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.