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The Work of the Soul – 2/3/2013

In the late 1700s, there was a mechanical curiosity that toured Europe and later North America. It was a large wooden cabinet set with a chess board, attached to a manikin wearing a turban. The device was called, “The Turk”. In its public displays, spectators would be invited to sit down and challenge the automaton – a human-like machine – to a game of chess. The Turk would move its pieces about the board with a clockwork arm was able to win nearly all of the games it played. People were fascinated, and several famous figures are said to have challenged the Turk and lost, including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. There was much debate and theory as to how the machine could possibly work, but its owners refused to reveal the secret.

That secret turned out to be a deceptively simple one. The Turk was not an artifact of time-travel, or an advanced chess-playing computer two-hundred years ahead of its time. The machine was able to put on its impressive displays because hidden inside its cabinet was an actual human being. Various chess masters rode along inside the body of the Turk during its tours and played its matches, keeping track of the pieces on the table above with special pegboard. The only mechanical accomplishment of the Turk was a clever, but still fairly simple, system of gears to allow its arm to make the hidden chess player’s moves.

This is a historical curiosity that happens to illustrate an important theological idea in most of Western religion: that of the human soul. The understanding of the soul in both Judaism and Christianity is as an animating force, the intangible yet essential element of any living human. It goes back to the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, in which the first human being is formed from mud and then is filled with the ‘breath of life’. This breath makes a person a person and more than just an empty vessel or a powerless machine. According to this understanding, our bodies are like the Turk – complicated and impressive, but functionless without the presence of a secret passenger to give us thought and volition.

There was a movie that came out several years ago called Dark City. Did anyone see it? No? That’s not surprising; almost nobody did, because it came out when Titanic was still #1 at the box office. The film is about a society of sinister aliens who have built a city and filled it with humans in order to search for the human soul. Every so often, they put everyone in the city to sleep and swap their lives and roles around. Go to sleep a doctor, wake up a fry cook. Go to sleep a homemaker, wake up a lounge singer. Wake up in a different place, with a different name and a different set of memories. Given the same (false) history and current context, will different people make the same decisions? Are humans anything more than the sum of their memories? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the difference would seem to be something invisible, immaterial and unquantifiable: a soul.

The soul has an added level of meaning in Jewish and Christian theology as the eternal (or at least very long-lived) dimension of ourselves. So that it is the soul that experiences the afterlife, whatever shape that might take, after the body has died. (Depending on whose idea of the afterlife we’re talking about, the soul might be given a new body, or it might go on to exist on some purely spiritual plane.) In fact, although most of us think about reincarnation – where after we die our soul lives on to be reborn and live out further lives – although we think of that as being an idea specific to the Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, it also has its presence in the West. Early church leaders, and a variety of Christian heresies have affirmed the transmigration of souls, which is the fancy term for reincarnation. And some strands of Jewish mysticism entertain the idea that one person’s soul may divide into many parts after death, so that several different people at once may share the same reincarnate soul, and that these fragments can even move around as people live, so that you might spend some days as the incarnation of one person, and others with the soul of someone else.

I mention all of this because we Unitarian Universalists have a theological vocabulary that is shaped both by inheritance – we are descendents of heretical Christians, though not all of us still use that label – and by proximity. We live in a society where the spiritual language of Christianity is all around us, so we tend to speak about religion using words from that language. But we are a particular group of people with a particular set of values and ideas, and a particularly vast diversity of ideas about God and the afterlife and other matters that most religions at least pretend to have only one position on. So I want to offer us a few working definitions of important terms, and the first, the one for this morning, will be for soul. These won’t be the only thing we can mean by these words, but I believe they’ll touch on the sort of meaning we often tend to mean, based on our tradition and where we are today as a movement.

So here goes: our souls are the potential within us to share love, feel awe and joy, create beauty, struggle for justice and mourn what has been lost. The word soul might mean more than that; the ‘breath of life’ understanding might still appeal to some of us – but our soul is at least the sum of our potential to bless the world by being in it. I gather this definition from William Ellery Channing, the godfather of American Unitarianism in much the same way that James Brown is the godfather of Soul. Channing was far from the first preacher to espouse Unitarianism, just as James Brown was not a founder but an early exemplar of his genre. Yet, they both popularized their respective styles and philosophies, and inspired subsequent generations to follow in their footsteps.

