Lost and Found: Soulcraft as the Work of the Church

"Dust of the Earth, or Souls in Earthly Tents?"

Panel Discussion at Westmont College
February 16, 2002
Revised with thanks for the responses of conference participants Robert Gundry and David Vander Lann. Even so, this is still a rough draft, so please do not cite it without the author's permission.


A funny thing happened to me this week as I was preparing these remarks. At a worship service on campus this week, an Episcopal priest crossed me with ashes and told me, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I guess that settles it!

Or does it? When I do return to dust, if an Episcopal priest decides to commemorate my death at a Eucharist, he or she will pray, "to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens." (1979 Book of Common Prayer, 382). Apparently it is only my body, not I, that is dust.

These two claims capture nicely the Church's two minds on the relationship between body and soul. Their coexistence in the same prayer book indicates the extent of the Church's comfort with its own schizophrenia. The liturgists are after a different kind of consistency than the philosophers. They would want to remove the question mark from our conference title. I am tempted to say that worshipping Christians are dualists over the matter of dualism.

The Church has long since made its peace with dichotomous and trichotomous anthropology, but not without unhealthy consequences. I want to take some time today to explore the support, challenges, and opportunities that nonreductive physicalism and the Church's practices of personal identity pose for each other.

I. What's Not at Stake: The Glory of All Creation

Christian physicalists acknowledge that dualism cannot be conclusively disproven. The Nicene churches concur, confessing belief in God the Father as maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. By assigning both visibles and invisibles to God's creation, the first article of the Nicene Creed assures that all things glorify God. The scope of God's creation forbids a "God of the gaps" that relegates divine action to the unaccountable.

Thus the Christian doctrine of creation is not fundamentally concerned about the visibility or invisibility of specific things. We need not fear Occam's Razor. The list of invisibles changes appropriately across cultures and plausibility structures: angels, demons, ghosts, ancestral spirits, djinn, leprechauns, humors, germs, forms, memes, essences, souls, and heaven itself. (I take "invisible" in at least these two senses: First, invisibility describes a thing we know to exist but cannot show to exist: "the assurance of things unseen." Second, invisibility describes a thing whose existence we do not or even could not know, such as djinn or ancestral spirits in many European Christian cultures, other galaxies in the eras before telescopes, or "dark matter".)

Visibilizing "mind" and "soul," locating them in the emergent or supervenient qualities of physical human beings, makes many Christians nervous. But if anything we should be appreciating visibility over invisibility, as it helps us hear the heavens glorify God (Ps. 19). I know the natural and social forces that put dinner around my family's table, and far from muting our prayers of thanksgiving, they amplify them. In some respects, dualists and physicalists are all seeking visibility for the "soul," whether that visibility is self-existent, supervenient, or emergent. The priority physicalists give to visibility only goes wrong when it is taken to deny invisibles in general, for then it constructs a demythologized "God of no gaps" who is now forced onto our empirical turf rather than off of it.

The history of soul language in creation shows the logic at work: Both soul-traducianism and soul-creationism are more acceptable than either Origen's doctrine of the preexistence of souls (condemned at various church councils) or naturalist accounts of souls as created by parents (criticized in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church), as the latter positions seem to risk compromising the agency of God as humanity's creator. The creed's first article guards God's sole agency in causing all we can know and even all we cannot, including us (in Luther's beautiful gloss of the Apostles' Creed in his Shorter Catechism).

II. What Is at Stake

Soul language becomes more urgent in the other two articles, which focus more on redemption. We confess the Son who became human, for us humans and for our salvation, and who will return to judge the living and the dead. We confess the Holy Spirit who is the giver of life. We confess the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Theological flashpoints between physicalists and dualists cluster around these claims.

Yet the creeds do not actually use the term "soul." In neither the economy of creation nor the economy of salvation does soul-language find normative expression in the Nicene Creed, or the Apostles' Creed, or to my knowledge any other early creed. The Nicene and Apostles' creeds sound rather physicalist, as does the text from 1 Cor. 15 built into them. "He was conceived; he was born; he suffered; he died; he was buried; he descended to the dead; he was raised; he ascended; he sits; he will return." The use of soul language in the context of the fourth century Mediterranean would have been an open invitation for Gnostics, Origenists, and Manichees to spiritualize away the physical shape of God's saving work in the world. Imagine the sound to Hellenistic ears of "His body died; his body was buried; his body (or perhaps his soul) descended to the dead; his body was raised"!

