This past Thursday night, the “Heart of the City Speaker Series” hosted a fascinating presentation offered by a brilliant speaker, named Sheldon Fernandes, on the topic of artificial intelligence. His discussions about advances in machine learning, deep learning, neuroscience, metaethics, and on the ethical implications of those technological advances were insightful and thought-provoking.
Close to the end of the lecture, however, I found myself surprised to hear him mention a word that is profoundly biblical, and has typically been a subject relegated to the realms of spirituality and religion, and yet which we do not actually talk about very much in the modern church, let alone define what we mean by it.
It was a word that he used when he turned his attention to issues that, at least for now, stretch beyond even the most advanced forms of artificial intelligence, and even beyond theories about the possibility of artificial consciousness, and yet – as the speaker’s devout and loving Roman Catholic Christian parents often remind him – is one of the defining traits of the human person.
He spoke of the soul.
In that realm beyond mere human thought, beyond the firing of the brain’s neurons, even beyond the outer reaches of technological progress, there is, deep within us, something more, something animating, something mysterious, something that somehow encompasses everything about who and what we are, and yet is unfettered by mere sense, or sensation, or anything that can otherwise be reduced to a physical, or psychological, or emotional, or biological, or mental function.
Which is not to say that we never hear the word “soul” used, these days.
We use it in some of the great hymns of our faith – “Praise, my soul, the king of heaven”; “ ”be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side”; “when peace like a river, attendeth my way/when sorrows like sea billows roll / whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me know / it is well, it is well, with my soul.”
We use the word when referring to other forms of music that seem to give voice to that which goes far deeper than mere words or sounds can take us, music that we refer to as “soul music”, music that is so often forged in the crucibles of the extremes of human experience. When we hear songs that lift us into the heights of joy and love, or emerge from the depths of suffering and heartache – well, we know what we mean by soul music.
We use the word in relation to the food that we eat — soul food – those meals that do more than simply fill our stomachs, but spark memories, remembrances, a sense of comfort, a sense of connection, a sense of joy within us.
The more romantic among us speak of seeking or of finding their soulmates, while those who go through moments of great self-examination speak of having had a soul-searching experience.
We speak of “soul-stirring” moments in life– when we find ourselves in the presence of a piece of great art, or when we quietly stand in awe in sight of an indescribably beautiful natural wonder, or when we hear a magnificent piece of music, or when we bear witness to some achingly beautiful act of human compassion. Such experiences seem to transport us, if even for a moment, out of a sense of time and space into the transcendent, the mystical, the wondrous, into the place of the soul.
And most of us read at least one of the many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. I was interested to learn that there are now over 100 different varieties of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books — for the teenaged soul, for the single soul, for the married soul, for the pet lover’s soul, for the coffee lover’s soul, well, the list just goes on and on (the only category left, it seems – and the most honest category of all — would be “Chicken Soup for the Book Publishing Industry’s Soul”).
But it is also in times of great suffering that we resort to the language of the soul. When a person is terribly brutalized, or a child is abused, or an individual is tortured, and we find ourselves doubting, deep within us, whether recovery, or healing, or joy might ever be possible, we speak of such horrific, cruel evil moments in this life as being “soul-crushing”.
What is more, the concept is not unique to any particular culture or our religion. The great thinkers in almost every religious and philosophical system have spoken of some concept that is analogous to this idea of the soul. Some define it as the living spirit, the animating force within us; some use it almost interchangeably with what might otherwise be called human consciousness; some suggest that is an essentially personal reality, unique to each individual, while others suggest that it is the great life-force, which seems personal insofar as we experience it, yet always transcends the merely individual; some suggest that it is that incorporeal essence within us that is at the root of reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thought.
And many of those systems of belief and thought, by offering guidance about the journey of the soul not only in this life, but in and through death, into the afterlife, and into eternity, reflect the belief that there is something about the soul that transcends our mere mortality.
Of course, there are those who find discussions of such intangible concepts such as the soul to be delusional and even futile, suggesting that truth is only to be found in that which can be sensed, studied and examined. Whatever life, or its essence is, should be able to be explained with reference to verifiable, biologically determined, mechanistic functions. Which may, indeed, be true – but most of us still suspect that those moments of transcendent wonder under a starry sky, or at the thrilling touch of a loved one, or in the effect of great beauty on us, or in the sense of repulsion and horror that we feel in the presence of great evil – these experiences touch something within us that involves something more than biochemical impulses and the firing of certain neural synapses. There is something else, something other, something conscious yet unknowable, something more.
