Soul as opposed to Spirit and where the Eastern Orthodox stand on this


(Mitchell W McKain) #1

An off topic digression in another thread had me digging through the internet for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the word “soul.” Personally, I am not a big fan of this word at all. It origins lie with the ideas of other religious traditions like Gnosticism and transmigration. There is not much said about the soul in the Bible, but the spirit is spoken of much more clearly by Paul in 1 Cor 15.

It should be noted that Eastern Orthodox are often not so easy to get precise answers on a lot of questions because they do not emphasize doctrine quite as much as Western Christianity. They are still ruled by ecumenical councils which tries to restrict official statements of belief to what everyone agrees upon. It makes them both slow to change, more inclusive, and sometimes a bit vague on a lot of issues.

With that said, here is what I found, noting that these are more like examples of at least what some of the Eastern Orthodox believe.

The first website I looked at said the following
-1. How the soul originates is not known.
-2. The soul does not pre-exist the body.
-3. The soul is immortal.

The second website added the following
-4. The image of God resides in the soul.

But in the third website we come to something which I cannot agree with.
-5. The soul is the in-breathing of God which gives us life.

In my view, however, this is an antiquated literal understanding of Genesis which is in conflict with the findings of science. There is no stuff added to the body which gives it life. That is just nonsense. All the books and movies which tell a story of sucking the life out of one person in order to boost the life of another is just fiction. The body needs air and other elements but we breathe air into ourselves and these other elements are found in things which are not alive or can be manufactured. So the idea of some life-stuff is a mythology with no basis in fact, nor does the idea of a non-physical thing animating the body agree with what we have observed. Everything about the life and behavior of the body has been been traced over and over again to physical causes.

However… there is a way of making sense of these words in the Bible which is not in conflict with science. After all we can ask the question of what makes the mind and spirit alive quite apart from what makes the body alive. And thus we can take Christianity out of the mysterious arena of magic and alchemy and into the world of meaning and how things work.

Let’s start with the mind. The substance of the mind is ideas or memes, embodied in the symbolization of language much the way genes are embodied in the chemical encoding of DNA. And just as genes are the organizing principles for the body, these ideas or memes are the organizational principles of the human mind. Furthermore, while our genetic heritage comes from a biological lineage through a common ancestry with the primates, our memetic heritage may have come directly from communication with God.

But while the life of the body follows a fairly set pattern of growth and maintenance, the human mind varies considerably, so much so that growth and thus life cannot be taken for granted. I define life as this ability of an organism to do things for its own reasons, and while I see much evidence that people do things for reasons which are entirely of the mind, I am not sure this always so clear cut for everyone. Thus when Jesus says, “let the dead bury their own dead.” I see some truth to this idea that not everyone is equally alive even if they all eat and breathe.

Thus it is my suggestion, that the breath of God, rather than being some mystical nonphysical substance or entity, is simply inspiration (literally the “divine breath”) or communication, by which God gives us the memes which bring the human mind to life – ideas such as love.

Now let’s turn to the spirit, which unlike the mind is a non-physical (apart the mathematical laws of nature) existence. It is my belief that the spirit is a creation the choices of living things, and while the resurrected spirit is imperishable, not all spirits are alive. So the question which naturally arises here, is what is the relationship between the life of the mind coming from the inspiration of God, and the life of the spirit. The critical link here is our choices. Just because God tells us the truth doesn’t mean we embrace it and make it ours.


(GJDS) #2

There was a thread some time ago where various opinions were presented on soul/spirit.

I cannot think of a definition of either soul or spirit that has been adopted by EO (or by Catholic).

My best attempt would be, it is the identify of self that responds to God and grows in the attributes given to us by the Holy Spirit.


(Mitchell W McKain) #3

My immediate reaction was… but, there is the Catholic catechism. Wait! Does the Eastern Orthodox have a catechism? So I looked it up and at first you might think, yes it does, these websites are claiming there is. But, when you look closer, you realize that what you really have as a result of such a search is a bunch of different websites by different groups explaining what the orthodox believe and they are on some very different topics – nothing like the RC catechism at all.

How about the RC cathechism, does it say what the soul is? Here it is…

363 In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person . But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man.

364 The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not “produced” by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.

This is an excellent example of what you can expect from the RCC. Compared to other churches it really is an immense giant. Its resources seem nearly endless at times. But that is ok, according to their own rhetoric, they are the church for everyone, so we can use many of those resources too if we like.

I must say… this RC answer is a pretty valiant attempt to get past the difficulties with science, but… Is there ever really something which is not alive and then becomes alive when something is added to it? Nope. The egg is alive, the sperm is alive and the zygote is alive. There is never at any time any point when something becomes alive because of something added to it. In this way the “soul” becomes Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon in the garage, except that while the invisible dragon can still bite you if it chooses, this added “soul” doesn’t do anything at all except serve the rhetoric of those who invented it.


(GJDS) #4

The soul and spirit of human beings is discussed by RC and EO in a similar way - if you read Patristic literature you will see that. RC tend to formalise teachings, whereas EO tend to discuss aspects of these teachings.

