Do Quakers have souls? (Threshings #1)

This is the first in a short series of theological ‘threshings’. In the Quaker tradition, threshing is a lively process of getting to the heart of an issue, separating the wheat from the chaff. When a theological problem bugs me, I want to thresh it out! I may not come up with an answer, but hopefully I’ll bring out some important points. If the word ‘theology’ puts you off, think of theology as a tool that should improve the way we talk about our religious and spiritual experience. It’s not about giving definitive answers, it’s about speaking with integrity in an informed and inspiring way.

Do Quakers have souls? You may think the answer is ‘obviously yes’, or you may think this question is akin to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. I hope to show that this question isn’t merely abstract speculation, but actually impacts on how we live our lives.

The problem with being two things (dualism)

I have become increasingly interested in what it means to ‘have a soul’. I think many people take it as read that the religious understanding of what it means to be a human is that we are a body inhabited with a soul or spirit – an invisible thing that is the real ‘self’. However, two things have gotten me thinking that this could be quite a problematic belief.

The first involves my experience as a gay person. Attending an evangelical church, I once asked for prayer concerning my sexuality. I had the opportunity to travel to a country where homosexuality was prohibited, requiring me to go back in the closet. I wasn’t sure I was able to do this. One of the people praying over me said words to the effect that my true identity in Christ wasn’t located in my sexuality. There was a sense that somehow the ‘real’ me could be separated from the ‘gay’ me. Afterwards, I thought ‘that was a really ‘straight man’ thing to pray!’ In my experience, I can’t make that separation. My original coming-out at 17 was accompanied by an intense spiritual coming-out. I was only able to embrace a relationship with God once I was honest about who I was. So for me, I can’t separate ‘gay’ me from ‘real’ me; and what would it mean to be gay without a body?

The second involves my on-going exploration of what it means to be white. I have increasingly come to realise that being a white body has impacted on my experience of the world. Like being gay, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be something other than a white body. However, in conversations with some white Quakers, one of the barriers to recognising the impact of whiteness on our experience is the belief that our true self is located in an invisible soul, that our most real self is purely spiritual: ‘I am not my body, therefore I am not effected by colour, and I don’t see colour. We are all truly colourless.’ For a white person, one of the effects of white privilege is never having to realise you’re white. Might a belief in the true self being an invisible, disembodied soul be tied up with this?

the_soul_revisiting_he_body_in_the_tomb-_28190229_-_timea
Original source: Budge, E. A. Wallace. “The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt.” (Harrison and Sons, London: 1902). p. 161.

A Christian argument for being one thing (physicalism)

In my reading on the subject, I came across a book by Nancy Murphy[1] that provides an excellent overview of the topic from a Christian point of view.

Murphy presents four possible views of what it is to be a human (and I reckon you’d find Quakers in all four camps):

  1. physicalism – we have only one ‘part’, the body.
  2. dualism – we are made up of two parts: body-soul, or body-mind.
  3. trichotomism – we are made up of three parts: body, soul and spirit
  4. monism (or idealism) – that we are only truly mind or spirit.

Which view does the Bible take? Interestingly, Murphy says that ‘the Bible has no clear teaching’ concerning the composition of a human person.[2] This has allowed for a variety of opinions throughout Christian history. However, it’s now widely agreed that in the Hebrew Bible there is no body-soul dualism. The New Testament is not so clear, but certainly Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh should not be interpreted as a distinction between body and soul: ‘Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.’[3]

Murphy argues that ‘dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied.’[4] When we separate soul from body the material world (including the body) becomes less important. Murphy also suggests that ‘the change from a dualist to a physicalist anthropology… calls for serious reconsideration of traditional understandings of Christian spirituality. From Augustine to the present we have had a conception of the self that distinguishes the inner life from the outer, and spirituality has been associated largely with the inner.’[5] I find this fascinating from a Quaker perspective. British liberal Quakers are very comfortable with speaking of the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’. Our rejection of ‘outward forms’ could be seen as a rejection of the material world, saying that the spiritual is somehow more real than the physical. Yet we’re also a community who say we want climate and racial justice, things very much concerned with the physical and the embodied. With our idolising of theological diversity combined with our reluctance to actually discuss this diversity, such a confusion is not surprising!

