Maybe the soul is more important than you think

From Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. 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. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations. (p. 8, from the essay “Freedom of Thought”)

According to Robinson, the human soul isn’t simply heaven-bound or hell-bound (though that remains true). The human soul is also an important thing here and now. Something to be studied, delighted in and cherished far more than it is. If anyone can do this, surely the church can.

[Aside: Robinson is one of my favorite authors, especially because of the striking beauty of Gilead. I hope to post some more thoughts from When I Was a Child soon.]


  1. Jude Barton July 17, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    I am a little flummoxed by this post. I began to think about how the bible uses the word soul and so I did a quick search. Although I didn’t do an extensive search or read through all of the hits on the word “soul”, it seems that the way it is used is to simply identify the essence of a person. It appears to me that the soul is the breath of God that breathed life into man. “Man became a living soul”.

    Do we delight in the soul and cherish the soul? I am asking myself that question. I am not sure I understand the intention of Robinson or this comment. My concern is the cult of personality and potentially ascribing a casual meaning to the word. Not that we should not or would not delight in and cherish the unique lives of our brothers and sisters, and praise God for their souls. I am thinking that our souls are profound and incomprehensible. It is the very imprint of God and it is our souls that perceive the Holy Spirit and our souls that experience the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

    I think that modern discourse is uncomfortable with the word “soul” is because we do not meditate deeply on the imprint of God on our lives.

    We do not cherish and delight in the soul because we do not love God. We do not acknowledge and cherish the soul of our brothers and sisters because we do not love God.

    I am reluctant to use the word “soul” as a way to describe a personality or bent that a person has or even his or her gifts. It bothers me a bit. I am not sure if I am misreading the author’s intent. I do agree however that it is the soul that provides the “felt experience of life” but I would take care not to ascribe meaning to the word that might diminish it in some way.

    In what way would you propose that we meditate upon cherishing and studying the soul? I am having a little trouble framing this issue with any precision.

    Jude Barton

    • Jared Olivetti July 17, 2012 at 8:59 am #


      Thanks so much for your comments. Actually, I’m pretty much on the same page about “framing this issue with any precision.” As I was reading Robinson’s essay last night, this quote struck me and I’m still wrestling through what it might look like for the church to value the soul beyond seeing it as an on/off switch for salvation.

      Robinson herself speaks more poetically than precisely about what the word “soul” means (to her). Your take on the Bible’s use of soul as the “essence of the person” seems pretty accurate to me. The Hebrew word “nephesh” can be translated “heart” or “soul” or “life” depending on the context…so “essence” seems to sum it up nicely.

      More than anything, my sense is this has to do with learning to truly value people, body and soul. A few paragraphs later in the essay, the author takes a trip around the universe, marveling at all God has made, but ends up returning to the wonder of the soul as the highest wonder of God’s creation.

      All that to say… being flummoxed seems like a pretty good place to start.

      In Christ,

  2. alcoramdeo July 19, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    This brief post was a great introduction to the ensuing conversation between Jude and Jared, which is far more inspiring, challenging, comforting and reassuring than the post itself. Thank you both.

  3. Daniel Carr July 20, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    It seems possible to me that some of the discomfort over the word “soul” is that we have a hard time defining it. Given, we may loosely define “soul” as the essence of a person; but what does that mean? We Reformed Presbyterians clearly believe that man has a dual rather than a triune nature (i.e. man consists of body and spirit, not body and spirit and soul); and this is a belief that I readily accept. But this does not clear up all questions. Is it possible for us as Christians to slight the soul while (at the same time) paying due respect to the body and to the spirit? Why/why not/how? Why does Jonathan Edwards seem to use the word “soul” as synonymous with “spirit”? Was he correct? In short, how does the existence of the soul actually impact the Christian faith?

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