The Soundness of Souls

June 22nd, 2014

Preacher: Rev. Doyt Conn

This is my thesis: the soundness of souls will bring salvation to the world.

Today I’d like to continue the conversation we started last week about the soul. Then we sang “Ode to Joy.” We’ll talk more about singing at the end of the sermon. We also spoke of how we notice our souls. We spoke of touchstones, moments when God reaches in and waters our souls, and coincidences, moments when we are called to ask: “What is my soul up to?” We spoke of how the Psalms are a study guide for the soul. We spoke about putting our souls in the way of God, which is the purpose of worship.

Today I’d like to look more closely at the church and its role as a place designed to bring soundness to the soul, that teaches about souls, and that magnifies souls. I’d like to posit that one of the reasons the church is atrophying, particularly in America and Europe, is that we no longer understand the soul. In places where people have a sense of the soul, the church is thriving.

Here is the outline of my sermon. First, I’d like to do a little history, starting with Aristotle, then moving through the Reformation, and finally landing on dark energy. Second, I’d like to look at Jesus as the master teacher on the soul. Third, I’d like to further reflect to the purpose of church as the place perfectly and uniquely designed to bring soundness to the soul.

My hope is that at the end of this sermon series on the soul (however long that is), you and I will easily be able to answer the question the ancient Christians asked one another: “How goes it with your soul?”

We begin with some history. Pull out your pencils. Aristotle had a bunch to say about the soul, and what he said stood as authoritative for 2000 years. Part of my research on Aristotle involved scanning Wikipedia, and what it said lent credibility to the idea that we are a culture that really isn’t sure what to make of the soul. Here is the summary:

“The notion of the soul, as articulated by Aristotle, is only distantly related to the usual modern concept.” (You hear the qualifiers?) “Aristotle holds that the soul is the form, or essence of any living thing. Plants, animals and people all have souls, and among these “living things” there is an ascending knowledge of the soul, and a corresponding magnificence moving from plant to animal to human being. Aristotle holds that there is no notion of a body without a soul, or of a soul in the wrong kind of body. Body and soul are intrinsically intertwined. The usual concept of the soul is what is commonly known as ‘life force’.”

Here endeth the Wikipedia summary.

Now there are two things to notice here:

  1. The idea of life force is not the same as the idea of the soul. Life force is a body-centric concept. For Aristotle and for Christians, the soul is bigger than the limitations of the body.
  2. While Greek philosophers may have divided the body from the soul, as I so often hear, they didn’t get that from Aristotle.

Christianity shares Aristotle’s understanding of the soul because it made sense. Or at least we thought it did until the Reformation.

The Reformation spawned scientists. Scientists are interested in how things work, which means they focus on things that they can see and touch like plants, animals, people, and stars in outer space. The Reformation was all about the physical, and if it wasn’t physical, it wasn’t real. So the soul began to fall out of fashion and was relegated to the dust bin of hocus pocus. Aristotle, it seemed, was a bonehead.

Now here is the wonderful thing about scientific thinking. The more scientists look at the physical world, the more they realize that there is a lot of space between the things they are looking at, and there is a lot of weird stuff happening in that space. The science of this weirdness is called quantum mechanics. Dark energy is a concept from quantum mechanics. It is that weird thing in the space between things. Scientists now suspect that 68 percent of creation is composed of this immeasurable, unaccountable dark energy that holds all things in the universe together and yet can’t be seen. Sound familiar?

Here is how we defined the soul last Sunday: the soul is that aspect of us that correlates and integrates and enlivens everything else going on in the various dimensions of our being. The soul weaves together our heart, our mind, and our body with our community. The soul correlates and integrates us to give us life. So if we can believe in dark energy, is it really so hard to know the nature of the soul?

Here endeth the historical reflection on the soul. Aristotle set the standard, and Christians jumped on board. The Reformation lost sight of the soul because it couldn’t be seen. And now, science is bringing back the idea that there is a requirement for something that correlates, integrates, and enlivens.

Jesus, as a master teacher on the soul, understood all of this. And what he understood is that soundness of soul is critical for a whole, healthy, and holy life.

This brings us to the second part of this sermon. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus mentions the soul: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can both destroy soul and body.” Here is Jesus’ insight, (it is the same one that I reflected upon last Sunday): God can reach into our souls, whether we like it or not, or acknowledge it or not. God can reach in to soothe our souls, watering them when needed. These are touchstone moments.

But if that is the case, it also means that God can reach in and disrupt our souls as well. Does God do that? I don’t think so. Would God want to do that? I don’t think so. It is just to say that if God can reach in, God can reach in. That is Jesus’ first point: the soul belongs to God, and God has open access. Jesus’ second point is that if the soul belongs to God, then it would seem responsible to set it as our highest priority. This, I might add, parenthetically, is what the ancient Christians did, which is why they asked each other: “How goes it with your soul?”

To dramatize this point, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Now here is where it gets awkward, right? Today you and I are probably more likely to ask somebody, “How are your kids? Or “How are your parents?” before we ask, “How goes it with your soul?” That is not a bad thing. It is a good to care about our community, so keep it up! But the point Jesus makes is that if our soul is well, our other relationships will be well also. A sound soul puts everything else in right perspective, irrespective of the complications one may be experiencing at any given point in life, which is why soundness of soul is such an important message taught by Jesus.

This brings us to the third part of this sermon: to reflect on the purpose of church as the place perfectly and uniquely designed to keep our souls sound.

I was in Washington DC this past week at the Association of Anglican Musician’s Conference. One afternoon I was at the National Cathedral School for Girls. After our event was over, I stuck around to watch a pick-up choir of young people from The National Cathedral School, St. Alban’s Boy’s School, and from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, practice for one of the Association’s worship services the next day. The conductor was Julian Wachner, the new music director from Trinity Wall Street. The students gathered, and under his guidance they were off. In an instant the mess of adolescence became a fluid being.

Singing is just one exercise for the soul we experience in church. When we sing, our bodies collect, and they breathe in synchronicity. Our mind follows the words and tracks the notes. We listen to one another, even as our will that is our heart, gives itself over to the director and the design of the music. Singing is a steroid shot for the soul. And yet, you might ask, how this is different than other types of singing groups. Mostly it isn’t. The only difference is that the singular purpose of singing at church is for the glory of God. God is our audience. And in church singing there is no competition or judgment because in the Kingdom of God there is no judgment or competition. And you’re wondering: “What about the choir?” Let me say this: Our choir takes the best of what we have in song and gives it to God as a communal offering. Their efforts magnify all our souls.

Here is another thing to note about our church singing: the more robustly we sing the better we all sound even if individually we don’t feel we are very good singers. Singing is just one part of worship that brings soundness to the soul. We also process, we stand, we sit, and we kneel. We pray, we listen, we read, and we talk. We breath, we touch, we eat, and we sing. All of which brings soundness to the soul. That is what came to mind when I saw those young people gather. I am sure they had other things they could have been doing, but they chose to sing in a church service. They chose to let their souls run free and play, to air out and dance about in unison with each other and in unity with God.

When the ancient Christian community asked the question, “How goes it with your soul?” they weren’t asking it because they didn’t know what else to say. They were asking it because they knew exactly what they were saying. They knew, as we know here at Epiphany, that the soundness of souls will bring salvation to the world.

I am sometimes concerned that we live in an age of atrophying souls. It is why I do what I do, and it is why I am glad that I do it with you. Together we nurture souls by getting in the way of God. That is one major reason for the existence of the church. It is a place to put our souls in the way of God. It is here we ask each other the question, “How goes it with your soul?” We ask it for the sake and the salvation of the world.