The Reality of the Soul and its Implications

order, design, creation, intelligibility

To my mind, the hardest evangelical question to answer is, “Why should I join the Catholic Church?” This question would not be quite as difficult to answer if it came from a fellow religious person. I would at least share a common belief with a Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or Hindu etc., that this world does not contain all that there is; there is a purpose of life that does not issue forth from this world, but from another realm. However, the question seems to take on more complexity when uttered by a person lacking all supernatural belief (in the philosophical/theological and not the popular sense).

Imagine a woman who is good to her family and friends, kind with her enemies, and honest in her actions, and yet is entirely nonreligious. Indeed, I myself, and I’m sure a number of you, can think of many such people. Someone like this seems to be asking, “What benefit will Catholicism bring to my life that I do not already possess and of which I am in need?” The difficulty lies in explaining to such a person how her life, albeit morally fit and comfortable, is still lacking in something(s) crucially important and necessary. What is lacking in such people, it seems to me, is a recognition of the fact that they have a soul and are not entirely physical beings. How then, does someone come to recognize that she is not just material but spiritual as well?

More Than Matter

I have touched on the philosophical arguments for the soul’s existence in a previous column. What I want to focus on here are more experiential and practical reasons to believe in the existence of the soul. We know fairly well about the capacities and properties of matter in its myriad forms. Planets orbit according to fixed laws, energy follows the laws of thermodynamics, all types of vegetation flourish according to the laws of biology, and animals too blossom according to the laws of biochemistry and rudimentary psychology. However, appeals to such laws and mechanistic explanations cannot entirely encompass a full explanation of the life of any human being. To be sure, we are physical creatures and we violate the laws of biology and the dictates of psychology at our own peril. But there is still more to a human than the laws of nature can describe.

The Significance of Pain

Consider when someone goes through the experience of great suffering. Now, animals certainly undergo pain. However, human suffering can take on an entirely different character than mere animalistic anguish. Viktor Frankl in his important work, Man’s Search for Meaning, details the effects of extreme suffering on the human psyche in the context of his own time in the Nazi Concentration Camps. He also explains how one can overcome such suffering in the face of overwhelming circumstances. His observations are worth quoting at length:

Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually…Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those value which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering (66-68).

The ability to find meaning in suffering, to possess “inner liberty,” is not something that can be witnessed in the entirety of the animal kingdom. Those animals that inflict pain do not do so out of malice but, rather, instinct. The merely animal creatures that endure suffering do not do so with resignation and magnanimity, but with confusion and a deep instinctual desire to flee at once from the pain.

My case is simply an appeal to common sense. How can a being capable of what is described above (from a first hand account) be entirely corporeal? Every physical, biological, and psychological impulse in one’s being would incline them towards the path of least resistance in such circumstances. And yet, we have the power to do otherwise and the wisdom to understand why such a course, though arduous in the extreme, is the one that ought to be taken. If such an example cannot convince one that human nature has an immaterial aspect (i.e. a soul) then no philosophical argument is up to the task[1].

The Difference the Soul Makes

Recognizing that one has an immaterial aspect to their being is of no small consequence. Surely, as we’ve seen above, the recognition of an immaterial power which cannot be forfeited allows one to accomplish great acts of heroism. However, it is not merely the recognition of the existence of the soul alone that gives a person such strength. It is the reorientation of values and life’s meaning which oftentimes follows this recognition that provides such immense inner fortitude. The reality of the soul beckons a person to choose how this great inner liberty ought to be cultivated. The point can be expressed as a question: “Given that I have an immaterial soul, what then ought to be the aim of my spiritual liberty?”

The only goal that can fulfill a spiritual power is a spiritual goal, just as the only thing that can fulfill a material power is a material goal, e.g. food satisfies the stomach. What then can fulfill my inner being? It cannot be anything material for the mere fact that what is material is not spiritual. Frankl writes how those prisoners who hoped only for material benefits upon liberation, e.g. food, family, money etc. were often disappointed. However, he says, “The crowning experience of all…is the wonderful feeling that, after all that he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore – except his God (93).”

Spiritual Resources

Living such a life of inner freedom oriented towards lofty moral standards and God Himself is a tall order. We know this both from Frankl’s own words above and from our Lord, “Enter by the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to destruction and many there are who go in by it. However, narrow is the gate and difficult the path that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). And again, He says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Christ also acknowledges that those who follow Him will suffer (Matthew: 5:10-11; John 15:20). And Frankl himself says that life is not complete without suffering, meaning that suffering will find its way into every person’s life (67).

So, as content and as morally upright as someone might be, she needs to ask herself: Am I prepared to undergo suffering? Is my life oriented towards the correct goal(s)? How would I react if I lost everything? Not only must these questions be asked, but preparations must be made for the arrival of the grim reality. I submit that only the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the resources necessary to combat such evils in this world and to prepare oneself (by the grace of God) for eternal life in the next world. Through Confession, prayer, spiritual fellowship/direction, and most importantly through the Eucharist (John 6), God’s grace is available to confirm us in our trials, ground us in our property, and guide us when the hour of death is near.

We return then to the question posed by an nonreligious but virtuous person, “Why should I join the Catholic Church?” To this I would respond, “Where else can your soul find fulfillment, your life find ultimate meaning, and your heart the ability to endure terrible trials?” Or as St. Peter said, “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68).

[1] I do recognize that Frankl’s chief intent in writing this passage was not proving the existence of the soul in the Christian sense. I merely submit that the soul as understood both philosophically and theologically by classical western thinkers is the best way to account for such “inner liberty” as he describes.

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