During our last couple of Table Talk gatherings we have discussed questions centered on what we can see and what we can’t. We began by talking about angels, demons and spirits – quite common Biblical terms – and asked ourselves what we thought about these terms. Are they literary devices – personification, for example, or are they terms that refer to actual creatures – in the ontological sense – which we simply can’t see? We discussed the Greek term often translated as “angel”, which could also be rendered as “messenger”, and the possibility that the Biblical use might infer the delivery of a message by someone – be it a friend, neighbor or whomever – where the content of the message was so clearly coming from God that the deliverer of the message was unimportant – no name need be given, no description, etc. – it was enough to refer to the messenger as an angel.
We thought about the concept of “demons” and the issue of “powers and principalities” as discussed in the Bible. Theologian Walter Wink describes “powers and principalities” in terms of an emergent nature for a group or organization that somehow transcends the individual components of that organization. An example might be the tobacco industry where the emergent nature is destructive and yet it could be that in all innocence various people contribute to the industry – perhaps their retirement fund owns stock in tobacco companies for example and so they profit from the destructive habits of the industry. The emergent nature of a group is something that Wink identifies with the terminology used in Biblical texts to describe invisible beings (e.g. in Revelation, where the letters are addressed not to the seven churches but rather to the angels of the seven churches).
Nobody seemed taken with the idea that a person somehow becomes an angel when they die, although the concept of a guardian angel is a common one and there are many stores and web sites devoted to selling angel figures, angel posters, etc.
Ultimately, we asked ourselves just what our cosmologies included. Do we see the sum of reality as just what we see, or are there unseen beings that populate the universe also? Our straw poll indicated that the majority of those present were open to the idea that there is more to the universe than meets the eye and that our individual cosmologies did not exclude the possibility of an unseen reality.
Subsequently, we talked about the nature of the human person. Is the body that we see all that there is, or is there also an unseen soul? We recognized that there is a philosophical conundrum here for the body/soul interaction parallels the mind/body problem (how can an immaterial mind affect a material body?), which is largely intractable.
We talked about the idea of the soul as an emergent property. This concept allows us to think about an evolutionary pathway where the soul emerges at some stage and thus differentiates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom (i.e. making humans different in kind rather than different in degree). Similarly, perhaps the soul emerges as cells divide and an embryo is produced, thus conferring “humanity” on an unborn infant at some stage in the division/development process. We recognized that if the soul is emergent this emergence cannot surely be tied to the emergence of intellect or this might lead to the untenable position that those with intellectual impairment are somehow without a soul. Clearly the emergence of a soul, if this is indeed what happens, is central to thinking about issues such as evolution, abortion, mental retardation, and so on.
The idea that the soul is affected by actions (e.g. in the so-called “soul-building” theodicy used in reference to the problem of evil) led us to again encounter the mind/body problem, which we do not know how to handle. Nonetheless, it seemed reasonable to us that the soul is affected by the course of human life, even though we do not know how.
Biblically, we talked about the Hebrew concept of the “nephesh” – a conception of the human person as a monad – the base upon which mind, body and soul interact – and noted the difference between this notion and the more Greek dualist idea of a mind/soul and body. In many ways the modern period has embraced the dualist idea and hence we might hear words at a funeral which refer to placing the body in a grave while the soul ascends to heaven. It is not clear how the early Hebrews might have reacted to this idea, but the evidence suggests that they may well have found it difficult to embrace.
Nonetheless, most of us decided we’d rather have souls than not, however it might interact with our bodies!