Murphy concludes by suggesting that ‘one could be a body-soul dualist while avoiding an excessively inward-looking spirituality. In fact, some of the greatest writers on inwardness did so… So the strongest point I can make here is to claim… that physicalism – along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body – leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.’[6] Murphy believes that physicalism – the view we are one thing, a spirited body – is much less problematic than dualism. She also offers something that is probably alien to most British Quakers – the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the belief that at the end of time, all will be raised from the dead to face judgement. This teaching says that when we die, our disembodied souls don’t go to heaven to live on a cloud. Rather, we await God’s justice and a new life as a resurrected body. I don’t think British Quakers will be quick to revisit and take up this doctrine, which makes me wonder what a contemporary and well thought out Quaker understanding of the human person would look like.

illustrations_to_robert_blair27s_the_grave_2c_object_9_the_soul_hovering_over_the_body
from William Blake’s illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave , object 9 The Soul Hovering over the Body

Some thoughts from Thomas Aquinas

On the subject of the soul, I’ve been quite taken with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas,[7] the medieval theologian. He has two things to say that British Quakers might find attractive.

First, he said that the soul is not something we have, it’s something we are. If you have something, you can give it away and still be you. If you are something, then you can’t be separated from it. Well, he said that the soul could be separated from the body after death, but it wouldn’t be up to much. How would it see without eyes? How would it think without a brain? For Aquinas, the soul without a body is a rather useless thing.

Secondly, he said that everything that lives is a soul. Everything that is animate has a soul (‘soul’ in Latin is anima). He said that there are three aspects to the human soul. There’s the vegetative aspect (that respires, takes in nutrients, grows etc.) that we share with tomatoes, oaks, lichen and dahlias. There’s the animal aspect that we share with badgers, bees and whales, and there’s the rational aspect that belongs to humans. This view of the soul brings us into relationship with all living things – it’s not just the preserve of humans!

Keep on threshing…

So I agree with Murphy that body-soul dualism is problematic. It limits our ability to understand the way being a body shapes our experience of the world, and can create a disdain for the physical that is at odds with a pursuit of material wellbeing for all things. I think that physicalism – the understanding that we are one, indivisible thing – helps to address this problem. I’m also increasingly into the resurrection of the body, but I know I’m out on a limb with that one as far as British Quakers are concerned! There are lots of questions still to think about – how is physicalism compatible with Quaker spirituality and the inward/outward distinction we often make? What about the experience of those who live with chronic pain whose relationship with the body is a tremendously difficult one? What about the experience of the elderly who sense a growing disconnect from the body? Constructing a modern Quaker anthropology is too big a job for this blog post, and I look forward to reading a future book about it! Hopefully this post has raised some interesting questions. I’m very interested to know what you think about it – what do you think you’re made up of? How do your beliefs about the body/soul/spirit effect how you live? so please comment below!

[1] Nancey C. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Murphy, 4.

[3] Murphy, 22.

[4] Murphy, 27.

[5] Murphy, 30.

[6] Murphy, 35.

[7] Denys Turner, ‘The Human Person’, in The Cambridge Companion to The               Summa Theologiae, ed. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 168–80.

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8 thoughts on “Do Quakers have souls? (Threshings #1)

  1. Thanks for this, Mark. It’s just what I’m interested in. I’m convinced that notions about what we are as persons lie behind the difficulty we have (“we” in this case being those from a western broadly Christian tradition) in doing anything sensible about our relationship to the planet and the harm we do to it.
    I am playing with the idea that half the trouble is that we are so plonkingly literal about bodies (that they are solid, discrete things we can see the edges of) and so airy fairy about spirit, and why could we not be simultaneously both, in the same way that physics has matter being the same as energy? We exist in relationship, in flux, of course bound in with the material world but of course also involved with the flow of God’s good energy through everything. Could not the gospel message be read as “melt any boundaries that form between one person and another but act as a responsible, accountable being”. Which would mean being constantly caught up in acts of generosity and forgiveness, thankfulness and repentance. It’s the pattern at the heart of the Lord’s prayer – God gives, forgives us what we owe just as we forgive what others owe us – no sooner do we take possession of anything than we are giving it away because it’s all part of the same process of being in relation to God. But it all depends on seeing matter and spirit being utterly bound together.

