Writer/Copy Editor Simone Delochan interviewed Fr Dexter Bereton CSSp via email on the Catholic concept of soul. This is the second in a two-part series.
Christian thinking on souls, Fr Dexter Brereton CSSp explained, emerges from the meeting of philosophy and theology, both closely related disciplines.
“Philosophy, especially metaphysics, attempts to arrive at an understanding of the nature of life and existence” using human reason. Theology “also attempts to arrive at an understanding of the truth of life and existence” by human reason and revelation.
In last week’s article (November 11, Page 5), Plato’s view on the immortal soul was outlined, and it is this philosophy that has had an influential role in the shaping of Christian thinking.
Fr Brereton detailed the dualist view of life in Plato’s emphasis of the difference between the soul and the body in which it inhabited. For him [Plato] “the immortality of the soul meant that the soul pre-existed the body before uniting with it, and also that it does not die when separated from the body at death but lives on.”
The underpinning notion in the ancient world was the human being who seemed to “have their feet planted in two different worlds”. There was the material world which the human being knew through the use of the five senses. Then there was another ‘world’, an inner world of thought and idea which existed outside of time and space.
Fr Brereton went on: “Under the influence of thinkers such as he, salvation came to be seen as the emancipation of the soul from the material world and the body in which it is trapped, so that it can return to the world of pure ideas.”
Soul and Spirit—How they are related
The word ‘soul’ in the Bible, is rendered as ‘nephesh’ in Hebrew, and ‘psyche’ in Greek. Fr Brereton stated that finding the precise meaning for ‘nephesh’ is difficult. “The best translation would be to say that the ‘nephesh’ is the self—the individual subject as a psychological unity. ‘Nephesh’ is the conscious subject.”
Nephesh differs from ‘spirit’ which is found in the Bible, ‘ruah’ in Hebrew, and both soul and spirit are used interchangeably. “Ruah,” explained Fr Brereton, “was what animates the body. For the Jews, the spirit-breath was what acts and what causes to act. In the case of the Breath of God, what causes to act, in order to realise God’s plan.”
The breath-spirit, he says, is variously described according to the effect it produces, for example, the spirit of wisdom (Deut 31:3; 34:9). Fr Brereton continues that in Paul, ‘spirit’ appears as the seat of consciousness and psychic functions, an equivalent to the soul, and sometimes the person (as similarly ‘soul’ does).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CC) says: 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 (367).
Fr Martin Sirju says of Paul when he speaks of “soul, spirit and body”, ‘soul’ is not what is generally thought: “‘Soul’ meant the unknown force that controlled things like blood-flow, heartbeat, breathing etc. ‘Spirit’ usually means the deepest part of ourselves, akin to soul in contemporary sense.” Fr Sirju adds that when Jesus speaks of ‘heart’ it refers more to contemporary understanding of ‘soul’: “The deeper part of the embodied self”.
Fr Brereton sums up thusly: “Soul and spirit are ways of speaking of the individual human subject from particular points of view. Spirit and soul both speak of the human being viewed in relation to God who is sustainer and giver of life and the subject of relationship with all human beings.”
Where does the soul come from?
“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” (366, CC).
Human parents are ‘co-creators’ with God. The biological act that produces a child, happens along with the creation of that child’s soul by God. So with the conception of a child there is a confluence of both biology and divinity. “…and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit” (364, CC).
The child’s journey, in which the parents participate in the formation of the human being, has as its ultimate goal, reunion.