The Nature of the Soul

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

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I went to a rather traditional boarding school for my high school years. Think Harry Potter and Hogwarts, without the sorcery, but with eccentric teachers and capacious Gothic dining hall heavy with large Victorian portraits.

Of the many eccentric teachers, one that stood out was a physics teacher who I shall call Mr. Palmer, largely because that was his name.

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Mr. Palmer had an enormous and powerful BMW motorbike which he bought brand new and kept in a garage next to the school gym. From day one he liked nothing better than to take it completely to bits, surrounded by a forest of bolts and springs and so on. Although I can honestly say that I had no part in this activity, I do remember some of my compadres walking past and helping themselves to a handful of these presumably vital pieces yet, time and again, Mr. Palmer managed to put the thing back together and it seemed to work just fine. I have always wondered how he managed to do it.

One of Mr. Palmer’s weirdest traits was that he refused to appear in any school photos and I remember him telling a few of us – in response to his non-appearance – that he believed that having one’s photo taken took away a part of one’s soul. Interestingly, the notion that the soul could be subdivided is a major theme in Harry Potter, since the whole premise of the books is that the antagonist, Voldemort, has defied death by splitting up his soul and, having stored all the bits in various places is now trying to collect them all up again to reunite them in a new host body. I love the Harry Potter books, by the way.

Anyhow, back to Mr. Palmer and his belief that that having one’s photo taken took away a part of one’s soul. 

I remember actually thinking rather deeply about this idea at the time. It is certainly an interesting one, and more widespread an idea than one might imagine to be the case. In the end I couldn’t really agree with the concept, but it made me more aware than I had been about the idea of dualism – a key part of philosophical theology – which puts forward the view that the created world is separate and distinct from the Kingdom of God and, in its most basic form says that the material realm is evil, and in continual opposition to the spiritual realm of God.

This might sound like rather arcane theological banter, the kind of stuff that seminarians enjoy throwing around, but it is crucially important.

There is a tradition of Christian thought – again, very widespread – that says that we, as Christians, should be in the world, but not of the world. I would like to place it on the record that I couldn’t agree less with this point of view.

I, rather, would want to suggest that the created world is infinitely precious to God, and of great value, and capable of great goodness. When we know that we are made in God’s image and likeness, this means not only in spirit but in flesh, as well. God himself came to this world in flesh – he took our human form, our human nature. He was one of us, with all that it means to be human – with all of its frailties, and temptations and messiness.

Yes, being flesh and blood – as we are – is messy, and difficult and at times painful and even agonizing. And God chose to take on this nature and go through all of that messiness and pain and agony alongside us, and for us. It means that God is not just over us and above us as King, but alongside us and walking with us as our sibling.

 'The Harrowing of Hell' from Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey

'The Harrowing of Hell' from Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey

This is why when Jesus was resurrected from the dead – when he rose from the grave and tore open the clutches of death – it was vital that he did so in fully human form. To be resurrected in fully human form says something really powerful about the importance of the created world – it says that it is important, and valuable and that our flesh and blood is cherished by God and worth caring about.

And this is why Jesus goes to such lengths in our Gospel reading today to make the point that he is resurrected in both soul and body. That’s why, in last week’s gospel reading he invites the apostle Thomas to poke his finger in his torn torso, and in today’s gospel reading says to the apostles, “yes, guys, it’s really me – I’m not just an apparition, a figment of your imagination, a ghost – it’s really, really me – human Jesus, the guy you knew who hung out with you and ate dinner with you and had cocktails with the tax collectors and feared for his very life in the Garden of Gethsemane". I paraphrase somewhat. And this is why Jesus goes to such lengths to have a piece of broiled fish, and to eat – because he’s human, and humans need to eat, unlike specters and apparitions.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he reclaimed from the power of death and hell not only our spiritual souls, but our earthly bodies, too. Because both our souls and our bodies are from God, and of God, and capable of good, and something to be valued and treasured.

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The phrase ‘My body is a temple’ has been hijacked by cheesy yoga advertising and organic digestive cleansing programs. Let’s take back that phrase as something much more than that ephemeral stuff – let’s see both our bodies and our souls as holy places created by God, and conduits of goodness.

In the end, then, the reason that I couldn’t agree with Mr. Palmer’s view about photographs and his idea that they erode the soul is that our souls are given to us by God whole and perfect and nothing can change that. They are the gift from God that, when all is said and done, make us who we are. Our bodies are imperfect and they decline and they perish, but the soul endures for ever, consistent, enduring, and a gift from God. And even though I ended up not agreeing with Mr. Palmer, the fact that he was thinking deeply about his spiritual well-being did leave an impression on me. I think we could all learn to think more deeply about our spiritual health, just as we think deeply about our mental health and our physical health.
 

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