On a summer's Saturday morning in Pasadena, more than ten years ago, my ten-year-old son Andrew and I, as was our custom, walked downtown, where our first stop was Stottlemyre's: ice cream for Andrew, coffee for me, cookies for us both. Then a half-block down Colorado Boulevard to Bungalow News, where we checked the comics to see if there was a new installment of Donald Duck or Uncle Scrooge. Next across the street to Vroman's Bookstore, a Pasadena institution, for a quick look: had anything of interest arrived since our last visit? And finally, just down the street from Vroman's, to the House of Fiction, where our friend Bill Tunilla presided.
Here we stayed for a while: I in a battered easy chair, talking books and baseball with Bill; Andrew roving among the boxes draped with dirty blankets, woolen sweaters, and old sweatshirts, the teetering stacks of books waiting to be priced. After an hour or so, we set off for home, stopping at Rick's for a bag of french fries to share as we walked and talked. I mentioned to Andrew that I'd noticed a couple of books in Vroman's with "soul" in the title—not in the religion section (where we rarely looked anyway; here Vroman's was no match for the riches of the Fuller Seminary Bookstore) but on the table of new nonfiction. That was surprising: that "soul" suddenly had a certain cachet.
Andrew said he had wondered a good deal about the soul: what was it? His question shouldn't have taken me by surprise—by the time they are ten, children have started to wrestle with most of the essential metaphysical questions—but it did. I don't remember what I said then, and Andrew may well have forgotten the conversation altogether, but afterward I was dissatisfied.
* * *
In the years since that walk, spanning the last decade of the twentieth century and taking us into the twenty-first, the nature of the soul hasn't changed a whit, but the context for talk about the soul has altered considerably. First, we are by now awash in such talk. If, a decade ago, it was surprising to see the company "soul" was keeping, the novelty has long since worn off, and we greet Thomas Moore's latest production, The Soul of Sex, with a shrug. Still, the books with "soul" in the title keep on coming: Questions for the Soul,Games for the Soul,Soul Work: A Guide for Spiritual Seekers,Finding Your Way Home: A Soul Survival Kit (the last by Melody Beattie, who made codependence a household word), and so on, ad nauseum.
The same period has seen an explosion of scholarly interest in "consciousness." There is a vast and steadily growing literature in the field of consciousness studies, ranging from specialized work in neuroscience to boldly ambitious overviews such as Daniel Dennett's modestly titled bestseller, Consciousness Explained. Sometimes implicitly but often explicitly, the literature of consciousness impinges on our understanding of the soul. Indeed, many scholars confidently assert that we have learned enough about the brain to dispense with the notion of the soul once and for all.
Oddly, while all of this has been going on, the church hasn't paid much attention. Sometimes it seems as if everyone but the church is talking about the soul. In the last ten years I have heard more than 500 sermons. They've covered an enormously wide range of subjects, and they've been full of good teaching, but not a single one of them has attempted to define the soul in biblical terms. Christian scholarship has a better record. Some valuable books have probed the concept of the soul from perspectives informed by biblical studies, theology, philosophy, and neuroscience. But welcome as these books are, their existence chiefly signifies how much more needs to be done.
Well, the reader may be inclined to say, that is too bad. Someone should attend to that. But compared to the really significant issues the church is facing, it sounds pretty marginal, pretty academic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Impending developments in neuroscience, genetics, reproductive technology, and other fields, combined with already existing realities (abortion on demand, for instance, and the growing acceptance of euthanasia), are converging to pose daunting challenges to our sense of what it means to be a human being—what it means to have or be a living soul.
What sort of challenges? You don't have look far. For starters, simply read the science section of the New York Times every Tuesday. The front page for October 20, 1998, for instance, featured a story by Nicholas Wade headlined "Human or Chimp? 50 Genes are the Key." The article began thus:
Theologians may ponder the difference between God and the creature made in His image, but biologists have always asked a humbler question: How do humans differ from other animals? A proposal now under active discussion promises to provide an answer of possibly disconcerting precision.
The idea is to identify the genes that are special to humans by sequencing the genome, or full DNA, of the chimpanzee and comparing it with the human genome.
Wade goes on to speak both of the possible benefits of such research (including medical benefits; the scientists already engaged in this comparative work are studying chimpanzees' greater resistance to AIDS) and of ethical concerns: "the temptation to engineer more human humans through enhanced versions of the specially human genes, and the ethical problems inherent in trying to test the role of these genes by inserting them into chimpanzees."
The prospect of "more human humans" is indeed unsettling. And those enhanced specimens will surely share the planet with a number of less human humans, will they not?
From this article and thousands of others like it, reporting on the work of scientists and biotech entrepreneurs around the world, we can glimpse possible futures: not in detail or depth—such knowledge is not granted to us—but in rough outlines. No tabloid-style whoppers needed; the plain facts are more than enough.
The announcement, two weeks ago, of the first cloned human embryos shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading the newspaper or watching the news. It is long past time for the church to catch up.
John Wilsonis editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.