Your post “soul as opposed to spirit” is provocative as I do not see any opposition.

Do you have a response on my initial statement of soul?


(Mitchell W McKain) #5

So, without God there is no soul? I have no problem with talking about some part of us which responds to God and giving it whatever name – and the name “soul” makes no difference to me since I don’t really use that word. But I do have a problem with making this a person’s identity.

For me, our most essential identity of a person is found in the choices the person makes. I even apply this to God to say that His choice is for love and freedom over power and control. Thus, God is love, and freedom. For His choices defines Him more than anything He might be by nature. Likewise it is my choices which define me, not the fact that I am white, or male, or homo sapiens, or mammal,…

And the word I use for the imperishable result is “spirit.” It most certainly is NOT something which has been given to me but the exact opposite, it is wholly and completely what I have given to the world, to God, to life, myself.

To be sure that connection to God you speak of is our lifeline. Without it, any life we have will whither and die. It is not that we had no life, but only that without an infinite source whatever life we have must be finite.


(GJDS) #6

To a Christian, the statement “without God” does not make sense. It is impossible for me to contemplate such a state of being - with the exception that some entity chooses to be cut of from God (sin as a choice which is intended to cut us from God may be relevant, but I do not think you are discussing this).

Soul and spirit are closely related and that is why I mention spiritual growth for a soul that responds to God and grows with the help of the Holy Spirit.


The time scale of the bottleneck?
(Mitchell W McKain) #7

You really should shake this rather bad habit of speaking as if you are Christianity. This simply is not the case. Christianity is a vast spectrum of beliefs. And speaking this way both inflates yourself and deflates Christianity. Surely God is much bigger than you are and if Christianity is of a living God, then Christianity is bigger than you are too.

To this Christian, “without God” certainly does make sense. Perhaps you meant, to someone raised Christian and programmed to think of everything only in terms of God and thus incapable of thought outside this framework, “without God” does not make sense. But those who became Christian as I did, know very well that there is plenty of sense to words and the world without any reference to this particular word and idea that some people use. And the fact that I now use this word and idea, believing in the entity to which it refers, does not change this fact in the slightest.

What you say sound here sounds good. But I can also think of a spirit without God and thus eventually without life – without that which makes existence worthwhile. It may be unnecessary, maybe even un-helpful, but I like to understand these things.


(Jennifer Thomas) #8

I can’t tell you much about the Eastern Orthodox understanding of “soul,” but I wrote my Master’s research paper on doctrines of the soul in Western Christian orthodoxy. It’s a topic that seems to scare the bejeezus out of a lot of today’s theologians. In fact, if you open up the index of books that deal with various modern and post-modern theologies, you won’t even find an entry for the word “soul.”

Briefly, there’s no one single theory about the soul. Instead, there are three main “categories” of theory about the soul, and all three categories show up in all major world religions. So no wonder it’s so confusing.

On a personal note, I absolutely believe in the soul as the seat of consciousness on a quantum level. Our religious traditions have often foundered on the question of the science of the soul, but I see many possibilities for understanding this aspect of ourselves if we turn to quantum theory instead of classical physics.


(Mark D.) #9

Wiki of course has a pretty thorough examination of the term “soul”. I was happy to see included the one I know best, that elaborated by the american Jungian psychologist, James Hillman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul#James_Hillman

Psychologist James Hillman’s archetypal psychology is an attempt to restore the concept of the soul, which Hillman viewed as the “self-sustaining and imagining substrate” upon which consciousness rests. Hillman described the soul as that “which makes meaning possible, [deepens] events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern”, as well as “a special relation with death”.[104] Departing from the Cartesian dualism"between outer tangible reality and inner states of mind", Hillman takes the Neoplatonic stance[105] that there is a “third, middle position” in which soul resides.[[106]]
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul#cite_note-Blue_Fire_6-106) Archetypal psychology acknowledges this third position by attuning to, and often accepting, the archetypes, dreams, myths, and even psychopathologies through which, in Hillman’s view, soul expresses itself.

Something about this position makes sense to me and seems important. My own tendency is to want to subjugate everything in understanding which Hillman would see as the spirit’s desire to drain the swamp of the soul for what use it may be put to. But because I’m impressed by this mind-body-soul distinction Hillman makes I find myself reluctant to let mind triumph over feeling entirely. Instead I recognize a mutual dependence between soul and spirit, between what is given directly and how that gets conceptualized.


(Shawn T Murphy) #10

Thanks Jennifer, I too have written much about the soul and the spirit, but I do not need to go outside of classic physics to explain. I believe conservation of energy is enough, it is just that there is no mainstream instrumentation to measure the mass and energy of ethereal substances yet. Although with enough volunteers, it could be measured with standard equipment at death.


(Mitchell W McKain) #11

I absolutely believe in an imperishable non-physical aspect of our existence described by Paul in 1 Cor 15 which he calls the “spiritual body.” With the word “spirit” I extend this to those which may not be resurrected and alive, for the Bible describes these a few times as well, such as when the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples that he is not a ghost (a word we can use for spirits which are not alive).

