I read a post on The Writer’s Treehut yesterday discussing the legacy of isolation and despair that the concept of soul and of our separate individuality generates in so many of us. I believe it does. I too believe that the idea that we each have a soul that separates us from the consequences of what happens to everybody else is often destructive for ourselves.
Most people, I think, assume that the concept of soul has biblical roots. But it does not. Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either. The core of the idea comes from Plato who lived almost half a millennium before Christ. He was trying to solve the intellectual problem of how we can have ideas of perfect things when perfect things do not exist in the material world. He decided there must be another world where these things are perfect – perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect people, perfect everything.
This perfect world represented the scientific – not religious – thinking of the day. It’s rather like our scientific ideas today about dark energy. We really haven’t a clue what dark energy might be, but it seems to be the only kind of thing scientists can think of at the moment to explain the extraordinary things we do observe. The secular idea of a soul was adopted by Christian theologians because it represented the scientific thinking of the day.
The idea of the soul was discarded long ago as a scientific concept, but its usefulness for controlling the behavior of believers by religious authorities remains. The existence of the soul comes packaged with the promise of eternal life – as a way for my most precious personal ego to survive forever. And the promise is that it will survive in perfect bliss if I do what religious leaders tell me to do. Eternal life as ME is no longer an idea that personally holds any allure or coercive power over me, but it did for a long time.
The invention of the idea of soul also has another hidden and I think immensely destructive result – it suggests that salvation is individual. You as a sinner might not go to heaven, but I can make sure that I do. In other words, we are not all in this together. I can feel superior to you, separate from your sinfulness, safe from it, whatever you do, even it kills me, even if it wipes out the entire human species. Because my soul will survive and go to heaven while you will go to hell. Ha! I shall win in the end!
The alternative is that we are all in this together, and that if we are, we must care about what happens to everybody else, care about their suffering, their lives, their opportunities. But there are many ways of doing this. Being incomplete as we are, many of those ways are self-absorbed, debilitating, neurotic, self-deluding. As a human race, we still seem addicted to “doing good” by bombing, shooting, punishing, and killing the bad guys. We even then pat ourselves on the back as heroic and patriotic. I have not been able to adopt the pacifist view 100%. Perhaps I was too influenced by the horrors of World War II gas chambers. But we are far too trigger-happy. We don’t really believe in diplomacy. We don’t really think that perhaps we too have to change, not just everybody else. We seem to think that because we have the bombs, we have the military, we must be right. It would be nice to say this applies to only America, but it seems to be a world-wide belief: the best way to impose the right way (which of course is the way revealed to me) is to be the biggest bully on the street. We imprison or kill anyone who does not accept our standards. Then people have to listen, even if they aren’t convinced.
There are two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years. The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world. And the second idea is the one that is central to this post – that we are all in this together. There is no possibility that I can just take care of myself. I myself depend in my very essence on what happens to all of us.
We know that children brought up in isolation cannot develop even the most basic human abilities. We need others to have food to eat, to speak a language, to make a child. We need others to be able to love, to feel that we are of value, to feel the joy of helping, of laughing together. I don’t mean we have to agree with each other – what a boring dull prospect.
But we can’t become ourselves without everybody and even everything else. We need the bees, and the cows. We need the wheat fields and the sun and the rain. In fact, we need the whole universe.
It’s our home.