I have a family member – let’s call him Kenneth – who suffers from manic depression, with a few more disorders thrown in. He was middle aged before these problems were diagnosed, and so he’s had most of his life to get used to them. For the past decade he’s suffered through different regimes of medication in the hopes of getting stabilized.
During one period where Kenneth was dealing with issues from his medications, we were both involved in a conversation about the afterlife. After a couple go-rounds about heaven, reincarnation and the soul, Kenneth said, “There is no soul. It’s all just chemistry.”
Kenneth acknowledges that his experience with medication led him to that conclusion: a sprinkle of lithium and he’s a different person. Our emotions, personalities and all the rest of the mental furniture that we think of when we try to define a person all change with different concentrations of chemicals.
All of this leads to sticky questions about what people mean when they use the word “soul.”
Body, Soul and Mind
Pullquote: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Like most Americans, I suspect my understanding of heaven comes from New Yorker cartoons more than systematic theology. Still, here it goes: heaven is the place where our souls go when we die. In other words, where we go when we die. We will all be standing around in the clouds, carrying the memories of our time on earth, and still be basically the same people we were while alive.
So it’s not surprising that we tend to equate soul and mind; that is, the soul contains all those mental facilities like memory and thought that make up who we are. This soul isn’t something like the Hindu concept of the atman, the part of us that continues on after our death but which contains none of ourselves.
The thought of something surviving our deaths that lacks our personalities and memories – something that is not us – is uninspiring. Why struggle so that something other than ourselves can live on in paradise? The soul must be us, yet immaterial and spiritual, so that it might continue after our physical bodies die.
But that leads to problems with Kenneth’s insight. Anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness knows that it is a material problem that can be traced to the structure or chemistry of the brain. It responds to chemical drugs better than spiritual practices. But if our minds are our physical brains, where does that leave the soul?
To gain the world but lose your mind …
Pullquote: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”.
Basically, our tendency to equate mind with soul leads to a problem once we witness the physical basis of our minds. How can our squishy mortal brains live on after our death? One solution actually comes from St. Paul, who was looking for a solution to another knotty problem.
In regards to the afterlife, Christianity primarily drew from two source: the Jews, who tended to believe that life after death meant a physical resurrection of the body, and Greek philosophers like the “middle Platonists,” who argued for an immortal spiritual soul and denigrated the material body. Obviously, these two ideas would come into conflict.
We can see this most clearly in 1st & 2nd Corinthians, where Paul seems to be arguing with people who do not believe in a physical resurrection. The Middle Platonists couldn’t accept a resurrection that left the soul “trapped” in the body, while more Jewish Christians like Paul couldn’t accept the complete loss of the body.
The compromise that Paul works out is that upon resurrection we would be given a new body. Yes, this temporary earthly body — this “tent” — is flawed and unpleasant, but our heavenly body — a real “building” — is wonderful and waiting for us after this life. The idea of the body and soul bound together was maintained, but the Platonists could be consoled in that we are to leave this earthly body behind.
Perhaps this sidesteps the problem. Maybe the soul is both software and hardware, but we have the option of upgrading. People have had a lot of fun imagining what those perfect heavenly bodies might be like. I’ve heard modern evangelical preachers go on about how these bodies will be beautiful, they’ll all be thin, and all our physical ailments will be healed. But what about our mental ailments?
It seems nonsensical to suggest that residents of heaven will still suffer from schizophrenia, manias and other problems. Perhaps the easiest answer would be to say that new bodies will include new minds without the old problems, but this is altogether too facile. Kenneth’s manic depression is part of him, and has been part of him for decades. Take it away, and he’s not the same person.
And for that matter, what about me? I’m twitchy, moody and introverted. None of these problems interfere with my ability to function (much), but the line between mental illness and personality problem can get fuzzy. Would my “new mind” fix these issues? But if so, what remains of me?
Sometimes it seems that many forms of Christianity are still trying come to terms with evolution. If so, they’re likely to be left behind as we now try to grapple with the mysteries of the human brain. Because if a religion cannot produce an answer to Kenneth’s experiences, then I don’t know that there’s any hope for it.