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?

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.

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.