, the word spirit. And here let's trade one philosophical instrument for another, phenomenology. What kind of thing are we experiencing when we feel compelled to speak of the soul, of spirituality? We experience transcendence, ecstasy, which means to stand outside of oneself, to rise up as if out of the body, as when John of Patmos says that on the day he received the Revelation he was "in the spirit." Or when Paul says he can "speak in the spirit or with the mind, sing with the spirit or with the mind." He implies an ecstatic state.

One feels borne up as on a wave, as on a wind current. There is joy hard to bear. There is reverence before the sublime. And this happens in worship or in contemplating a poem, in listening to Mozart or Bach. Watching some films. It is "out of the body" in that there is no longer any question of merely satisfying physical needs, as with food and sex. For those moments we live on a higher level than we have to. The soul or the spirit has emerged.

We ought to seek such moments. We ought to thirst for what Arthur Machen called "the Secret Glory." And we may find it in the sacred or the secular. Eventually we will find that there is really nothing but the sacred. That the secular, the profane, is but the air through which the sound wave moves to reach the ear. Here is a Lovecraft sonnet that perfectly grasps the sacred seen in the ordinary. Lovecraft was a naturalist, a rationalist, an atheist. And yet he was by no means oblivious of the Mystery of Being.

But is such an experience an indication that we have a thing called a soul? I hardly think so. The soul, the spirit, is, again, a name for an experience, not a description of a thing. We have transcendent experiences, whatever their source, but we do not have a soul. That is only a name for having transcendent experiences.

And that should come as no surprise in light of traditional spiritual wisdom. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The paradox of spirituality is that it is only and precisely the hunger of the spirit, for the spirit, that is the fullness of the spirit. The moment one comes to feel one has the fullness of the spirit, one has become full of himself instead. This is the reason for the rebukes we read in 1 Corinthians and Revelation. "Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the reign with you!" (1 Corinthians 4:8) "You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing'; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor. blind, and naked." (Revelation 3:17)

Let me close with one of my favorite theological texts, The Wizard of Oz, an inexhaustible fund of wisdom. Remember when Dorothy and her friends arrive in the Emerald City, like Jesus and the Twelve arriving in Jerusalem for the Passion? The companions are in need, they think, of three rare substances. The Lion needs courage. The scarecrow needs a brain, the tin man a heart. When informed that no one can grant them these boons because there are no such boons to grant, they are downcast, despairing. Have they really journeyed so far in vain? Not at all.

As always in the religious life, the journey turns out to be the goal, though we may not know it at the time. Because in the process of overcoming all the obstacles that blocked their way to Oz, they brought forth from within themselves just the things they thought they lacked. The Lion defied danger to rescue his friends. The scarecrow was the master strategist in outwitting the Wicked Witch. The tin man acted out of the very compassion he thought could never exist in his hollow shell. Why should the wizard give them things they already had? They just needed someone to point out the obvious. It wasn't what they had, because there was nothing to have. It was what they did, what they were. And that's just the way it is with your soul.

And let's not pass by the fact that just as the heart, the courage, and the brain weren't what they were first thought to be, neither was the Wizard! He seemed a god. He turned out to be a man. But it took a man, a mere mortal, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary: that these three already had wisdom, compassion, and courage. They didn't need some imaginary thing from outside themselves to be miraculously installed by a superhuman entity like Oz the Great and Powerful. The kind old man was just what they needed.

And maybe this says something about God. Maybe God is no more a real and objective entity than the soul itself. Perhaps, just as the so-called soul is really a name for living with integrity and experiencing transcendence, maybe God is equally a function of that experience, the premise, whether real or metaphorical, of that experience. Bultmann and Gogarten were existentialist theologians, phenomenologists. They spoke only of experience, only of phenomena, events in consciousness. And they knew that they met God in the call to authenticity.

They knew that it was a fatal error to objectify God as a thing, as an individual entity. One more being, albeit a supreme one, among beings. They couldn't understand the point of asking, as some asked them, whether God existed outside the experience of faith. Because to ask such a question implies that the questioner is himself outside the bounds of faith. And that is like the skeptical question the scribes put to Jesus, requesting a sign from heaven. That is another of those rhetorical questions to which no answer is expected. No wonder Jesus didn't comply, didn't give them the answer they asked for. Or rather, he did, for their question was closed. It expected no answer, and so he gave them none. By definition there can be none.

Adolf von Harnack said the message of Jesus was based on the higher piety of "God and the soul, the soul and its God." That's right. But I would turn it around: what is God but something that the soul has? And what is either God or the soul but the experience of piety?

Robert M. Price
September 24, 1995


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