The Soul

May 18, 2019 § 12 Comments

I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.

In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.

Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):

I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .

The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.

Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .

The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .

Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.

This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.

Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.

I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.

With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.

Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.

For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?

§ 12 Responses to The Soul

  • Gerard Guiton says:

    For me, conscience is a related-only faculty of our consciousness (or awareness). It is subject to change unlike our consciousness, still less Divine Consciousness. The early Friends were clear, it seems to me, about what was for them ethical and what was not; basically they perceived all outside the Life (= the Kingdom = Inward Light) as ‘notions’ and therefore morally and spiritually at variance with the Life. Although I agree there was a linguistic fuzziness regarding “conscience” and “consciousness” in the 17th century (it came clearer in the 18th onwards), the early Friends frequently made sharp distinctions between the two words. It’s a very, very big topic indeed.

    For an excellent work on conscience see Richard Sorabji, “Moral Conscience through the Ages: Fifth Century BCE to the Present” (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

  • […] have talked about ‘Spirit’ before (use the search box to see) but I thought this post on Through the flaming sword on the soul was interesting about this and quaker […]

  • I think you’re asking, how does Christ’s righteousness – known within – function differently from human thought and imagination. Fox writes that “Christ’s righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law, and man’s own outward righteousness, which is as filthy rags” (Works, 6:265). The “filthy rags” epithet applies equally well to politically correct Quakers as it does to “witch”-burning inquisitors. Neither theirs nor anyone’s “impulse to righteousness” leads to righteousness, other than in their own eyes, which is a self-righteousness.

    The light within is the “living law” and provides a standard of righteousness to which we are subject. The living law is no more subjective (subject to oneself) than is codified law; it is not malleable to thought and imagination.

    Anyone who has known the light within and been subject to its command is in unity with all others who have known the light within and been subject to its command. We are all one in Christ, and therefore can understand the writings and words of one another, regardless of the age or culture in which we happen to have been born and reared. Thus, early Friends could claim and demonstrate that their faith was the same as the apostles, though following them in time by 1600 years.

    The work of coming into the knowledge of God begins as a willingness to be searched by the light, to bring one’s deeds to the light (loving truth more than self). Thought and imagination are set aside to give the truth room to judge. One is willingly subject to its findings: first, for the love of truth, and subsequently, for the joy that lies before us.

  • Steven wrote: “[Fox] articulated his experience…the process, the act, of living in the Light of Christ, of turning toward the Light for strength, guidance, and forgiveness, is lived, is practiced the same as Brooks describes turning toward the good.”

    I’ve been following Brooks’s articles in the New York Times and his appearances on the NewsHour for several years, and I like his sense of responsibility, his good-will, and his personality. There’s a distinction, though, that needs to be made between his understanding and that of Fox.

    The essential discovery of Fox and other early Friends was that there was more than “turning toward the good,” as Brooks describes. Turning toward the good is a self-willed act; at best, the act of the hungry soul that seeks after righteousness; this is distinct from wanting to be a righteous person. If a person convinces himself that his seeking and taking righteous action meets and is the culmination of his moral responsibility, he is an idealist.

    An immensely serious problem occurs when idealism is mistaken for Christ within. Idealism arises from the thought and imagination of human beings. (It is of “the first Adam”); whereas revelation, prophesy is given from Christ, “the second Adam.” What allows the idealist to veer off the path toward true righteousness is a failure to acknowledge that his idealism doesn’t fully satisfy his hungry soul. He falsely satisfies himself with other “food”: his sense of purpose and efficacy; his place among like-minded others; or his self-image that meets a self-standard, making him self-righteous.

    The human aspiration to righteousness is different from the reception of righteousness that comes from God alone; idealism is different from revelation. With time the different consequences of each become visible to all. (See “Doing Our Part” for Lewis Benson’s description of philosophical idealism as opposed to prophetic faith and for a description of the different consequences arising from each.)

    • So how, in practice, that is, rather than just thinking it’s so, does one differentiate between “reception of righteousness that comes from God” and the inward alignment toward righteousness that comes from some other source? And is the self the only alternative source to “God”?

      This gets to my distinction between “faith” and “practice”: On the one hand, this differentiation between God as a source of righteousness and whatever other “source” there might be is necessarily subjective and in one’s “thought and imagination”, at least until it’s tested by the community. And on the other hand, however one subjectively experiences its source to be, in practice the impulse to righteousness still leads to righteousness, to acting rightly.