  2. As a former Friend, now Catholic, I am aware that the Augustine-Aquinas debate is still very alive. However, we do repeat each Sunday that we believe in the resurrection of the body. It is a curious thing to contemplate, but not as curious as trying to imagine an unembodied me.

  3. In philosophy, the word ‘soul’ has been hi-jacked by Plato, so typically it is thought of as a transcendent entity in the sense that ideas are transcendent

    [ideas of course, like our minds, are entirely invisible – the words I am squiggling together at this moment are merely that, marks on paper or screen, and of course, you do not exist except as some kind of energy in the blood, fat, proteins of your brain – utterly unfindable by a surgeon, but I think probably is there. You alone can answer that question.] Plato’s way of thinking is brilliant, but so are all the great philosophers and so there are a wide range of possible answers. What we are talking about is the ‘essential self’ that knows that it knows’, and most importantly it is the site of whatever freedom we have (freedom, of course, is also utterly invisible so British Empiricists in their folly question its existence, even though they couldn’t think if they did not have it. Now we have to use the term ‘agency’ in Britain to accommodate them).

    Needless to say, as a good Quaker (probably best described as Quaker Catholic) and philosopher, I love the Deweyan understanding of a self, the experiencing self [Experientia Docet], a thoroughly psychological but an entity able to test out its feelings using a pragmatic ‘best fit’ for a variety of hypothesised ideas. My favourite perspective combines Ortega y Gasset’s understanding of a self as the ‘creator’, i.e. the soul then being the principle of creativity that, like Dewey, seeks to pragmatically test its intuitions against experiences on the skin, which for him is our personal story. The combined view, is that of Karl Marx (Marxists seem typically not to understand it). He was able to hold them together by recognising the essential historical and social character of existence. The ‘inner’ self is the dreamer longing for freedom trapped in material circumstances of life – those of surviving in the environment and so forth. The outer and the inner self are two ways of looking at the same thing – but the split must be recognised – and the goal of history is the overcoming of that split i.e. the end to alienation. Teilhard de Chardin provides a Christian take on the same thing. What both Teilhard and Marx achieve is a wonderful way of thinking of the essential self as the lover in us. The lover is inseparably biological, social, intentional, spiritual (free) and relational.

    The difficulty of thinking about resurrection is, like so much in religion, hugely compounded by inherent problem of having to use mythic ways of thinking – such as heaven above and earth below – which of course is nonsense in any literal sense since heaven (another word for God) is non-spatial, or as is the case with time, not so much non temporal as ‘beyond time’ since it is beyond our mind’s capacity to think outside of time or spatial categories. None the less, we have a problem with how do we deal with a dead body at the time it ceases to be alive according to a doctor (think we can die well before then). My reply is now becoming awfully long – but for a simple answer – there is none better than that given by George Fox. It goes something like this. We have experienced the love of God in our lives and have trusted ourselves to that love. Why then should we not trust ourselves to that love at the time of our death? If that leads to resurrection into a future life with God, then that will be a wonderful gift – but that is not for us to know – only ours to trust in love.

    A variation on that is given in my blog on my website Queer Chrisitianity.com, the latest entitled, “Queer Resurrection”. It basically gives the gist of Harry Williams CR extraordinary book ‘True Resurrection’. In good Quaker style (he was not Quaker) he unpacks the experience of resurrection (uses biblical text with amazing insight so that the term is not psychologised away) and then in his final chapter basically pulls the Fox logic to make faith in bodily resurrection one of authentic hope (he distinguishes this from desire).

    1. Many thanks Stephen for reading, and for such a full and fascinating response. Your short Foxian reply is one I completely share – I don’t know what will happen after death, but I’m sure it will be alright. Thanks for the pointer to your blog, and the ‘Queer Resurrection’ post! I look forward to digesting it properly.

  4. Mark, you might find a new book very interesting – Paths between Head and Heart by Oliver Robinson, who used to attend my meeting many years ago. He is a psychologist interested in spirituality and metaphysical questions like those you’re asking. He advances the argument that the spiritual and scientific ways of knowing are in harmony, and complementary, and does so with more precision and clarity than many others I’ve read making similar points. There is a section in the book on precisely the question Lucy raises about being both bounded and unified with other beings. It’s hot off the press and only arrived from the publishers earlier this week, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

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