Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oh My Soul!

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
January 10, 2010
Rev. Jane Page

In 1871, Anna and Horatio Spafford (a successful Chicago lawyer and real estate investor) experienced the death of their only son; sadly – just the first of several traumatic events for them. The next was the great Chicago fire which practically ruined them financially. In 1873 Anna and their four daughters set sail for England on the S.S. Ville du Harve. Horatio planned to join them later, having been delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Fire. While making the crossing, the Ville du Harve sank rapidly after a collision with an iron sailing ship, the Loch Earn. All but 39 of the passengers, including the four Spafford daughters, died. Anna survived and sent her husband a telegram – saying – “Saved alone.” Soon Horatio traveled to meet his grieving wife. When his ship passed near where his daughters had died, he looked out over the waters – then went to his cabin to pray and contemplate. It was here that he penned the hymn – “It is well with my soul.” The first verse shares a personal perspective related to his loses.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

I heard Spafford’s hymn sung often through the years at First Baptist Church here in Statesboro. And it was one of my favorites. It’s a soulful song about the soul. But what is it that Spafford was singing about? And what do I mean when I say that song is soulful? I must admit to you that even after hours of reading and study – (or perhaps BECAUSE of hours of reading and study); I do not have the answer.

I’m in sympathy with the soul of the old depression era blues and gospel singer -- Blind Willie Johnson (who was a friend – by the way – of Statesboro’s Blind Willie McTell). He sang:

Won't somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Won't somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I'm going to ask the question, answer if you can
If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I've traveled in different countries, I've traveled foreign lands
I've found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man.

So Blind Willie couldn’t find the answer and I couldn’t either. But this is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. And if you know anything about our faith and our congregation, you already know that I don’t know the answer. But I can share a little with you about what others have considered regarding the soul – and perhaps pose some questions and some possibilities for us to ponder.

The English word soul is derived from the Old English Word -- sawol; and is akin to Old High German word seula. lists a dozen different definitions. I was privileged to hear Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, speak at the UU Minister’s Convocation in Ottawa this past November. At the Question & Answer session, someone made the mistake of asking him to define Soul. He glared at them and simply said – “No, I will not define it…Next question?”

Most of us grew up in this Judeo – Christian culture with understandings of the soul that were provided by western religious groups. Although western theologians have differing views of the soul, most do view it as something separate from the body – that part of human beings that is eternal and destined to live on (for better or worse) after our bodies die. And we assume because this idea is so prevalent in religious literature and church teachings, that this is the biblical teaching about soul. But that’s not really accurate.

The two words that are usually translated as “soul” in the Bible are the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche – and these were used to mean the life of a being – whether that being is human, animal, or even God. And we still use that meaning today when we say something like, “the tsunami came and thousands of souls were lost.” We are talking about lives – living breathing beings, which are no longer living breathing beings when they die. Now the Bible did speak of resurrection and immortality. The Jews were divided on this idea with the Sadducees denying immortality and all spiritual existence. The Pharisees maintained these doctrines, adding belief in pre-existence and transmigration. And of course the Apostle Paul believed that Jesus would return within his lifetime and that Christians who had died in the meantime would be resurrected to share in God's kingdom. He also believed that the saved would be transformed, assuming supernatural bodies. But he uses words other than “soul” to share these views – although he does use the word soul (or translated as soul) in other places.

So where did this Christian understanding of soul as the immortal being come from – if not from the Bible. Would you believe from Greek philosophy – especially Plato’s ideas? Augustine of Hippo is the early church theologian that is usually given credit for promoting the Christian view of the soul as something immortal. And he was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy – especially the Neo-Platonists, who built upon Plato’s ideas.

Plato viewed the soul as separate from the body. He considered the soul as the essence of a person. And he considered this essence to be eternal. Our bodies die, but the soul is continually reborn in other bodies. The Platonic soul comprises three parts:
1. The logos (mind)
2. The thymos (emotion, or spiritedness, or masculine)
3. The eros (appetite, or desire, or feminine)

The allegory he uses is that of a charioteer (the logos or mind) trying to control and balance two horses, the thymos and the eros. Of course the feminine part of the trio is the bad one. Anyway --- these ideas evolved and took on a more religious element – eventually even lifting up the idea that was similar to the “oversoul” from our reading by Emerson.

