What's the World with no Soul?

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 20 May 2007

Fat Freddy's Drop has a song on their album 'Based on a True Story', that's basically one question repeated over and over - 'what's the world with no soul?' 'Tell me' the song says, 'you've got to tell me what's the world with no soul?'
I feel drawn to this question. I believe it's the question that the church needs to be asking of our culture, and of ourselves, as we chart a path for the Christian faith in this post-everything world.

To me, it's a much more interesting question than 'are you going to heaven when you die?'
It's a question about what makes this life worth living, a question that asks what it means to be human in this world. And it's a question that posits the loss of that dimension of human life that we recognise as 'soul'. What, indeed, would the world look like without soul?

'Soul' used to be a word that applied to a disembodied part of ourselves that is somehow 'spiritual' and will live on after we die. People in churches have talked of 'lost souls' and 'saving souls.' Of late, most of us have stopped using the word, as it implies a naive  understanding of human biology and chemistry...and also devalues the physical body in which we live, and theology that affirms incarnation and embodied resurrection.

With typical literalism the scientific community rejects the idea of soul, because it cannot be seen with any of the technologies that enable us to scan and dissect the brain. It doesn't exist, because it has no observable physical reality.

But 'soul' as a metaphor still works for me, as a description of that dimension of individuals, and of all of life, that is aware of the 'more'...aware of the Divine presence in all things, and open to being animated and motivated by the Spirit. It is that dimension of life that cannot be bought or sold, that is sourced in love, that provides depth to human existence. 'Soul' is at work when there is genuine warmth and connection between people...especially people who are not genetically related or romantically involved. 'Soul' is at work when people are generous without reason, when people act with vision and hope rather than out of calculating self-interest. 'Soul' is at work when people seek wisdom over knowledge, prayer over amusement, stillness over meaningless noise, kindness over impatience.

Where do we find soul, in our world? In a culture saturated with reality TV - for 'reality', substitute 'scripted and manipulated'...where is our access to that which is ultimately real? With technology that enables us to hop on the internet and craft a whole other life, a whole other self...what is the motivation to develop depth and wisdom in the life that we actually live in the flesh? In a world where a person's name is also their brand, and communities of people strategise vigorously to attract others to join them...are identity, and relationship anything other than marketing devices serving an idea of success?

Jesus said there were two primary relationships...to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love others as ourselves. For me, it requires more and more imagination to envisage how these relationships could be fulfilled in this world of ours. I think, increasingly, we have come to live in a 'world without soul', and as people of God, we should have something to say about that, and something to contribute to a shift in this trend.

What, currently, does the Christian church say to the world about the life of the soul? What do we show to the world about soul?

Would the people walking past churches this morning recognise in the message and the practices of Christians a joyful commitment to depth and connectedness? Or has the church itself become caught up in the soul-less-ness of the image-focused, performance culture of our day?

This week's gospel reading from the Lectionary is from John chapter 14. Here's what it says:

Judas (not Iscariot) said, "Master, why is it that you are about to make yourself plain to us but not to the world?"
"Because a loveless world," said Jesus, "is a sightless world. If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him—we'll move right into the neighborhood! Not loving me means not keeping my words. The message you are hearing isn't mine. It's the message of the Father who sent me.
"I'm telling you these things while I'm still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I'm leaving you well and whole. That's my parting gift to you. Peace. I don't leave you the way you're used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don't be upset. Don't be distraught.
"You've heard me tell you, 'I'm going away, and I'm coming back.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I'm on my way to the Father because the Father is the goal and purpose of my life.
"I've told you this ahead of time, before it happens, so that when it does happen, the confirmation will deepen your belief in me. I'll not be talking with you much more like this because the chief of this godless world is about to attack. But don't worry—he has nothing on me, no claim on me. But so the world might know how thoroughly I love the Father, I am carrying out my Father's instructions right down to the last detail.
"Get up. Let's go. It's time to leave here."

A loveless world, says Jesus, is a sightless world, that cannot see God. Jesus says these words just before he is taken and killed. And yet, he makes a promise, of the coming Spirit, the Friend, who will come and comfort and inspire the disciples to keep on in the way of Jesus, to keep following his command to love. In the words of the Taize chant - Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est. Where charity and love are, God is there.

In a couple of weeks, we celebrate Pentecost, the moment when this promise of the Spirit is fulfilled. This is the promise that even though Jesus left this world in his body, to ascend and be with the Father, he also returns to dwell among us...as 'soul'. The Spirit of Christ is the 'soul' of our world. The presence of the Spirit, everywhere, but particularly in those who 'love God, and love what God loves', is the source of 'soul' and the end of fear and abandonment.

Therefore, there is good reason to hope. For the ongoing presence of 'soul' in our world is not ultimately our job to ensure...it's God's promise to be present with us, and the human task is simply to respond, and to open ourselves to the love and depth that God invites us toward. This is the good news, this is what we have to live and speak to the world...that God is with us, that God calls us to a life with 'soul', that, to return to the words of Fat Freddy's Drop, is 'more than evolution, more than money, more than technology.'

On a final note, the Fat Freddy's song has an interesting lyric right toward the end:
'The race is on and I could be standing still
'Cos I have faith in something more than my will'

The human race is in a race...to succeed, to do better, be better, have more, beat the person next door. Maybe this is a race toward our own destruction, and toward the destruction of our earth along the way. Maybe the best thing we can do in this race is 'stand still', and have faith in the 'soul' that is beyond us, the 'soul' that catches up our individual wills into the divine, benevolent, and wise will of God. Let's not be afraid of stillness, or even backwardness, while the race goes on around us. Instead, may our lives, and the life of our church, testify to 'soul', as we deliberately choose those practices that create space for depth and connection with each other and God.