Bless the Lord, oh my soul

A student reflection to
Dr. Nancey Murphy’s “From Neurons to Politics – Without a Soul”
by Timothy H. Shenk, November 2005

Leading up to Nancey Murphy’s visit to campus, I was part of the small lunch discussion group that talked about Whatever Happened to the Soul? In that discussion, I heard and asked questions about my understanding of God and humans’ relationship to the divine. From a Christian perspective, how do we understand “soul”?

I will apply the concept of non-reductive physicalism to my experience with the lunch discussion group: Even though the group was made up of people meeting each week, the overall experience cannot be reduced to those people or those lunch discussions. A synergy occurred that kept me coming back; these questions and discussion topics emerged and expressed themselves in other classes, discussions with friends, and in my reflections and prayers.

I was excited and stimulated by Nancey Murphy’s presence on campus. The intellectual discussion combined with Nancey’s integrity, humor, and personality provided a great atmosphere to think about Christian theology and discipleship.

Why do I care about the issue of “soul” when, according to Nancey, the New Testament doesn’t care about this issue? The Bible is concerned with capacities for relationship and relevant aspects of human life – how Christians live in this world. Due to Hellenistic influences and other changes over the centuries, Christians have become more concerned about saving souls that about life and relationships. So the very fact that the Bible has little to say about souls means that I should be concerned about the Christian theological trajectory and current understandings.

I resonate with the Hebrew understanding of “soul” as our holistic bodily person. It was directly related to care for people and relationship to the Lord of the earth, something that was embodied and lived in this life.

Paul later had to deal with questions of resurrection, afterlife, etc. Nancey believes that when we die, we are dead. Our bodies cease to function and decompose. There is not an immortal soul that goes to heaven, but instead, Nancey emphasizes resurrection. We will be recreated, with recognition of self and others, and somehow the merits of this life will be evident in the life to come. I see this expectation in John’s revelation in which a new heaven and a new earth descend in a very tangible way. God’s kingdom will be enacted on earth, Jesus will reign as king, and “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It is a physical reality in which God’s love will pervade the political and economic life of this new community. According to Nancey, it will be a moral transformation. Nancey views the afterlife as an opportunity to complete the things left undone in this life, not a discarding of what is done in this life.

The implications of soul are important for Christian ethics in this life. Christians have used the concept of “immortal soul” to justify torturing non-Christians when saving their soul is preeminent. Rich elite have justified the repression of poor people by disregarding material needs. Christianity has become a religion co-opted by the politics of riches and power because it is a “spiritual” side note.

Nancey says that if Christians hadn’t been so concerned with saving souls, Christian history would be dramatically different: perhaps they would have chosen to emphasize Jesus’ way of life. There would not have been deprivation or disparagement of the body for the soul. Christians would care for the Earth, and value history, environment, and culture. We would return to Christian love and care for the physical world, valuing our bodies and relationships, caring for the poor and needy. Nancey points out that the biblical understanding and practice of spirituality has an outward manifestation: thanksgiving by feasting, faith expressed through obedience, repentance characterized by a changed life, and renewal practiced in a new kingdom. With such outward expression of new life in Christ, our whole life together as a church becomes a witness the beauty of God.

One discussion we had is whether Nancey is redefining or eliminating “soul.” Nancey said, “There is no such thing as soul.” When Christians hear her say that, many think she doesn’t believe in God. Even though I appreciate her understandings of soul, I wonder whether that is the best approach to speak to the church about such an important issue. Would a redefinition of “soul” – rather than outright rejection – lead to a more constructive reevaluation and transformation of Christian theology and ethics? If we throw out soul because of the perversion of Christian ethics that it has caused, then why not throw out “God” or “Church” or at least the understandings that lead people away from God’s way of life? I don’t advocate that we destroy all notions of “God” or “Church,” but rather redefine how our theological understandings should shape our lives. Likewise, I think that Christians can transform “soul” into something beautiful that is expressed in our value of human life, our work for justice, and our commitment to the Way of Jesus.
I will continue to ask questions and let God guide and transform my life. Questions about the soul are interconnected with Christian ethics and theology, history of the faith, my study at a Christian university, and possibilities for vocation. In one of my classes, we start with a song: “Bless the Lord oh my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” That song has become more meaningful through the conversation and reflection about “soul” as it relates to Christian discipleship. Bless the Lord, oh my soul!

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