In 1828, William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon entitled, “Likeness to God”. In it he put forth the idea that the most important quality of human beings is our likeness to God; our capacities for love, justice, mercy and creativity that mirror, in a greatly reduced form, those ascribed to the God of the Hebrew and Christian bibles. So that practicing and cultivating these capacities is the mission of every human life. “Our proper work,” Channing wrote, “is to approach God by the free and natural unfolding of our highest powers, of understanding, conscience, love, and the moral will.” This message clarified thinking that was already present among Unitarians at the time, and it has come to be central to how we understand humanity as Unitarian Universalists, more important, even, than the belief in God on which Channing based his original idea. The most essential quality of being human is, to us, the capacity for love and compassion, creation and exploration.

Meaningful theology is about more than theory, however. It follows from lived experience and addresses real problems. Most of you know already how important science fiction is to me as a means for thinking about life’s great questions. And that genre is full of stories about people who are other than human – aliens, robots, thinking computers – and the lingering question of whether or not such things have souls. Those imagined realities reflect a similar and dangerous question in our own world. For as long as there have been theologies of the soul, there have been those who have tried to argue that certain human beings were literally soulless,

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either because of their ethnic origins or because they had lost that most basic human quality as the result of some heinous crime. But our understanding of the soul as Unitarian Universalists must apply equally and universally, and the sense that it is the sum of our potential to do what is right meets that requirement.

Another of our ancestors, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote in his journal, “Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other. Let them not call hard names, nor know a divided interest.”[i] The longstanding Western reverence for the soul has come at the expense of the body; the two have been seen as separate things, with the body at best the bit player against the leading role of the soul. The human form was seen as so unimportant, or even adversarial, to the noble spiritual life that a few hundred years ago a primary qualification for the ministry would have been a morbid constitution. So that those who struggled with their physical health were strongly encouraged to take up the religious vocation. As someone who might at times have been described as an ‘indoor kid’ growing up, I can acknowledge a twinge of sympathy here. But our definition of the soul need not succumb to this particular weakness. A special spiritual dimension separate from the physical, though perhaps possible, is not necessary. Our potential to feel and express loving kindness includes our bodies as much as any other aspect of ourselves.

Evil is whatever diminishes the soul’s capacities. You see, I promised a meaning for the soul, you get a definition of evil for free. Obviously, killing destroys this potential, but a variety of sorts of physical and mental harm can shorten a person’s opportunities and abilities for engaged creativity and love. Graciously, however, the soul is a resilient thing, and can grow to do more good disabled than it could when able-bodied. Institutional and structural evils also chip away at and constrain the power of human souls. Racism, heterosexism and a variety of other bigotries can narrow the possibilities of certain lives and grind away at their sense of self worth. Again, however, the possibility of radial love endures, and the most creative forms of resistance to systems of injustice tend to come from those most directly targeted by them. Evil is whatever damages the soul, but that sacred potential in each of us can be magnified as well.

This era is a time that should be magnifying our souls. We are possessed of phenomenal wonders of technology, the ability to travel and send messages at vast speeds, to scour the globe with satellites and search engines and to produce more food than at any previous time in human history. But it is not as simple as all that. All that technology also comes with a vast capacity to harm – and not only a capacity to harm, but really a built in requirement. The fossil fuels used to power our cars, fire our furnaces and run our electrical plants are hewn from the earth in more and more costly ways, at the price of lakes and streams and mountains and plains and at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of people in resource-rich countries all over the world. The high-priced metals in our smart phones are mined by workers in unsafe, unjust conditions, and when we eventually throw them away they will eventually be salvaged by workers even less just and safe circumstances so some of those same metals can be reextracted. Resolving the contradiction between our power to help and the innate harm built into it is the great work of the soul in this age.

One of the things about the old, all or nothing view of the soul that has never worked for me is what it says about the moment of death. If the soul is a spiritual attribute that defines life, there must be a clean moment in which it departs the body, and marks the barrier between living and dying. As a chaplain and as a minister, I have sat beside people as they passed f


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