David Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and a contributor to Touchstone and this space, and brother of two Touchstone editors and frequent contributors, Addison Hart and Robert Hart (someone will be writing about “the Hart brothers”—Addison is a Roman Catholic priest and Robert is an Anglican one—someday), contributed a germaine, thoughtful and very helpful piece to last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, The Soul of a Controversy:
Terri Schiavo has now died, but of course the controversy surrounding her last days will persist indefinitely. Most of the issues raised as she was dying were legal and moral; but at the margins of the storm, questions of a more “metaphysical” nature were occasionally raised in public. For instance, I heard three people on the radio last week speculating on the whereabouts of her “soul.”
One opined that where consciousness has sunk below a certain minimally responsive level, the soul has already departed the body; the other two thought that the soul remains, but as a dormant prisoner of the ruined flesh, awaiting release. Their arguments, being intuitive, were of little interest. What caught my attention was the unreflective dualism to which all three clearly subscribed: The soul, they assumed, is a kind of magical essence haunting the body, a ghost in a machine.
This is in fact a peculiarly modern view of the matter, not much older than the 17th-century philosophy of Descartes. While it is now the model to which most of us habitually revert when talking about the soul—whether we believe in such things or not—it has scant basis in either Christian or Jewish tradition.
The “living soul” of Scripture is the whole corporeal and spiritual totality of a person whom the breath of God has wakened to life. Thomas Aquinas, interpreting centuries of Christian and pagan metaphysics, defined the immortal soul as the “form of the body,” the vital power animating, pervading, shaping an individual from the moment of conception, drawing all the energies of life into a unity.
There do seem to be a great many Christian clergy and laity mixed up on the soul. To read the rest of David Hart’s column click here.