Caring for Our Soul


What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but suffer the loss of your own soul?

Jesus taught that and, I suspect, we generally don’t grasp the full range of it meaning. We tend to take Jesus’ words to mean this: What good is it if someone gains riches, fame, pleasure, and glory and then dies and goes to hell? What good is earthly glory or pleasure if we miss out on eternal life?

Well, Jesus’ teaching does mean that, no question, but there are other lessons in this teaching that have important things to teach us about health and happiness already here in this life. How do we lose our souls? What does it mean “to lose your soul” already in this world? What is a soul and how can it be lost?

Since a soul is immaterial and spiritual it cannot be pictured. We have to use abstract terms to try to understand it. Philosophers, going right back to Aristotle, have tended to define the soul as a double principle inside every living being: For them, the soul is both the principle of life and energy inside us as well as the principle of integration. In essence, the soul is two things: It’s the fire inside us giving us life and energy and it’s the glue that holds us together. While that sounds abstract, it’s anything but that because we have first-hand experience of what this means.

If you have ever been at the bedside of a dying person, you know exactly when the soul leaves the body. You know the precise moment, not because you see something float away from the body, but rather because one minute you see a person, whatever her struggle and agony, with energy, fire, tension in her body and a minute later that body is completely inert, devoid of all energy and life. Nothing animates it anymore. It becomes a corpse. As well, however aged or diseased that body might be, until the second of death it is still one integrated organism. But at the very second of death that body ceases to be one organism and becomes instead a series of chemicals which now begin to separate and go their own ways. Once the soul is gone, so too are gone all life and integration. The body no longer contains any energy and it’s no longer glued together.

And since the soul is a double principle doing two things for us, there are two corresponding ways of losing our souls. We can have our vitality and energy go dead or we can become unglued and fall apart, petrification or dissipation, in either case we lose our souls.

If that is true, then this very much nuances the question of how we should care for our souls. What is healthy food for our souls? For instance, if I am watching television on a given night, what’s good for my soul? A religious channel? A sports channel? A mindless sitcom? The nature channel? Some iconoclastic talk-show?  What’s healthy for my soul?

This is a legitimate question, but also a trick one. We lose our soul in opposite ways and thus care of the soul is a refined alchemy that has to know when to heat things up and when to cool things down: What’s healthy for my soul on a given night depends a lot upon what I’m struggling with more on that night: Am I losing my soul because I’m losing vitality, energy, hope, and graciousness in my life?  Am I growing bitter, rigid, sterile, becoming a person who’s painful to be around?  Or, conversely, am I full of life and energy but so full of it that I am falling apart, dissipating, losing my sense of self?  Am I petrifying or dissipating? Both are a loss of soul. In the former situation, the soul needs more fire, something to rekindle its energy. In the latter case, the soul already has too much fire; it needs some cooling down and some glue.

This tension between the principle of energy and the principle of integration within the human soul is also one of the great archetypal tensions between liberals and conservatives. In terms of an oversimplification, but a useful one, it’s true to say that liberals tend to protect and promote the energy-principle, the fire, while conservatives tend to protect and promote the integration-principle, the glue. Both are right, both are needed, and both need to respect the other’s instinct because the soul is a double principle and both these principles need protection.

After we die we can go to heaven or hell. That’s one way of speaking about losing or saving our souls. But Christian theology also teaches that heaven and hell start already now. Already here in this life, we can weaken or destroy the God-given life inside us by either petrification or dissipation. We can lose our souls by not having enough fire or we can lose them by not having enough glue.

Things beyond our Imagination


Recently, at an academic dinner, I was sitting across the table from a nuclear scientist. At one point, I asked him this question: Do you believe that there’s human life on other planets? His answer surprised me: “As a scientist, no, I don’t believe there’s human life on another planet. Scientifically, the odds are strongly against it. But, as a Christian, I believe there’s human life on other planets. Why? My logic is this: Why would God chose to have only one child?”

Why would God choose to have only one child? Good logic. Why indeed would an infinite God, capable of creating and loving beyond all imagination, want to do this only once? Why would an infinite God, at a certain point, say: “That’s enough. That’s my limit. These are all the people I can handle and love! Anything beyond this is too much for me! Now is the time to stop creating and enjoy what I’ve done.”

Put this way, my scientist friend’s hunch makes a lot of sense. Given that God is infinite, why would God ever stop doing what God is doing? Why would God favor just us, who have been already been given life, and not give that same gift endlessly to others?  By what logic, other than the limits of our own mind, might we posit an end to creation?

We struggle with this because what God has already created, both in terms of the immensity of the universe and the number of people who have been born in history, is already too much for our imagination to grasp. There are billions and billions of planets, with trillions of processes happening on each of these every second. Just on our planet, earth, there are now more than seven billion people living, millions more have lived before us, and many more are being born every second. And inside of each of these persons there is a unique heart and mind caught-up in an infinite and complex array of joys, heartaches, and moral choices. Moreover, all of these trillions of human and cosmic processes have been going on for millions and billions of years. How can we imagine a heart and a mind somewhere that knows and loves and cares intimately about every individual person, every individual joy, every individual heartache, every individual moral choice, and every individual planet, star, and grain of sand, as if it were an only child?

