Soul and the Person: Defining Life

by Richard Gist

Mr. Gist is pastor of the United Methodist Church in Corcoran, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 14, pp. 1022-1024. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Amid all of the stress caused by our uncertainties and conflicts over the abortion issue, the author wants the church to influence more surely the definition of life. “We too have something important to say about it. I don’t believe we have yet done so.”

On an issue as important as abortion, I want a definition of life that includes the wisdom and understanding of my Christian faith. So far, I have been disappointed. I doubt that I am the only one. Life is being defined biologically, in terms of beating hearts and pulsing brainwaves. Cows, too, exhibit these requisite energies, and in some sense bovine life is sacred, possessing that unfathomable plus that nudges protoplasm and electrical energy into life. Yet I enjoy a good steak, and even more frequently, a hamburger.

Someone will respond, "The issue is human life. People have souls; that is the big difference." But what is soul and what is the difference? In Genesis 2:7 we read of Adam’s arrival, "and man became a living soul" (KJV). The Hebrew term, nephesh chayyah, translated "living soul," is the same expression used of the animals in 2:19. The life principle, the nephesh chayyah, fills all of the life. All creatures have soul.

If a steer defended himself -- and when you are arguing the value of your life, you must -- he might point out that we are kindred souls of the sixth day of creation; that, justly or not, his kind were drawn into "the fall of man" (Jer. 12:4); that we share a common fate (Eccles. 3:9); and that his family, quite appropriately, will be drawn into the coming salvation (Isa. 11:6-7).

Then is the soul a "special blessing"? Is it a human given? And is it given at birth or conception? Such discussions reduce the soul to an "it," an impossible to define something installed by God. I am unable to conceive of a soul as an it, even though my religious training has nudged me in that direction: "What happens to my soul when I die?" "It goes to heaven." We are as misguided to speak of a soul as an it as we are to treat persons as biological objects.

The popular argument defines soul as indestructible, and so, curiously, beyond considerations of death. If the soul is eternal, what violence is done to it in abortion, war and murder? We are right back to the level of other creatures: what is terminated is animal life. Soul so defined takes us nowhere.

Further, while some contend that the soul sanctifies biology, thus delineating the uniqueness of human life, the simple presence of the soul fails to engender life as the Christian faith understands it.

For instance, as a minister I on occasion sit with lonely people who are praying to die -- a common situation indeed. The heart still beats, the brain continues to function, the "soul" remains intact, and yet life -- life meaningful enough to make it worth the effort -- is missing. Neither biological life nor the presence of the soul is a given that enhances human existence. But what does?

A Relational Embodiment

One of the few things I really know is that my state of being takes form and definition, and therefore meaning, only in relationship, as my body and soul take on the mystery of personhood. From the inside I call this molded peculiarity "me"; those on the outside call it "Dick" -- not a biological procedure baptized with the theory of soul, but rather an exciting and excitable, knowing, sensing, responding, growing and relational embodiment called person.

Not only does relationship give definition and meaning to life; it ensures biological survival itself. Newborn animals die without the stimulation that comes from parental licking, and human infants perish despite food, shelter, prayers and all else if they are not carried, cuddled and caressed -- in other words, given tender, loving care.

The importance of relationship is obvious in the story of the Garden of Eden. There the man was created full-blown, with form and personality. He alone of all the creatures was addressed as "you": he was created for communion with God. Relationship set him apart from the other creatures. But he was given no name, which in biblical understanding signified that he still lacked his essential nature. God’s creation was not yet finished, and remained unfinished until the arrival of Eve. Only with her presence, and the relationship it promised, was the human phenomenon complete.

Then what happened? "The pair partook of the apple," and the three primary relationships of life collapsed. Adam and Eve felt alienated from God, and hid; Adam blamed Eve, fracturing their special oneness; and both turned against themselves, their minds rejecting their bodies as shameful. And closely following these came the fourth broken relationship: the world itself became inhospitable, and man and woman were no longer in harmony with their surroundings. All this God defined as death (Gen. 2:17).

Does not death also define life?