The term "soul" first appears in ecumenical use at Chalcedon: Jesus Christ is "truly God and truly human, with a rational soul (psychês logikês) and a body." Why the change? Presumably to fight Apollinarianism, which arises after Nicea to explain the incarnation as the insertion of the logos as the soul or mind of an otherwise human body. In other words, healthy soul language is employed only to fight defective soul language.

All this is to say that Church practice drives spiritual practice, and so Church language and cultural context drive soul language.

III. Practicing Identity

In the creeds, this relationship is most visible in the Nicene confession of "one baptism for forgiveness of sins." The juxtaposition is striking. Following the story of Jesus is the story of the Holy Spirit: one Church, one baptism, the resurrection, the life of the world to come.

Because a community means language as it uses it, sidelining the concrete practices of Christian communities in philosophical discussions like this one takes soul-language "on holiday." So let me take a few minutes this [Presidents' Day] holiday weekend to reintroduce the most solemn terms Christians use for personal identity.

In the Hellenistic world as today, soul names permanent personal identity. "In popular thinking the psyche is the impalpable essential core of a person, the agent of thought, will and emotion, the quintessence of human life" (TDNT 1343 [E. Jacob, TDNT IX.608-631]). The usage persists even when the narrative changes: Warren S. Brown understands the soul as "the person's emergent property of capacity for personal relatedness" (Murphy 27).

Dualistic soul language is often accused of accommodating to Hellenistic anthropology, which often told the story of souls as a migration into and out of embodied (i.e., entombed) existence. Yet this can hardly be said for concrete Church practices. These are generally offensive to Hellenistic associations of identity with immaterial souls. Yet surprisingly, they are also somewhat offensive to physicalist associations of identity with physical bodies!

Consider the milestones of Christian life, as practiced in many of our own Christian communities. I will illustrate with readings from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which presents a rather ecumenical account of each.

- At birth and/or dedication, the family name is conferred on a new human being, with the hope of future transformation.

O eternal God, you have promised to be a father to a thousand generations of those who love and fear you: Bless this child and preserve his life; receive him and enable him to receive you, that through the sacrament of baptism he may become the child of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord (444).

And to the family:

May God the Father, who by Baptism adopts us as his children. grant you grace. May God the Son, who sanctified a home at Nazareth, fill you with love. May God the Holy Spirit, who has made the Church one family, keep you in peace (445).

- At the baptism that signifies or enacts conversion, a body is buried in water of judgment and raised from water of salvation, relations are inaugurated within the communion of saints, and a new name is conferred that identifies the new believer with an earlier exemplar of the faith. (The practice is less common in my kinds of churches, but when a Christian name has been used, at dedication pastors typically draw out the association in their prayers.) Here, a body's old identity is ended and begun anew, in which the relation to Christ is decisive.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. ... Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior ... Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. ... N., you are sealed by t the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. ... [following the Lord's Prayer] All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (306-308, 311). (Explicit naming is important here. Only in emergencies if the name is not known is it omitted, and then after recovery the missing ingredients should be supplied at a proper postbaptismal ceremony.)

- In confirmation, the community receives and affirms the believer's eschatologically transferred identity.

I present these persons to be received into this Communion (303).

- In marriage, family identities are merged in God's name, often with one or both partners receiving new surnames to reflect their new relations. Even this transference, long dependent upon worldly authorities rather than the Christian community itself, is no merely human social convention. It "signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church." It is a "union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind" (423). "Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder" (428).

- Ordination confers the authority to transfer identities into, within, and out of the community in Christ's name.

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ (Ordination: Bishop, 517).

- Healing (or unction) remembers past transference in order to anticipate future restoration, even proleptically, through oil symbolizing the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever (460; the only such prayer mentioning the soul).

- Penance restores the identity of those who have betrayed it and fallen back impossibly into their former identities.

Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste (450).

- Prayer addresses God in the name of Jesus. Preaching addresses audiences in the Holy Spirit.

Our Father who art in heaven....

The Word of God. ... Thanks be to God.

- Communion celebrates communal identity in Christ, through his own identification in the elements. Here the operative word is remembrance. (It is important for my conclusion.)

Remember, Lord, your one holy catholic and apostolic Church, redeemed by the blood of your Christ. Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace. Remember NN. and all who minister in your Church. Remember all your people, and those who seek your truth. Remember ____. Remember all who have died in the peace of Christ,and those whose faith is known to you alone; bring them into the place of eternal joy and light. And grant that we may find our inheritance with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, with ___ and all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past. We praise you inunion with them and give you glory through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord (Eucharist II, 375).

The communion of saints is a presentation to God of "our selves, our souls and bodies" (342, Eucharist I). This is Nancey Murphy's "holistic dualism" rather than "radical dualism" (Murphy 24).

- Both ministration at the time of death and burial offer extra liturgical variety and adaptability (bordering on incoherence). Here and at burial, soul language is more prominent than anywhere else in the liturgy, though it coexists with body language. Often prayers offer alternatives of soul-paradise language, involving the intermediate state, and baptism-resurrection language, involving the finality of death. These commend the dying or dead believer to God's promised future on the basis of identifying acts in the past. (Geoffrey Wainwright's Doxology notes the dualist language with cautious approval, 449f.)

Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother (sister) N., who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that his death may recall to us your victory over death... (498).

You promised paradise to the third who repented; bring our brother (sister) to the joys of heaven. ... Our brother (sister) was washed in Baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit; give him fellowship with all your saints. ... He was nourished with your Body and Blood; grant him a place at the table in your heavenly kingdom (497).

Father of all, we pray to you for N., and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. ... May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace (498).

The dead believer is identified with his or her body at the committal, yet commended to everlasting life.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) witth your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sigghing, but life everlasting. You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return... (499).

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb (500).

Into paradise may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem (500).

Are the Word, the seven sacraments, and these other rites too "Catholic" for you? Then consider the evangelical language of being "born again." Or family Bibles, with their records of births, baptisms, and deaths. Or the role of formal Church membership (now declining). Or the social subversion of footwashing. Or Baptist altar calls that find salvation in penitent sinners' entrance into sacred space. Or Pentecostal and charismatic "double blessing," in which water baptism incorporates a self into God, while Spirit baptism calls down God into a self now "filled with the Holy Spirit." All these "visible words," to use Luther's term, use physical means to name salvation as God's new relation with a person in the context of community. The term "sacramental" is dispensible, but not the underlying communal recognition of divinely determined, ecclesially signified processes of identifying and narrating persons. (Our age has further undermined the distinction between Word and sacraments by noticing that audible words are just as material as visible ones.)

Physical transformation and transference of identity are everywhere in both "high" and "low" Christian life. Indeed, I do not think it an overstatement to claim that they are Christian life. What astonishes me is how marginal soul language has remained to the Church's rites of personal salvation, despite centuries of normative dualism, and how material they have deliberately remained.

IV. Church as Identity (re)constituting

The constitutive practices of Church constitute, subvert, and reconstitute personal identity. Their subvening "outward signs" of relationship with physical objects mediate supervening "inward grace" of relationship with God. If this were merely epiphenomenal, "bottom-up" causation, we would call it magic. Instead, the bodily, the social, the theological, and the eschatological converge irreducibly in what we call sacramentality or, more ecumenically, life in the Kingdom of God.

