[asa] Life, soul/spirit and stewardship; a tension [spawned by Event or process revisited]

From: Jim Armstrong <jarmstro@qwest.net>
Date: Sat May 19 2007 - 16:10:41 EDT

I appreciate this thoughtful post.

In some ways, it almost seems like a fools errand (too strong a term, I
confess) to expect to bring real precision to the definition to soul and
spirit since they are virtually axiomatically "other" that that which
lends itself to direct and observable interaction. The understandable
focal impetus for most (all?) participants here is the language of
scripture, and yet those same broad notions arise elsewhere out of other
thought and traditions.

But at the core, they remain ways of accounting for thought and
experience that as a minimum appears to transcend that for which we have
rational and material explanation. And, my sense is that even the
writers of Scripture were constrained to offer explanations within the
framework of language and concepts of the time. The matter of
inspiration of Scripture leaves open the question of intentional or
default "fuzziness" of the implicit definitions offered therein. But at
the end of the day, we really don't know much about soul and spirit. We
don't even know if sour and spirit are even distinctly different
"things", or different aspects of the same "thing", ...and some of
course even question their reality at all.

But in the background, there seems to always be the virtually
irresistable compulsion to distinguish ourselves meaningfully from other
creatures. Witness the idea of declaring things natural versus man-made,
for example. The idea of living on past death in some way is certainly
appealing, but it sure seems an indeterminate question as to whether
this is an inevitable extension of the sense of self, or arises through
a vague sensing of something which lies just beyond our (present?)
capability to engage as we do our other senses. The possession of
soul/spirit offers one way to try to distinguish ourselves from other
living creatures. But some difficulties offer themselves, and upon
reflection even humble us. We don't even pretend to have an
understanding of how dogs and cats that are lost can find their
displaced owners, so it would seem sort of presumptuous to think we can
define with certainty the division between man and other creatures in
terms of what assets we may or may not have.

There is, of course, the language of Scripture to consider. God
"breathes" the breath of life into us; Scripture separately mentions the
creation of Adam and Eve; and there is the matter of, "image of God".
Traditionally there has been a continuing effort to use these
descriptions to "distinctify" man from the other creations. And yet, I
question (at least at times) whether we are justified in making such
distinctions. More and more, we seem to be discovering ways in which we
are more closely related in the physical domain to our fellow creatures
than to the contrary. Our biology is more akin to our fellow creatures
than we once thought. Many of the behavioral distinctions seem to be
melting away [just google the terms "bonobo" and "vocabulary"]. The
pattern seems to be more one of degree, but who can say with certainty
how this carries over into the little-understood realm of spirit/soul.

Increasingly, I seem to be drawn to a creational notion that John Walton
(among others) attribute to early Hebrews. He describes the creational
process as not "ex nihilo", but as (a) a gathering of a portion in
something in the Creator's domain of existence from a state of chaos to
one of order, (2) a fashioning of this something so as to serve a
function or purpose, and (3) a giving of a name. This relegates to
relative irrelevancy the "how" problems that attend the normal
discussion of Creation in light of the Scripture, changing them into
explanations of "why" (purpose). In the present discussion, this appeals
to me because it suggests that the endowing of soul/spirit in man may be
more about what he has the capacity to do and be, than about how man is
in any other way different from other creatures. It's about stewardship.
It's about mindedness, not configuration.

This has a number of immediate consequences. One is to diminish any
sense of difference in worth among the various (living?) forms within
Divinity's Creation. Another is that the distinctives of man have to do
with our purpose in Creation, rather than any specifics of our substance
or nature. This implies that the way a particular attribute came about
in man, or whether it is unique in man, is not particularly important,
except as it might teach something about how the Creator set Creation in
motion to do what was intended, and thereby also perhaps teach a little
something more about the nature of the Creator him/herself. In this
view, there should be no distress in finding (or conceptualizing) that
what we describe as soul/spirit unfolded or developed over time. Rather
it is important to explore what we can do for it in the context of the
Designer's apparent purpose. At the least, we should care for Creation
while we continue to explore how to discern the intent and purpose
embodied in us. But as we do that, we observe the pattern of constantly
evolving creation about us, at all dimensional scales of existence.
Based on that alone, it seems to me to be presumptuous to assert with
certainty that man's spirit/soul is a static thing, and not at least
possibly an attribute emergent over time within Creation. And just
possibly, it remains a dynamic thing, with us only seeing and
experiencing it in mid-flower.