For instance, the pain of losing a loved one consists largely of the irreversible separation from that person; the broken relationship is the essential meaning of death. Right now in this country there are "people" who, through the awesome capabilities of medical science, have hearts that refuse to stop beating, although all relating has ended. We hesitate, rightfully careful, before the conclusion that because the heart is human we must preserve its functioning. If life is defined in biological terms, that is the only defensible course. But it does raise the question "Is this really what we mean by human life?" Is not the severed relationship what we normally experience as death?

Promise Denied

When a fetus is destroyed, I moan, "Life has been taken," and feel a troubled regret. I do not like it. But I also recognize another truth: real life has not been taken. Rather, promise has been denied; the vehicle of life has been aborted; an individual will not be realized.

That is no small thing. I recall the sorrow of standing beside a small casket containing a still-born nephew. Our family’s grief was real; the baby had been wanted and planned for. But the pain was not for a person; none yet existed. We grieved over the loss of precious promise, and the denial of the human drive to nurture life, to participate in its becoming -- dare I say, its creation? These feelings run very deep, and the emotional appeal made in arguments over abortion is very strong indeed. I know it. I feel it. And still I sense an important distinction between biological life and a person’s life, though admittedly, at the point that one flows into the other, I am sometimes emotionally ill-equipped to distinguish between them.

But when I read about and see young, emerging lives being destroyed by neglect, hunger, war and enraged parents, the distinction refocuses, and I say, "Life, real life, is being not only destroyed but twisted, deformed, ‘unholy’ life is being created." The real "abortion" takes place after birth.

John Powell, S.J., tells of an insight given him by a psychiatrist: when you are hurting, your thoughts are only about the pain and your hurting self. Healthy relating ceases; meaningful life is interrupted (Free to Be Me: Transcript and Study Guide [Argus, 1978]). We live in a world in which for some, misery is the only reality of existence: people starve to death, live in abject poverty and know unrelieved distress and isolation all their days. The vehicle of body, blood and "soul" has transported them into a living hell, where life remains almost totally biological: physical pain and suffering, biological need and finally, mercifully, biological death. It is indefensible to insist on existence where we cannot offer LIFE.

Clearly, biological presence can be more curse than blessing. Anyone who has ever prayed, "Lord, please take him," or who has uttered or concurred with the words, "It’s a blessing that he finally died," knows that truth. Why, then, does this recognition not influence our definition of life? Don’t we trust our instincts? Is biological life an absolute value to be defended at all costs?

Jesus came offering life to the living. As Paul said, he was God’s answer to Adam (Rom. 5:12.22). To the pain and sorrow and separation -- death -- so well known in this world, Jesus brought the possibility of life with meaning, life reconciled, that is, brought back into right relationship. The marvelous message of the Christian faith is that we come to God only hand in hand. As we love one another, as we forgive one another, as we relate to one another -- that is the form of our relationship to God.

Jesus declared that he came for those who needed his healing (Luke 5:31.32). He did not come salvaging souls, but the life experience. That is fundamental, because I was conceived full of promise; my potential far exceeded my achievements. Indeed, I could convincingly argue that 90 per cent of my promise has been "aborted." Some of the painful moments I cause for myself swirl around "what might have been." But what isn’t clearly isn’t. And God’s concern in Christ is for the leftover "is" of my life.

I had no control over being born, and have no power to prevent my eventual death. Where I happen is "in between." Any salvation has to be of me and the muddle I make of the middle, or it has no meaning. If anything other than the me I know is the object of God’s concern, if anything other than the person is the object of divine intention, then we are speaking of inanities or mysteries beyond knowing, and entertaining arguments that have no real focus in experience. And experience has everything to do with the definition of life.

I am my soul, and I am the real mystery called life. Soul does not exist as an "it," apart from personality. Rather, the soul consists of content, the totally unique creation -- truly the image of God -- that we call the person.

Amid all of the stress caused by our uncertainties and conflicts over the abortion issue, I want the church to influence more surely the definition of life. We too have something important to say about it. I don’t believe we have yet done so.