Friday, April 8, 2011

The Importance of Mystery

Asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong once remarked, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." It's probably the same thing with the soul. (And I don't mean "soul" in jazz.)

As a parochial school student, I formed a vague but somehow visible idea of the soul from all that the nuns told us about its being darkened by sin and whitened by grace. It appeared in my youthful imagination as a large mostly white blob.

After years of reading theology and philosophy, my idea of the soul remains vague. Yet this is as it should be. Like so many invisible realities I believe in, it is a mystery, and no efforts to define it or imagine it are worth much.

The very fact that it gets mentioned in contemporary intellectual discourse is remarkable; maybe like the mind, which psychologists have generally called the brain, the soul is having a comeback. In reading a blog by Caspar Melville recently about the book Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey, I was intrigued to learn that the old questions, including how immaterial consciousness can arise from a material thing like the brain, are not settled.

Humphrey says that consciousness and the soul are the same thing. He says that spirituality is essential for consciousness, spirituality being the source of awe, beauty and meaning. And I would add: mystery. But in this materialist philosophy, consciousness is hardly immortal, yet it is said to give us feelings that we are special and transcendent.

Only feelings? I would say we are special and transcendent, that the soul or inner life, which Ron Rolheiser says, is something we build up as the result of learning about suffering, among other things, is the immortal part of ourselves. Nothing uniquely Christian here, if you read the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. Or look into other religious traditions.

Thomas Moore in his popular Care of the Soul avoids any definition of soul; he skirts the issues of immortality but would probably agree that it is a divine spark within us that connects us to the divine. It has to do with love as well as immortality.

If the soul isn't immortal, I would say, echoing Flannery O'Connor, to hell with it. So for Mr. Humphrey, what is spiritual is apparently some invisible energy that dies when the brain does. He tries to write a natural history of the soul without, apparently, recognizing the reality of the supernatural.

I should be grateful that the godless (I found out about the book on a website "ideas for godless people") are concerned with souls at all. But I'd be happier if such investigators would be open to mystery, which includes (for me) the reality of the supernatural.

The goal of science, B. F. Skinner once said, is the destruction of mystery. But enlightened scientists today include mystery as a basic part of our ongoing discovery of the complexity of what is real. I believe in keeping mystery alive.

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