      There may be advantages to ascribing one’s righteousness to God rather than self or whatever, psychological advantages, sociological ones. But simply ascribing one’s righteousness to God doesn’t really solve any problems. I’m sure some of the inquisitors who burned women at the stake as witches thought their righteousness came from God. They still acted in an evil way.

  • I guess I mean by faith, what one thinks and feels about one’s religious life, as opposed to how one practices it.

  • Greg Robie says:

    FYI Steven, there is a comment awaiting moderation and a related reply that shows up in the count but is not rastering. =)

  • Greg Robie says:

    Still looking for a link to the #gODTalk session at the “Something in the Water” festival, but finally found this – the first #gODTalk panel: The parallels to what NYYM transitioned through as the it was strategically targeted by the LGBTI community due to the YM’s marriages having a unique legal status within New York Domestic Relationship law jumped out of this conversation for me. There is nothing new under the sun!

    I’d like to think that learning from the ‘mistakes’ of others could apply … but I’m pretty sure liberal Quakers are not done with the lesson that Black Millennial demographics are presenting the Black church with.

    Josh Brown’s 1987 essay “You Can’t Get There From Here” comes to mind. The trend toward zero members around now did not continue to play out (& was based on biased data anyway), but the imagined soul of Quakerism did continuing to follow the trend. A society of the wounded eking out survival on the handouts of dead Quaker money has effected a comforting resting place for the socially irrelevant. Is the social institution of the Black church going to follow in white (privileged/soulless) Quakerism’s footsteps?

    Of particular interest for me is the question that was asked in the Q&A section about reaching out to those who leave. Also note that these churches write members out for issues related to infirmity and the poverty of old age. New York Quarter had far more trust funds than NYYM but never mustered more than 55% of their allocation of the YM’s budget when such was the approach to such funding. Will the limited (token) affluence now afforded some African-Americans translate into Black churches becoming trust fund babies like many Quaker Meeting? And if so, will retaining members who observe a lack of soul get treatment different than what I experienced? In NYYM’s Book of Discipline such reaching out is explicit … but experienced as both divisive and useless.

    But for the life of the soul, why wake up from the Matrix?!?

  • Ellis Hein says:

    Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting.

    The evidence does not support the assertion that for Fox this distinction was one of faith, not practice; doctrine rather than living and acting. Am I reading you correctly?

    What is your definition of faith? Is it something more than the “wishful thinking” definition that seems to be in vogue among Christendom. The writer of Hebrews talks about faith in terms of “evidence” and “substance;” concrete, tangible, touchable concepts. When he speaks of Jesus being the “author and finisher” of our faith, he is referring to a process, an experience, and an ongoing encounter. We hear Christ speaking to us, we believe and act upon what we are told, we find life within beginning to grow and flourish. Line by line our faith grows and is polished (finshed). Those early Quakers, like the early Christians, did not suffer persecutions, long imprisonments, and death on the strength of delusions. Delusion becomes surprisingly weak in the face of crisis.

    People, Quaker and non-Quaker alike, admire the early Friends. But inspite of that admiration, they reject what they had to say about the foundation they were built upon. We can’t build the structure displayed by the early Friends by placing it on the sand. The foundation is an integral part of the whole. It may not be as visible as the superstructure, but without it you are wasting your time and resources.

    • Well, you’re right, Ellis. I wasn’t very clear, now that I read myself again. Of course, Fox’s experience of God was substantial, experiential, not “wishful thinking”. What I was getting at by clumsily ascribing that experience to faith or doctrine rather than “practice” is that, however, he articulated his experience—or might have articulated his experience—the process, the act, of living in the Light of Christ, of turning toward the Light for strength, guidance, and forgiveness, is lived, is practiced the same as Brooks describes turning toward the good. One reaches inward, finds God, the spirit of Christ, the Light, the good, and then seeks to live into it.

      This is universalism, which finds some support throughout the Quaker tradition. Before Jesus was born, before the gospels were written, before there was a gospel truth, and in all those places that have not had or do not have the gospel of Jesus even after, still people yearned for the good and tried to be led by it in that process described in that famous passage in Fox’s journal that recounts his argument fo the universal presence of the Light using the the Native American as example.

  • Glenn M Clark says:

    Thank you for seeking. It’s past my bedtime so I will not try to be eloquent. I pray for your success

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