Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Story of a Soul

Marilynne Robinson, in the first of her so-far-excellent collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books, makes an interesting observation.
In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it.
Robinson is critical of this and sees a reductionism of the soul to a "token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with [...] the felt experience of life."

I find this interesting. I'm not sure if I totally buy it, though to be honest, I'd be hard-pressed to name offhand the last time I heard a Protestant minister or even a Catholic priest mention a soul without talking about salvation pretty explicitly.

That said, I'm not sure it's as bad as all that. I think there might be a way to recover some of what Robinson believes we've lost (which I take from further context to be a sense of creativity of the soul, the soul as a world-experiencing object) without sacrificing the importance of salvation. Where the rubber meets the road, whether the soul is saved or lost is certainly the most important thing. And whether or not this implies a reduction of soul to its status, I will (perhaps boldly) claim that in the Christian tradition it must be said that a soul's response to God is the primary and founding response it makes to all things. Creativity, perhaps all experience at root, is all co-creativity, sustained only by the God who made the earth. That said, I do think there's already some talk about people who are creative in religious circles, whether their creativity is explicitly religious or not, and I think maybe, to a degree, Robinson is being a bit picky about the fact that maybe we just don't refer to peoples' souls in these contexts.

And while some people might see the following list as still reducing to a saved-or-lost mentality, I think the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer in terms of developing one's soul in relationship to God--morally and ethically, in the confessional and in the works of great theologians, philosophically, in some of those same works, aesthetically, in appreciation of nature, and prayerfully, in standards like the Liturgy of the Hours.


I wonder if the notion of vocation and co-creation could serve us well here as well. Encouraging creativity among Christians can never hurt. Certainly the Catholic souls of Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton, Tolkein, Percy, O'Connor, Greene and Endo are present in their works. Certainly the souls of Calvin, Wesley, Lewis, and Robinson herself are present in theirs. The souls of many of those saved are not merely saved, they are in rapture. The how, the story of how a soul responds to that salvation--perhaps that is where the real creativity (or at least co-creativity) begins. How do we respond to the fact of salvation and sacrament after the fact, how does it change our response to the world, how do we then develop in relation to God? A plant emerges from a seed, but the plant does not reduce to the seed; perhaps this is how we could retain a healthy respect for the fact of souls saved and lost, without sacrificing other aspects of a soul's development. I'd be curious to see what Robinson has to say about souls she may doubt the salvation of. I would certainly volunteer that I would like to look at each of them and find them beautiful enough to help develop creatively or to experience more, but perhaps most of all enough to save.

For the record, a good bit of this post was written while listening to Jars of Clay. That awesomely, explosively creative first big album. (It's also been sped up a bit by Winamp, but that's my own special thing, and the music's just as good otherwise.) Just thought that was worth mentioning.

1 comment:

L-Po said...

As you know, I feel that Robinson is too much for this "bear of very little brain." However, I would like to propose that Jesus didn't come just to save souls. He came to redeem the whole of creation, including our physical bodies. While a complete healing won't occur until we receive our new bodies, I do know people who I believe have experienced a physical healing. Our whole being needs to be saved--not just our soul. And, isn't the creativity of the soul always expressed in a way that one can experience physically through sight, sound, etc.? I guess I should probably at least attempt the essay, eh?

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