George, as an aside, I wonder if the imputing of intent and purpose into
a sentient possibility-suffused living creature does not make something
divine resident therein - the accompanying question of course being
whether the demarcation between divine and "other" might be somewhat

To return to Don's post, the abortion and life-sustaining issues are
recent arrivals in the purview of our distinctly-human "have dominion"
charter. It is pretty clear that as we gain understanding of the
mechanisms of life, and how to extend it, we are in uncharted waters.
You have mentioned a couple of the exquisite tensions that are new to
us. Both mothers in my family died in hospice, one in our home. My
father was six months short of 100 when he quietly slipped away
concluding a mercifully small period of diminishing capability and
awareness. My dad had thoughtfully left medical instructions, and yet,
in the press of a couple of emergencies, we later realised that we had
unwittingly thwarted his instructions (regarding IV antibiotics). He too
had left "no heroic interventions" instruction, so all in all I very
much identify with the thoughts you expressed.

Having dealt face to face with some of those places where issues of life
transform into conscious choices, I have in due course given serious
thought to my own instructions. The process inevitably confronts me with
some of the questions you have evidently wrestled with. They are tough,
and in the light of experience, the lines one must consider continue to
resolutely defy sharp definition. Increasingly, I'm not even sure we
have always set the "heroic interventions" cursor at the right place on
the continuum. Perhaps more precisely, I'm not so sure that our
operational definition of "heroic interventions" always best honors the
real intent and wishes of the loved one.

But this one perspective at least has emerged for me of late: physical
life seems to be ultimately more important to me than it is in the large
picture of the Creator. I know that much of Christendom has the sense
that death was an artifact of a corrupted physical Creation. But I am
persuaded (in a nutshell) that nothing as small as one choice of one
man, on one planet of one mediochre sun, far from the center of a
mediochre galaxy, far from the center of an absolutely unfathomably
immense universe, has the power to corrupt the perfect and surpassingly
powerful intent of the Creator in any such way. Moreover, life as we
know it, seems to be dependent on death in so many ways and forms that
dying seems to be inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Creation.
In short, we could not be here nor continue exist without death.

I am persuaded that the way we view and deal with natural end-of-life
matters will evolve significantly, most markedly from generation to
generation, out of necessity. Already, we are experiencing increasing
recognition of personal dignity and reluctant acknowledgment of the
limitations of societal resources. Though it is increasingly becoming
possible, we simply cannot in reality spend every penny of available
resources on extension of life or body repair (preventative or
otherwise) that knowledge and capability increasingly offers us. We will
increasingly have to deal individually, corporately, and societally with
conscious choices that are distinctly unpalatable to us today. And we in
this present company will have to find a way to reconcile these choices
with what we understand about our Maker and His intent.

Much of the same can be said about the beginnings of life, again as our
capabilities continue to grow. We will absolutely have to come to a
different place than we are now in our unrationalized positions with
respect to initiating new life, and making choices about survival in
early stages of development, and even altering the genetic heritage of
developing life. Given the increasing abilities we acquiring, we have
the responsibility for sorting out a rationale for how to bring new
benefit, yet without violating what we understand about our Creator and
His purpose.

In this light, one observation has been a strong and recent influence on
my own only slightly organized and thoroughly unreconciled thinking, and
that is the natural attrition that occurs in the "natural" world.
Briefly, there is substantial attrition in the early stages of
development of human life (for example). A great many developing human
organisms just do not make the grade, for a variety of reasons. Prior to
the creation of a fertilized cell, many germinal cells both female and
male just disintegrate along with their complete roadmaps for a
potential human being. We can now increasingly effectively identify
genetic defects both before conception, and very early in pregnancy,
defects that range from mild impairment to lethal and everything in

We are accordingly faced increasingly with the ubiquitous and booming
ethical/moral question, "Because we can, should we?" To complicate
matters, there are very large mercy and redemptive elements in many of
these considerations, and at the worst, the choice is among
merciful/redemptive alternatives. We cannot make these choices go away,
only have more of them. Now that these choices increasingly intrude into
the sacred area of life itself, we are faced with not only having the
capability to make decisions that feel God-like, but in many cases we
suddenly do not even have the choice whether to make such a decision.
It's really uncomfortable! But it won't go away, and it is a new dilemma
only in its particulars.

No matter what I do in pondering these matters, I seem to keep banging
up against the same problem, a space taking shape where I have to
acknowledge and respond to a reality that we cannot have it both ways.
We cannot have and exercise many of the benefits of (predominantly
biological/medical) knowledge we have unavoidably gained while at the
same time maintaining the simple sanctity of life and spirit/soul
visions that most of us have lived with for so long. That's a BIG problem.

At the end of the day, we don't know much about the soul/spirit. We
don't even know with any certainty when such a thing becomes a
companion/component of the physical body. Similarly, we don't quite have
a handle on what happens at death of the physical body. That suggests
that we need to be very thoughtful indeed about how we shape responses
to these new and very real and pressing alternatives around these
little-understood attributes of humanity.