When I was in seminary, my theology teacher, Thandeka, thought that it would be wise to have us read all the books of Augustine’s Confessions. Really! Augustine was basically a renowned teacher of rhetoric who continually pondered life (and for several years kept a journal of these ponderings). He was the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother – and mom was forever pushing him to convert to Christianity. And he considered it for a very long time, along with other religious and secular alternatives. Augustine also really enjoyed “knowing” the women he loved. And he deemed this a major obstacle for conversion. One of the most famous quotes from his confessions occurred before his conversion when he prayed, “Oh Lord, give me chastity, but do not give it yet.”

Eventually, however, he took on a life of chastity and devotion to the Church – becoming one of the most important of the early church fathers. His earlier writings about the soul seem more dualistic – indicating that a human being is “a rational soul using a mortal and earthly body.” Later this dualism gets a little muddy with the idea of a single substance for humans including a body and soul. In any case, his views and the views of other early church fathers have certainly affected how many Christians view the term soul. Now Augustine’s views were also influenced by his study of Paul’s teachings. And he incorporated those teachings about salvation by grace through Christ into his doctrine. When Spafford wrote the words, “It is well with my soul,” – he fully believed that his immortal soul was in good hands because of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

But the word soul is used in so many other ways. We search for our soul mates, sing soulful songs, cry from the depths of our soul or give soul hardy laughs. We read inspirational stories as “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” We say our souls are tormented, enlightened, uplifted, and downtrodden. And of course since the 60’s, soul has also been used as a term to represent African American culture. We eat soul food, and listen to soul music performed by soul brothers and sisters. I attempted to find out how “soul” became a term used for music, food, and culture of African Americans and was unsuccessful in finding a definitive answer. I did find one interesting story though that may explain – at least – why one songwriter used this term.

Remember the song “Soul Man” – from the movie with the same name, and also sung by The Blues Brothers and James Brown – and originally recorded by the duo Sam and Dave? It was written by Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter and here’s a quote I found on Wikipedia from a book called Soulsville, USA published in 1997 about the history of Stax records.

Co-author Isaac Hayes found the inspiration for "Soul Man" in the turmoil of the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In July 1967, the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, Michigan occurred. Watching a television newscast of the aftermath of the riots, Hayes noted that black Detroit residents had marked the buildings that had not been destroyed during the riots - most African-American owned and operated institutions - with the word "soul". Relating this occurrence to the biblical story of the Passover, Hayes and songwriting partner David Porter came up with the idea, in Hayes' words, of "a story about one's struggle to rise above his present conditions. It's almost a tune [where it's] kind of like boasting 'I'm a soul man'. It's a pride thing."

The soul was explored by Jung using archetypal psychology with it’s pantheon of gods, goddesses, myths, and metaphors and by James Hillman – who took Jung’s ideas and de-literalized them a bit. And its Hillman’s work that is the bases of the book by Thomas Moore that I cited earlier – called Care of the Soul. I thought that I had read this book in seminary – but I was mistaken. I must have just read an article or chapter, because most of this book seemed new and strange to me. Anyway – as you remember, Moore refused to give a definition to the questioner at the conference I attended. But I did find a more succinct description of Hillman’s ideas given by Hillman himself. He said: “By soul I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures; the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” (From Hillman – 1975, as quoted in

And after reading Moore’s book – you can see that his understanding is very similar to this. Soul is connected to imagination. But unlike many who use the words “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, Moore and Hillman draw a distinct line. They associate spirit with "afterlife, cosmic issues, idealistic values and hopes, and universal truths," while placing soul "in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love." (Hillman J (T Moore, Ed.) (1989). A blue fire: Selected writings by James Hillman. New York, NY, USA: Harper Perennial. pp. 112–113.)

