Body and Soul
This sermon, if non-religious old farts may be permitted to sermonize, comes from my short story, Somebody Died, which appears in the collection, Blasphemies and Bloviation.
You may find it instructive, if you are open to instruction on such issues, or you may find it offensive to some degree. Then again, you may dismiss it as utter nonsense, as I once did to Voltaire's essay, On Free Will, but find your mind returning to the subject again and again over a period of weeks, until you convince yourself of its merit--however elusive.
Body and Soul
Let us point out at this juncture that, although pious people the world over − no matter the religion to which they may subscribe − firmly believe in the perpetuity of their souls, still in weaker moments they will entertain serious doubts. Atheists, on the other hand, in spite of their insistence that heaven is no more than superstitious hallucination, may cross their fingers at the persistent specter of eternal hell. No one can ever know for certain whether life survives our wretched flesh.
Nor, even if we accept immortality as a given, do we have any understanding of the soul, as a force independent of the body. To tell you that life neither begins at birth nor ends in death, without providing some insight into the nature of that life, would be to utter the most soporific of bromides and to insult the intelligence of the reader. For centuries, philosophers have wrestled in vain over the mind/body problem, and science, preoccupied with galaxies and elementary particles, offers no instruction on the subject. No matter. We shall enlighten you.
Imagine, if you will, that perfection is a pervasive white light consisting of all wavelengths of the spectrum. It is not, however, the spectrum of colors with which we are all familiar. Instead of red, green and blue, the primary constituents of perfection are truth, beauty and reason. Secondary constituents then − blends as it were of the primary constituents − would be knowledge, compassion and curiosity. We might mention a few of the tertiary constituents as well, such as toleration, integrity, perseverance and loyalty, but we have not set out to catalog an endless list of virtues. We want only to convey a general impression of the nature of the soul. For, indeed, the soul is nothing less than the perfection we have just described.
But, we hasten to add, this is the nature of the soul as it exists independent of the body. It is definitely not what we know as human nature.
To arrive at a rudimentary understanding of human nature, it might be helpful to carry our metaphor one step further, to imagine that the character of each living being − elephant, kangaroo or amoeba − results from the distortion of that perfect light by filtering it through an imperfect window − the body. If that window were perfect, then the character of the person would be as pure and undiminished as the full light of the sun. But, since no sages or saints of our acquaintance even remotely approach perfection, and since we are not concerned with the virtual opacity of the insect or salamander’s body, we shall limit our discussion to the distorted and discolored light with which you and I illuminate our world.
At birth we were all endowed with a luminescence, equally feeble and clouded, but with varying degrees of potential. The body we inherit may be flawed, with a chemical imbalance that will render us irrational, or an insufficiency of neural pathways in the brain, which will limit our intelligence, or we may be born into unfortunate circumstance with no hope of a decent education.
It is true, of course, that within these physical and circumstantial limitations, we have the ability to brighten and to purify our light by tending to the clarity of our corporeal lenses, just as we can stain and diminish our luminescence with prejudice and superstition. But, during our lifetimes, even the most brilliant among us can approach the perfection that death will afford us no nearer than the firefly may approach the sun. And this brief imperfect life, as we have been given to understand it, is but a pale shadow of our enduring essence.