And it is this “something else”, this “something other”, that Jesus was referring to when he told us that the first and greatest commandment, in this life, is that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Which means that it should not require thinkers on the cutting edges of the quest for artificial intelligence to remind us that there is something beyond the science of mind and consciousness, something that our ancestors seem to have known, something that makes us human — this something called the soul.
Praise, my soul, the king of heaven.
Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side.
Today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of Luke makes reference to this idea of the soul. Set in the precincts of the Temple, the passage begins in a conversation between Jesus and his followers, in which a celebration of the grandeur and stability of the Temple is cut short as Jesus speaks of a time when that beautiful edifice would be no more. Scholars remind us that this passage from Luke was likely written, and certainly was compiled, after the events of 70 AD, when the Temple that Jesus and his followers are talking about was, in fact, destroyed. That material building which, it was assumed, was an unassailable sign of God’s presence amongst the people, had been torn down.
But the destruction of the Temple was not the only dire prediction on Jesus’ lips. Rather, his words about false messiahs and lying leaders, nations rising against nations, about wars and conflicts, natural disasters and famines, earthquakes and diseases, persecutions and arrests – none of these words would have seemed particularly soul-stirring, at least in any positive sense.
Rather, his words described situations that might be quite soul-crushing.
And what is interesting for us to remember, these two thousand years later, is that people in every generation, every age, every era in Christian history, have found reasons to see, in these dire predictions, parallels with the experiences in their time and place.
As it with us. Watch any newscast — nations rising against nations? Check. False messiahs and lying leaders? Check. Famine, disease, persecutions, earthquakes and natural disasters, opposition? Check, check, check.
Jesus’ words describe reality as it actually is– reminding us that the world is not an easy, safe place. We might love to hear beautiful songs about how it is such a wonderful world “with friend shaking hands, saying how do you do?” but we all know that such lovely lyrics offer only one side of the story. We do live in a wonderful world that has so much potential to elevate our souls, but we also live in a cruel and difficult world in which so many human souls – including, at times, our own – can seem to get crushed.
There are experiences in life which can leave us feeling emptied and drained of any sense of life – any sense that there is anything good, beautiful, essential, enduring, worthwhile, wonderful about what it is to be alive. We all have times when our mental and biological functions might still go on, but life itself can seem drained of meaning, of vibrancy, of purpose, of hope, of possibility. Our souls can feel starved, emaciated, crushed.
And in those moments, we might even find ourselves wondering if there is any truth in that old poem that assures us that there is One who can lead us to lie down in green pastures, to lead us past quiet waters, to restore our souls.
And yet, it is this invitation that rests at the heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus clearly acknowledged that this world, and the life of faith, would not always be easy.
Life is hard.
Existence can be challenging.
But, Jesus said, even in the seemingly soul-crushing moments, do not lose heart. I have overcome the world. Do not lose hope. Do not let that which is essential within you be crushed. Do not forget who and whose you are. Do not let the brokenness, the suffering, do not let the cross, do not let the difficulties of this world define you. Because, for good or ill, it is not the circumstances of your life that make you who you truly are. You are more than the worst thing that you have ever done, and more than the worst that has been done to you. Rather, there is something deeper, something mysterious, something more within you, something that is worth preserving, something that is worth cultivating, something that is worth saving, something, said Jesus, that I am willing to die to save.
You are beings with an eternal mystery, an eternal essence, an eternal soul within you.
So remain conscious, even when you feel tempted to drift into apathy and indifference and despair. Stand tall, even when your body is being bowed in adversity. Find strength, even in moments of weakness. Trust in the power of faith, and hope and love, even when you find yourself standing in the shadow of a cross, and all hope seems lost.
And why? Because if – even in the face of life’s greatest difficulties – you can summon up the power to rely on the One who loves you, who will restore your soul, who went to the cross, and went beyond it, to let you know that you are worth it all.
You will catch sight of the power of God at work in you and on your behalf.
Because on the other side of the difficulties, on the other side of the cross, what is true, what is essential, what is real, what is life will emerge in you…by your faithful perseverance, by your humble trust, or as Jesus said at the end of this passage, “by your endurance, you will gain your soul”.
Thanks be to God.