Well, if that’s the case – I’m sure in the need of some soul work, because that’s where I’ve been – in the thick of things -- for the last month or so, with family members and church members who are grieving or who are ill, and, indeed, my own obsessions about my work. And so, you would think that reading this book, Care of the Soul, would be just what I needed. And it did provide some food for thought if not soup for the soul. Here are a few of the points that Moore makes that I believe are worth sharing today.

Moore discourages people like ME from trying to understand the soul. He states, “Care of the soul is not solving the puzzle of life; quite the opposite, it is an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be.” (page xix)

Moore claims that a loss of soul lies behind the restlessness, addiction, insecurity, and frustration of folks in today’s world. He asserts that people whose lives are so devoid of meaning and purpose are yearning for something to nourish their souls. This book was initially published in 1992 – and folks were really flocking to self-help books and new age spirituality as well as more traditionally religious books at that time. Perhaps he was right.

SO – how DO we nourish the soul? Well we might, according to Moore, follow the lead of Epicurus? REALLY? Wasn’t he the wild party animal? Nah, … Moore sets us straight on Epicurus.

Epicurus, a much misunderstood philosopher who stressed simple pleasure as a goal of life, wrote, "It is never too early or too late to care for the well-being of the soul." Epicurus was a vegetarian who urged his followers to cultivate intimacy through letters. He held his classes in a garden, so that as he taught he was surrounded by the simple foods he ate. (Ironically, his name has since become a symbol for gourmet eating and sensuality.) (page xviii)

In his chapter on Soul and Power, Moore shares the paradox of finding strength through difficulty. He states:

What is the source of this soul power, and how can we tap into it? I believe it often comes from unexpected places. It comes first of all from living close to one's heart, and not at odds with it. Therefore, paradoxically, soul power may emerge from failure, depression, and loss. The general rule is that soul appears in the gaps and holes of experience. It is usually tempting to find some subtle way of denying these holes or distancing ourselves from them. But we have all experienced moments when we've lost a job or endure an illness only to find an unexpected strength. (p. 120)

I also found intriguing Moore’s thoughts about the importance of ritual in nourishing the soul. He notes that neurosis and psychosis are often accompanied by obsessive ritual and asks:

Could it be that these neurotic rituals appear when imagination has been lost and the soul is no longer cared for? In other words, neurotic rituals could signify a loss of ritual in daily life that, if present, would keep the soul in imagination and away from literalism. The cure for neurotic ritualism could be the cultivation of a more genuine sense of ritual in our daily life. (pp. 115-116).

Moore provides a plug for formal religious associations when he states: “If we are going to give ritual a more important place in life, it is helpful to be guided by formal religion and tradition.” (p. 116).

Well – no more of Moore – at least for now. I’ll probably resurrect him again in two weeks along with others when I take on the topic, “Facing Our Demons.”

The bottom line is this – although I found this book interesting, it didn’t feed my soul. Maybe a book and more information for my brain was just not what I needed at a time when my soul didn’t feel so well. I got a lot more out of an experience this past Friday. After spending the night with my mom in her hospital room, I had a special treat of getting a facial with a gift certificate that my husband had given me for Christmas. Now having someone pay attention to your face and rubbing away the tension is great. But then it got even better. Monica left some gook on my face for a while and turned her attention to my feet. First she gently washed them with warm water. And I thought about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. What a loving act! Then she scrubbed and massaged the soles of my feet, these soles that carried me everywhere and bore the weight and burdens I carried. What wonderful care for those soles! Now there’s a metaphor we could ponder with a homonym for wordplay to boot!

But the best care for my soul is just being with you folks – even if I’m not as prepared as I would like to be (and this sermon has been a little on the rambling side). Because I know that this is a place that I’m accepted and loved; as well as a place where we can support one another in community – perhaps in that Oversoul that Emerson talked about. In any case, when my soul is sick, this is my hospital – with a bountiful group of nurses ready to care in their greetings, songs, rituals, words of encouragement, hugs, and of course – great coffee! Oh, Yes, It is good to be here, and I share with Horatio Spafford the acclamation that “It is well with my soul!”


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