The role of sacramental (i.e., ecclesial) transformation indicates a critical aspect of Christian identity that is sometimes lost in debates between physicalists and dualists. In the Christian faith, selfhood is realized eschatologically, not merely (or perhaps not even) protologically. The psychological sciences are finding scientific language for what Augustine treated as the scattered and regathered self (Harrison 2000). The Christian self cannot simply be a given that passes from one state to the next. The self experiences its own corruption, death, healing, and transformation. Our lives proceed toward neither inevitable dissolution, nor inevitable continuation, but the glorified resolution of new creation. Sin fractures each of us, dividing our psychological houses against themselves. Our failures lose us not only to God but also to ourselves. God's mercies restore us not only to God, but also to ourselves. Selfhood is finally eschatological, "simultaneously retrospective and future-facing" (Kallenberg 2001, 62-82):

On the one hand it is retrospective: I learn who I am by looking backward and discovering my identity as a gift bequeathed to me by a narrative community. On the other hand, it is future-facing: part and parcel of the gift of self is the joyful prospect of being trained, by participation in the community's life and language, to fashion my character in ways that fit the community's master story. [Stanley] Hauerwas gestured toward this eschatological self when he described character paradoxically as both the qualification and the orientation of the self (Kallenberg 2000, 70-71).

An irony here is that while philosophers puzzle over the continuities and discontinuities between the person before, between, and after physical death and resurrection (or sleep, surgery, mental disorder, or brain death), Paul the sacramental theologian puzzles over the continuities and discontinuities between the person before and after baptismal death and resurrection. For Christian identity, birth and death pale before the truly critical moment of rebirth in Christ. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20).

Physicalism problematizes narrative continuity through death, as Warren Brown concedes (Murphy 226). Brown replies that "immortality is not an endemic quality of humanity but is granted by God in the context of our relateness to him. Continuance of self-identity after death is, thus, entirely a product of the activity of a sovereign and omnipotent God." We should extend the problem to all issues of mental incapacitation or deterioration that jeopardize self-identity even before death, subvening on moral goodness this side of the grave. The Church replies to all these dilemmas in the physical sacraments it administers before death. God's acts through the Church, not physical death or debilitation, determine identity. In Christ, we "have passed from death to life." This is the Church's challenge to materialism.

Ontological dualism problematizes the narrative significance of death. Death, and for traducians even birth, become relatively inconsequential if the soul "escapes" their effects. This is true, I think, despite the protests of many dualists that they do not mean to minimize the importance of bodies to the well being of souls. Despite their best efforts, even they make bodily death relatively inconsequential. The Church's answer, in the twenty-first century as in the fourth, is in the physical sacraments. God's ecclesial acts determine identity in ways that the Church enacts, or at least remembers, physically. The material shape of Christian life is the Church's challenge to American gnostic transcendentalism and evangelical spiritualism.

Anthropological problems become sharpest where they influence our appreciation of the life and death of Jesus. Especially at the popular level, both dualism and physicalism threaten to distance Jesus' narrative from the Church's narrative. Is Jesus' baptismal anointing his defining moment? Or if not, then why is conversion ours? Did he rise again because his person (if not for Apollinarius' legacy, we would probably call this his soul) is divine and immortal, unlike ours? Or is the continuance of Jesus' self-identity after death also "entirely a product of the activity of a sovereign and omnipotent God"? Did Jesus cheat death in a Friday night spent in paradise rather than triumphing over it in a Sunday escape from Sheol? Or were those glorified scars extrinsic to his identity?

The problems tempt me to describe Church practices of human identification in terms that belong alongside or above the language of physicalism and dualism. Perhaps these terms warrant the label "sacramental nominalism" (a name that makes me rather Lutheran on this issue). I am not yet ready to consider a third model necessary, but I will demand it before subordinating the Church's identifying practices to any account of human identity that cannot fully honor them, at least in their healthy forms.

Church practices regularly name identity in terms of narrative continuity and discontinuity, whether or not they do it with soul language. What is the basis of that continuity/discontinuity? Several New Testament authors offer a common answer. For Luke, it finds expression in bodily continuity. Yet it is not simply bodily continuity, for a dead body is not necessary an annihilated self (Luke 12:4-5), and a living body is not necessarily a preserved self (Luke 12:19-20). In fact, a truly saved self must first be lost (Luke 9:24, 17:33)! Instead, it seems to be my ecclesial narrative. We accept each other and ourselves as God identifies us, and God identifies us with the dead and risen Jesus: "You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption" (Ps. 15:8-11 in Acts 2:27). "There were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). "Fear came upon every soul" (Acts 2:43). "Every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people" (Lev. 23:29 in Acts 3:23). "The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). An ecclesial soul.

