Archive for December 8th, 2008

The Soul as Mystery

December 8, 2008

mikhail_nesterov-the_soul_of_the_russian_people_1916

Readers would not be surprised to know that I am particularly drawn to the writings of Dostoevsky and of Solzhenitsyn. What draws me is the Orthodoxy that underlies them – especially their treatment of the human soul. Both authors have a reverence for the human soul that allows their characters to be more than words on a page. There is a mystery that is unknown to the character and, more especially, unknown even to the author.

Many novelists have a tendency to write from an “omniscient” perspective, thus always yielding characters that are caricatures. The truth of a person is always more than the person himself knows and always more than anyone else knows. Created in the image of God, human beings have an inherent transcendence. This same transcendence, as I’ve already noted, is more than either we ourselves know or others around us know. The soul is a mystery.

In Scripture we have hints of this mystery:

For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:2-4).

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn see the heart of man as the battleground of good and evil and both allow their characters to enter into the battle. But the mechanisms of the outcome always remain hidden. The authors allow us to see what people generally can see. Salvation is a dynamic whose evidence is found in its result but whose workings are utterly hidden. It is thus that the Scriptures tell us that we can understand something by its fruit, but they do not suggest to us that we can understand the mystery that produces the fruit.

One of the weaknesses of much modern psychological theory is its drive to explain, even to simplify, what cannot be explained nor simplified. Freud’s theories (and those of many others) become trite when held up against the reality of any human soul. We are more than the sum of our neuroses.

Neither can we suggest that the writings of the Church Fathers provide us with roadmap by which we may explain what cannot be known. There is much that is made known to us in their writings – much that is indeed the result of revelation. But mastery of one of the Fathers such as St. Maximos the Confessor (perhaps the most complete treatment of the human soul in Orthodox theology) does not yield mastery of the subject of his writings. Indeed, the writings of the Fathers direct us particularly to the reality of mystery within the human. Their work, contrary to the philosophical writings which preceded them, does not reduce man to a theory, but expands him to the possibility of participation in the Divine nature (or the uncreated energies as described in later Patristic language). Human beings do not assume their proper description until the writings of the Church Fathers. Christian theology gives an account of our existence that had never been dared – nor has it been exceeded.

 To read in Scripture that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) is not a contemplation of the intricacies of DNA, but a statement which should surround our approach to every human being – and ourselves – with fear and wonder.

The current American television series, House, features a misanthropic doctor who declares his lack of interest in relationships by the simple statement, “People are boring.” Disease is interesting because it presents a puzzle – but people themselves hold little interest. Of course the attitude of this character is itself a mystery and not offered as a version of truth by the show’s writers. But as mystery it does not rise to the level of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn. That is too much to ask of television.

It is not too much to ask of ourselves, however. The acts of forgiveness that are commanded of us – the commandments to refrain from judgment – the promises of eternal life and the scope of that existence – are all themselves built on the foundation of the fearful and wonderful mystery that is man. They are not commandments or promises that follow from moral theory – but modes of existence that are offered to us – modes that correspond to the truth of our being. To refuse them is to reduce others to the level of boredom and ourselves to less than the fullness for which we were created.

I remember a song written by a friend – a college classmate – that began with the line, “My life wouldn’t make a movie.” His lament was that he seemed to himself to be less than interesting. I would counter that movies are too small. The wonder of him could not fit on the screen.