Furthermore, quantum theory is undoubtedly the key to much reconciliation between science and religion. It represents the discovery by science of its own limitations, making it causally open so that the possibility of interactions with a non-physical existence cannot be excluded. However, it really should be understood how narrow this opening is. To be sure it allows the course of events in the physical world to be altered as long as this is not a consistent pattern (and I don’t think this is any great obstacle to the believable involvement of God). However, it does not allow a non-physical entity operating the body like a puppet. But then the facts suggest that much of our activities are a function of habit anyway, and it does allow something which influences free will decisions as the ultimate source of those habits.

But I think it is safe to say that most causality is in the other direction, from the physical to the spiritual. A non-physical entity, for example, is neither required nor even very helpful for the explanation of free will. So all that is really required by our religious beliefs is that our identity is shared from the physical to the spiritual. And in this way all the evidence which shows how everything we think and feel can be altered by physical interference is no longer a problem.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

Perhaps so. It does also seem to me, though, that free will “explained” is free will “disappeared”. Which is not to say that I doubt free will’s existence. I just doubt it will ever be explained - on any level whether physical or spiritual. It seems to me like one of those sorts of things that we just know is there, but fails to be there when we try to isolate it to focus of our empirical attentions on it.

[one can imagine our subject ‘free will’ busy in our brains deciding it’s going to look through the microscope to find itself, but then realizing it can’t be both directing the searching eye and be out in front of that eyeball’s gaze simultaneously. Ever try thinking about thoughts? Just doesn’t work. But I’m glad we have them!]


(Jennifer Thomas) #13

Hi Mitchell,

I can see that you’ve been thinking a lot about these questions. I can also see that you and I are quite far apart in our understanding how the relationships between physical and spiritual, classical physics and and quantum physics, actually work in God’s universe.

On the question of free will in the universe,this blog post appeared on Scientific American last week. It’s a good reminder that there are many unanswered questions about free will and randomness in the quantum universe.

I’m not sure the opening between Materialist science and non-Materialist quantum physics is as narrow as you suggest. And I’m not sure it’s even necessary to argue that the opening is – and should be – narrow. The universe, after all, is largely made up of energy that isn’t baryonic matter. And since baryonic matter constitutes only about 5% of all the energy in God’s Creation, I see lots of possibilities for encountering our beloved God in the miracles and mysteries of gravity, magnetism, dark matter, and dark energy.

It’s hard for us as human beings to let go of our assumptions about how the universe does work – or should work. We want it to be neat and orderly and deterministic (because that’s easier for the human brain to understand), so we can get pretty hung up about concepts like body-soul dualism, origins and nature of the soul, and so on.

But methinks God’s Creation is far stranger and more wondrous than even our poets can imagine.


(Mitchell W McKain) #14

What constitutes an explanation can be a very subjective judgement. The only explanation I require is how free will is even possible and no I certainly do not think my explanation of this (which I have already made elsewhere in the forum) makes free will disappear. Here it is again:

As long as we restrict ourselves to time-ordered causality free will does not make any sense. (I assume you know what I am talking about, but I will explain if someone requests it) But I do not see much reason for such a restriction since there is a philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle for considering other types of causality. It seems to me that when we make free will choices we choose both what we will do and the reason for it at the same time – cause and effect simultaneously if you will. Thus it is my assertion that in a free will decision we become the cause of our free will choice (namely the person who does things for such a reason). This at least serves what I require of an explanation, to show how it is at least logically possible.

Furthermore, we can ask the question: if this non-standard causality free will exists, then what will it look like in a worldview which only acknowledges time-ordered causality? Well that is quite simple. It will look like some events don’t even have a cause – that they are simply random. Well as matter of fact, science has discovered that there are events like this and they are everywhere.


(Mitchell W McKain) #15

No doubt some people will persist in asking why we chose to become a person who does such a things for this reason. They want a cause for the choice other than the person we become. They frankly want a time-ordered explanation. For me it is enough to say we are free to choose what kind of person we become. Frankly they just have the two year old habit of repeating the question “why” forever. Some have no problem with endless causality and suggest that the universe in some form existed forever. Others suggest the chains of causality have beginning(s) either as the determinists do with a single first cause or those like me with many first causes happening all the time.


(Mitchell W McKain) #16

I could have said all this myself. But the fact is, that while possibilities may be endless, MOST OF THE TIME, the universe doesn’t behave like this at all. And that is the reason why…

…that is the reason why the opening must be narrow as I suggest. 99.9999% of the time the universe does not behave as if there are nonphysical entities running around messing with our lives. Most of the time the universe behaves as if the laws of nature rule it with an iron fist, and this is why atheists so self-righteously doubt and scorn our beliefs.

As long as we don’t face up to this reality, we are going to continue to look rather delusional to those who do.

I am not saying there are no exceptions, but that they ARE exceptions to a rule.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

That’s a fascinating way to look at it - cause and effect lumped together. I think I’m pretty much stuck in the “time-ordered” way of thinking about things, even while realizing there probably are realities beyond that (and therefore beyond my comprehension.)

I’m also glad you’re satisfied with your understanding of free-will.


(system) #18

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