For Paul, identity is ended eschatologically and begun anew in the visible baptismal past (Rom. 6), inaugurating a visible eschatological future. "You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit" (Rom. 8:9). "If anyone is in Christ, new creation! The old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). "You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

Likewise, 1 Peter rests our hope of continuity in the decisive discontinuity of membership in Christ (1 Pet. 1:9, 1:22, 2:11, 2:25, 3:20, 4:19). Drawing out this point would yield the same picture.

To be sure, there is eschatological reserve in our age of already-and-not-yet (as there is protological reserve in the Christian doctrines of foreknowledge and predestination). But identification with Christ is inaugurated and sealed so profoundly in conversion that every moment of Christian transformation can be subsumed into adoption with the aorist verbs of Rom. 8:29-30, even glorification!

The Church's normative grammatical principle seems to be appropriate identification with Christ (i.e., resting identity in relation to God), not the assumptions of either the traditional dualist nor the nonreductive physicalist schools. When Paul invokes the language of body, soul, self, and spirit (for instance, in 1 Thess. 5:23), he is speaking pastorally rather than metaphysically or psychologically.

However, I am attracted to physicalism because it helps me understand the work of the Church. The imago dei is visible relationship with God, originated at God's initiative, mediated in physical humanity, perfected in Jesus of Nazareth, embodied in theological virtues, and transformative of Christian life. It is intrinsically bodily, yet not merely epiphenomenal. Perhaps likewise, the mutual causation of supervenience and subvenience among physical souls and physical bodies biologically locates nonbiological human qualities, and vice versa (Malcolm Jeeves uses the metaphor of software in Murphy 107). Mutual causation could describe the generation of both specifically human nature and a particular human "soul." The former might be a general divine gift of a faculty for relationship, which might be developed in terms of cognitive and [semantic, temporal, biographical, etc.] mnemonic abilities (Warren S. Brown in Murphy 113-116). The latter might be a specific divine gift of a particular set of relationships. Both are physical graces. Both gifts are mediated ecclesially, through divine address, parents, prophets, and so on. Both gifts subsist in and shape each other. Given, constructed, and evolved relationships would spread through and create human communities like hypothetical "memes," forming their own medium like yeast leavens a lump of dough. (We can decide whether memes exist at another conference.)

As we have seen, the most profound moments in this identifying relationship are the very occasions when the Church has developed solemn, relatively fixed narrative practices. These are the constitutive moments of Christian narrative identity: literally, soulcraft. They acknowledge new souls among the world's relations, mature them, redeem them, and remember them. Physicalism's advantage here is its power to show the spiritual change involved in Christian discipleship - the finding of self in Christ through the losing of self for Christ's sake.

V. Future as Realizing Identity

What happens at death? If physicalists are right, then consciousness ceases until resurrection. But the narrative does not, for relationships are shared among a community, not confined within a person. Crucially for Christian hope, the relationships that determine identity rest in Jesus, our risen Lord and Savior, in whom all things hold together. The Church thus practices remembrance (as in the Episcopal Eucharistic prayer above) that acknowledges and maintains the eternity of discrete human lives. Here Jesus is the fundamental agent of memory. However, if Jesus shares this ministry with his people, as he shares so many others in the power of his Spirit, then perhaps here even Catholic and Orthodox sanctoral practices might find their place in the physicalist scheme.

By contrast, the unregenerate are forgotten, or never known in the first place. Do they literally lose their selves, falling down the divine memory hole? Or are they too raised to eternal preservation in the Church's memory? "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool." "Every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."

As you can see, there are Church practices not well adapted to physicalism. The remembrance and fellowship of saints seems straightforward; I need more help to see how the invocation of saints would work (not a pressing issue for me personally since I think it is an unhealthy practice, but pressing for Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and thus a matter of ecumenical concern). I have trouble reconciling physicalism with the charismatic practices and stories of Pentecostal friends. Until I solve more of these problems, I am happy subordinating both metaphysical dualism and physicalism to sacramental nominalism.

And since God is creator and savior of the visible and invisible, I won't be losing sleep over it.