I infer some important attributes of the Creator from the Creation.
Creation is immense, implying power and purpose most of which is beyond
my ken.
We have ration and curiosity, a purposeful gift I attribute to the
intent of the Creator.
The complement to ration and curiosity is remarkably an orderly and
progressively disclosing universe, from which I infer an intent for us
to progressively understand both Creation and Creator.
We have the capacity to dream and bring into being that which has not
and could otherwise exist, at minimum an echo of the creative power and
impulse of the Creator.
As the dominant creatures, we have the attendant responsibility to do
that well, in a context of our best understanding of the Creator's
purpose embodied in us.
We are able to communicate powerfully with one another through a variety
of forms of language. I infer that communication, to the extent we are
able, with the Creator is desired.

In trying to reach some better understanding of our stewardship of life,
I began trying to rethink along the lines suggested by the ancient
Hebrew concept of the Creation process.
In short, that seemed to suggest to me the honoring of the existence and
intent and potential in life, but perhaps not so much its specifics per se.
I inevitably thought of a couple of Native American perspectives.
All living things are honored, particularly (for example) at the point
where a life is necessarily taken for sustenance.
And yet, there is little felt need to defend with all vigor and
resources against death when the ravages of age or disability begin to
conclude their natural course.

To borrow an elegant concept from our driver licensing programs, perhaps
we would benefit by thinking more of life as a privilege, not a right.
Perhaps honor, mercy and redemption (in its many diverse forms) need to
be pushed more to the forefront in formulating our responses to the new
understandings and opportunities that accompany biological/medical
Though those considerations may from time to time weigh against life
itself, we have always held that the purpose of God is more important
than life itself.
The difficulty as always is in discerning that purpose in some
situations, but as stewards we are not exempt from such difficulty,
especially in a dynamic world like our own.
Given the mounting difficulties/opportunities of the day, it appears
that it is required that we make some thoughtful adjustments in the way
we assimilate and implement the instruction and example of Scripture in
our lives.
I'm afraid we must face up to an unsettlingly reality in which this need
for adjustment applies to the nature and purpose and instantiation of
life itself.
We are understood to be stewards, and that implies thoughtful response
and adjustment to new situations as they arise, whether difficult or
not. (I guess that's what puts the "stew" in stewardship.)

Given that, two things (at least) are apparent.
Meaningful discussion continues to be required.
Diversity in perspectives are inevitable. That means that good people
are going to come to different conclusions based on their axioms. Within
the kingdom (and as a model for the rest of the world), Christians need
to find some way of living in a world (along with people who inhabit it)
in some form of respectful tension when the conclusions and decisions of
individuals and groups are at odds with our own.

It is wonderful to have fora like the ASA listserver to facilite the former.
It is similarly wonderful to be able to use the forum to acknowledge the
inevitable diversity and explore ways to accommodate and honor that
It is a microcosm of the same tensions and needs of the larger world in
those respects.

Much of this has been quasi stream-of-consciousness, relatively
unfiltered, so I plead for understanding and mercy in any response you
may have to these musings.


Don Winterstein wrote:

> Two of my motives for developing the attached views of soul evolution
> were 1) animals in many ways are similar to humans and 2) a world
> created by a spiritual being should be spiritual in one way or
> another. The world would be kind of spiritual if entities at all
> levels in the hierarchy of being had souls. I had other motives,
> including a need that these views not conflict either with biblical
> teachings or findings of science. The resulting ideas fit nicely into
> a rational view of the world created by and for God.
> Studies of animal psychology and animal intelligence have advanced
> to a point where one can say there appears to be nothing in humans
> that does not manifest itself in at least some small way in one kind
> of animal or another. Certain animals can think logically, use tools,
> use language, etc. So we who believe humans have souls must ask
> whether animals have them also. To me a soul is almost equivalent--if
> not exactly equivalent--to the capacity to be simultaneously the
> perceiver and the perceived. In other words, a being that has
> self-awareness has a soul. Only if an entity can become aware of
> itself can it become aware of others; only if it can be aware of
> itself can it acknowledge and perceive God. Otherwise it's just a
> programmed computer attached to sensory and motor devices.
> One view of animal behavior is that it's the result of the animal's
> computer program built into its genes. Behaviorism early in the last
> century in fact attempted to demonstrate that even in humans behavior
> caused thoughts and emotions rather than vice versa. If the
> intestines churned in a particular way, one would experience the
> corresponding emotion. And thought is incipient speech. An
> alternative view--one I espouse--is that much of animal behavior is
> motivated by self-awareness: Insects flee for safety not necessarily
> because they've been programmed to do so, but because they recognize a
> threat to their existence as individuals. Every form of animal life
> that has the ability to do so will try to save itself when
> threatened. Even clams dig like crazy to escape perceived threats.
> If an animal tries to save itself when threatened, let's assume it's
> aware of a self that needs to be saved and hence has a soul. If some
> living creatures have souls, why not all? Where would you draw the
> line? Since we want souls to exist, and since no one can prove
> otherwise, let's assume entities at every level of the hierarchy of
> being have souls. Souls at the higher levels in some instances are
> ueber-souls built up out of souls at lower levels. That's one
> consequence of evolution.
> Jack asks about mercy killing, etc., and David about abortion.
> Because of dementia my mother at age 90 was largely not there. I felt
> most of her had died long before. But I had no way of knowing what
> was there. In her right mind she may well have preferred death to
> that kind of existence, and her humanity may well have decayed to
> something below higher mammals--that is, her human soul may already
> have departed. But I could never have consented to mercy killing. I
> wouldn't have known for sure: Did her many failed capacities indicate
> soul absence or a soul simply incapable of expressing itself?
> The question of killing a mature human body that, because of
> damage, may not still have a human soul is one that must take into
> account more than whether or not the body has a human soul. There are
> cultural and social considerations. That said, in the absence of
> compelling reasons to the contrary, I'd have no qualms about removing
> "heroic" life support systems of bodies for which the best medical
> opinion is that there's no chance of recovery.
> As for abortion, it happens. I think the views presented here allow
> people to deal more reasonably with that distasteful reality than does
> the RC assertion that the full human soul exists in the fertilized
> human egg. Of course, no one wants to disrupt God's special plans for
> the world. No one would want to abort Jesus' fetus or that of a
> prophet. But there's no way you can be sure you're not inadvertently
> impeding God's plans. You can, however, trust that his plans are
> sufficiently robust to get around any impediments you may set up.
> Don
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Don Winterstein <mailto:dfwinterstein@msn.com>
> To: asa@calvin.edu <mailto:asa@calvin.edu> ; Carol or John
> Burgeson <mailto:burgytwo@juno.com>
> Sent: Wednesday, May 16, 2007 2:55 AM
> Subject: [asa] Event or process revisited
> Burgy wrote: ...I do not argue any..position other than one of
> seriously considering all options.
> For many reasons I take seriously the possibility that the human
> soul evolved stepwise continuously from lesser souls all the way
> down. Such soul evolution holds that the emergence of the human
> soul involved both a series of processes and a series of events.
> "Soul phylogeny" and "soul ontogeny" both involve such series.
> Human soul phylogeny refers to the emergence of the human soul
> from animal souls, where those animal souls in turn emerged
> earlier from souls of lesser animals and before that from souls of
> single living cells, and so on. Human soul ontogeny refers to the
> emergence of the human soul in the womb from the fertilized egg.
> The processes of this evolution consist of the activities leading
> up to the events. An event is the formation of a higher new soul
> through unification of lesser component souls. The activities
> leading up to an event would be those that physically prepare the
> component souls for unification. For example, in order to form
> the soul of a living cell from organic chemicals, it is first
> necessary to bring together all the component chemicals that go
> into the cell. Once these are properly arranged and fitted
> together, the cell emerges as more than the sum of its components;
> it gains a soul. In higher forms of life, the processes would not
> involve assembly of diverse components so much as enhanced
> unification and integration of diverse components. Enhanced
> unification in mammals presumably comes largely through brain
> enhancements.
> To my mind the best analogy for the event of soul formation is
> what happens when an insight pops into the mind: Before the
> insight, one immerses oneself in all the details of the problem,
> but how the details fit together is elusive until the instant of
> insight. Likewise, when a soul forms, all the necessary
> hardware has been put in place, and at some felicitous point the
> soul simply pops into existence; the physical components go
> collectively to a state of new and higher awareness under the
> aegis of the new soul.
> The highest levels of consciousness result from the fullest
> possible unification of many parts having great diversity. Soul
> is not equivalent to consciousness but is closely related, and
> high consciousness cannot exist without an appropriately advanced
> soul. (That's what I assert, anyway.)
> This model of soul evolution is relevant to the question of
> abortion, whether and when: The human fertilized egg does indeed
> have a human soul, but it's a soul far less advanced than that of
> any adult mammal. As the fetus grows, it forms successively more
> advanced souls until it reaches a point where it becomes the kind
> of person that I believe God has an interest in saving eternally.
> I don't believe God has any long-term interest in fertilized human
> eggs or microscopic embryos.
> (Is this any sillier than what's been handed down to us from the
> philosophers? IMO it's less silly.)
> Don

To unsubscribe, send a message to majordomo@calvin.edu with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sat May 19 16:11:15 2007

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sat May 19 2007 - 16:11:15 EDT