The answer is clear: It cannot be imagined! To try to imagine this is to end up either in atheism or nursing a false concept of God. Any God worth believing in has to be able to know and love beyond human imagination, otherwise the immensity of our universe and the uniqueness of our lives are not being held inside the loving care of anyone’s hand and heart.

But how can God know, love, and care for all of this immensity and complexity? Moreover, how will all these billions and billions of people go to heaven, so that all of us end up in one body of love within which we will be in intimate community with each other?  That’s beyond all imagination, at least in terms of human capacity, but my hunch is that heaven cannot be imagined not because it is too complex but because it is too simple, namely, simple in the way Scholastic philosophy affirms that God is simple:  God so embodies and encompasses all complexity so as to constitute a reality too simple to be imagined.

It seems too that the origins of our universe are also too simple to be imagined: Our universe, in so far as we know it, had a beginning and scientists believe (The Big Bang Theory) that everything originated from a single cell of energy too tiny to measure or imagine. This single cell exploded with a force and an energy that is still going on today, still expanding outward and creating billions and billions of planets in its wake. And scientists believe that all of this will come back together again, involute, sometime in a future which will take billions of more years to unfold.

So here’s my hunch: Maybe the billions and billions of people, living and dead and still to be born, in both their origins and in their eventual destiny, parallel what has happened and is happening in the origin, expansion, and eventual involution of our universe, that is, just as God is creating billions and billions of planets, God is creating billions and billions of people. And, just as our physical universe will one day come back together again into a single unity, so too will all people come together again in a single community within which God’s intimate love for each of us will bring us together and hold us together in a unity too simple to be imagined, except that now that union with God and each other will not be unconscious but will be known and felt in a very heightened, self-conscious gratitude and ecstasy.

Our Overstimulated Grandiosity – and our Impoverished Symbols 


There are now more than seven billion people on this earth and each one of us feels that he or she is the center of the universe. That accounts for most of the problems we have in the world, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. 

And no one’s to blame for this, save God perhaps, for making us this way. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, meaning that, each of us, holds within a divine spark, a piece of infinity, and an ingrained knowledge of that unique dignity.  We are infinite souls inside a finite world. To paraphrase St. Augustine, we are made for the divine and our hearts aren’t just dissatisfied until they rest there again, they’re also grandiose along the journey, enflamed by their own uniqueness and dignity. God has made everything beautiful in its own season, Ecclesiastes tells us, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. We’re overcharged for this planet, and we know it.

Moreover that sense of specialness lies at the center of our awareness: I think, therefore I am! Descartes was right: The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we exist and that our own thoughts and feelings are real. We may be dreaming everything else. We awake to self-consciousness aware of our specialness, frustrated by the fact that the world cannot give us what we crave, and insufficiently aware of the fact that everyone else on this earth is also equally unique and special. That’s human nature and it’s always been this way.

Today however a number of things are conspiring together to exacerbate both our grandiosity and our restlessness. In brief, today we are mostly overstimulated in our grandiosity and are not generally given the tools to handle that inflammation of soul.

How are we overstimulated in our grandiosity today? Various factors play together here, but contemporary media and information technology need to be highlighted. Through them, in effect, the whole world is being made available to us during every waking minute of our lives. We are not easily equipped to handle that. While information alone is mostly neutral, and at times even morally inspiring, the downside is that contemporary media overstimulates our grandiosity and restlessness by inundating us with the intimate details of the lives of the rich, the famous, the beautiful, the talented, the powerful, the super-intelligent, the mega-achievers, and the perverted in a way that titillates, seduces, and at times assaults our interior balance so as to leave us cultivating private fantasies of grandiosity, of standing out in a way that makes the world take notice. We see this in an extreme and perverted form in some of the mass shootings that occur in our society, where a lonely, deranged person randomly kills others out of sick vision of grandiosity.  We see it too in the growing phenomenon of anorexia. These examples may be atypical, but we’re becoming a society within which most everyone is perilously overstimulated in his or her grandiosity.

And today we are generally without sufficient personal tools to handle this. Human beings have always been restless and grandiose, but in previous generations they had more tools – religious and societal – to handle restlessness, grandiosity, and frustration. For example, in previous generations the cultural ethos gave people much less permission to cultivate ego than it does today. Previous to our own generation, one had to be more apologetic about self-promotion, self-canonization, overt greed, and crass self-centeredness. Humility was espoused as a virtue and no one was supposed to get too big for his or her britches. That threw a lot of cold water on ego, crass self-assertion, and greed, in effect dampening grandiosity. The message back then was clear: You’re not the center of the universe!

By and large, that’s no longer the case today. Society, more and more, gives us license to be grandiose, to set ourselves up as the center and proudly announce that publicly. Not only are we allowed today to get too big for our britches, we aren’t culturally admired unless we do assert ourselves in that way. And that’s a formula for jealousy, bitterness, and violence. Grandiosity and restlessness need healthy guidance both from the culture and from religion. Today, we generally do not see that guidance.

We are dangerously weak in inculcating into the consciousness of society, especially into the consciousness of the young, a number of vital human and religious truths: To God alone belongs the glory! In this life ultimately all symphonies remain unfinished. You are not the center of the earth. There is real sin! Selfishness is not a virtue! Humility is a virtue! You will only find life by giving it away! Other lives are as real as your own!

We have failed our youth by giving them unrealistic expectations, even as we are depriving them of the tools with which to handle those expectations.