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“Life That Is Not Yet Caught Up In Grace”

September 28, 2010

During this past Sunday’s “God of Dirt” discussion, we read a Mary Oliver poem that challenged us about whether grass and animals and rocks and the oceans each have a soul. Some said no, not in their understanding of the word, “soul”–how could grass have a soul when it has no consciousness? Others thought yes, each piece of God’s creation has a soul.

And that conversation led to the question of what is ultimately meant by the word, “soul.” Having just looked the word up in my Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, I see that the traditional Hebrew notion of the soul, as recorded in the older volumes of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) is that it stood for the full “unity of a human person” in relation to God. As Notre Dame New Testament Professor Jerome Neyrey (the writer of that particular HCBD entry) puts it, “Hebrew [souls] were living bodies, they did not have bodies.” Later, however, the dichotomy of soul versus body, peculiar to ancient Greek thought began to permeate our scripture, appearing first in the Song of Solomon. That Greek understanding of “an immortal soul different in kind from the mortal body” is not really evident in the New Testament, but it seems to have influenced the early Christians enough to inform their vision of eternal life, as set down in our Gospels. Luke, in particular, refers to the soul as the form of a person’s existence after death.

As Professor Neyrey writes, summarizing his reading of the New Testament witness: “‘soul’ means life that is not yet caught up in grace.” I like that. It does nothing to clear up our question about whether elements of Creation other than humans have souls, but I like that particular formulation. And personally, I’d like to believe that the phrase “life that is not yet caught up in grace” describes everything in the universe.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy Terwilliger permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:47 pm

    I missed this Sunday’s discussion re “The God of Dirt,” but would like to share with you my experience of the manifestation of God within the Franciscan tradition. Years ago my affinity for nature led me to the poems of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic, which in turn led me to the writings of Michael Fox, a former Benedictine priest. My understanding of Fox’s writing in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and The Original Blessing was that all of creation is a manifestation of Christ.

    My spiritual director, Sr. Regina Kane, a member of the Allegany Franciscans who run the Franciscan Center in Tampa and one of the founding mothers of St. Anthony’s and St. Joseph’s hospitals, served as my guide as I navigated through these books and related readings from scripture. Regina told me that she too believed that all of creation is a manifestation of Christ and that that belief was part of the Franciscan tradition. I remember telling her that traditional Japanese Shintoism taught that everything in the natural world has a spirit—rocks, trees, mountains, animals all have spirits. I asked her if Fox’s Creation Spirituality was pantheistic. She said, “No, Creation Spirituality is panentheistic. A definition of panentheism is a belief system that posits that God interpenetrates all creation and extends beyond all that is created. I suppose that includes all animals.

    My actual experience of the presence of God in nature happened during the week long silent retreats I attended at the Franciscan Center. Interestingly enough, when I was on retreat, Regina would tell me to close my mouth, to put away my books and to sit in silence under a tree by the river and wait and listen for the quiet voice of God.

  2. C.A. Child permalink
    September 28, 2010 10:16 pm

    That discussion on the meaning of “soul”is interesting, but then what exactly is “grace” or “caught up in”?

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