In Search of Soul:

 The Evolutionary Quest for Immortality

By Richard W. Kropf

Of all the issues confronting the dialog between religion and science, perhaps the most fundamental, yet neglected and elusive, is that concerning the existence, and—if it does indeed exist—the nature and the origin of the human soul. Some might disagree, asserting that the question of the existence of God, at least in the sense of a creator, is more fundamental. Perhaps, but considering all the varying understandings of what the present pope described as “that unknown reality that faith calls God,”[1] it may just be that the God problem is more conceptual, even theoretical (in the original sense of that word), than real. Believers may think they have solved the problem by naming this mystery, but contemporary science, particularly cosmology, is more puzzled than ever as to what underlies the so-far known universe. In any case, anthropological studies would seem to have established that for the most part, animistic beliefs existed long before any belief in gods or, even more, in belief in a single creator-God.[2]

        By the word or term soul, we might begin by combining and then later modifying the first and last definitions given by Webster’s.[3] These are first: “an entity which is regarded as being the immortal or spiritual part of the person and, though having no physical or material reality, is credited with the functions of thinking and willing, and hence determinates all behavior.” Then, after a number of metaphorical uses of the word (most commonly the “self,” also “person”) the same dictionary adds an eighth definition: “the spirit of the dead person, thought of as separate from the body and leading to an existence of its own.” This review of the matter will proceed by means of a contrast beginning with the thesis (summarized in the above definitions) as being representative of the classical western philosophical (first definition) tradition and its religious ramifications (last definition above).

The antithesis or negative position is, of course, the denial of the existence of any such “entity,” as found in ancient times by what the Theravada Buddhists generally claim are the authentic teachings of Gautama accompanied by the reductionism that characterizes much of contemporary science. Our attempt at a synthesis, rooted in a revised understanding of biblical anthropology, will suggest that what we consider to be or have generally called the human “soul” is indeed a product of biological evolution, but that the quality of being “immortal” (as mentioned in the first definition) or its ability to exist “separate from the body and to have an existence of its own” (as described in the latter definition) is quite another matter—one which, although it might be seen as a logical progression in the evolutionary process, nevertheless belongs to the realm of religion or faith.

        My principal mentors in this effort have been two rather unknown Catholic theologians whose books on the subject have been generally overlooked. The first of these was Robert North, S.J., whose book, Teilhard and the Creation of the Soul, was published back in 1967.[4] The second was John F. Dudek, whose book Human Consciousness and the Material Soul: the Consensus of Religion and Science, was published in 2001.[5] These sources being acknowledged, let’s proceed with the steps outlined above.

1.   The Greek Philosophical Concept of the Psyche and Christian Doctrine

Classical Greek philosophy is generally considered to have begun with the pre-Socratic thinkers of the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, most notably Thales, Anaximander, and Anaxagoras (the latter notable for his distinguishing between mind and matter), followed by the atomists (some might call them materialists) Leucippus, Heraclitus and Democritus. There also was Pythagoras, who took an entirely different track, explaining the structure of reality through his emphasis on form as distinguished from matter and expressed in the relationship of numbers. Nevertheless, most of these thinkers were cosmologists, in that their main concern was to explain the structure of the world and its natural phenomena.[6] 

        It was only when Socrates (470-399 BCE) came upon the scene that philosophy shifted to an emphasis on humankind and analysis of its thinking and behavior. And if we can believe the account of his death told by his disciple Plato, Socrates died asserting his belief in the existence of the immortal psyche or soul,[7]¾an ancient belief that has been said to have been re-enforced by Socrates having undergone some kind of transcendental experience early in his lifetime.

        Certainly, it can be said that such a belief—or even such experiences—are nothing new. Ancient peoples the world over seem to believe that all living things, not just humans but animals and plants as well (or in some instances natural forces like the wind or even objects like rocks) all possess souls or what might be defined as an animating principle. Likewise, it was often believed that these souls, at least in the case of living creatures, could pass from one body to another, thus explaining beliefs in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls through a series of lives, one following upon another.

        Plato’s (and we can suppose that this was also taught by Socrates) adaptation of this ancient belief, however, included an element borrowed from the Pythagoreans. The eternal or immortal “forms” which gave shape to individual objects or even classes of beings, were to Plato’s mind, substantiated (if one may use this word in regard to spiritual entities) as individual and apparently preexistent immortal souls which, upon entering our world, inhabit individual human bodies.[8] Death, for Socrates (at least according to Plato), was simply of freeing of the true, immortal, spiritual self from its worldly prison. However, Plato also envisioned the possibility of the return of the soul into successive bodies, bringing with them the errors and burdens of past lives—a process of transmigration strikingly similar to that envisioned in the Indian concept of karma.[9]

        Later on, Plato’s disciple Aristotle appears to have modified this view somewhat, apparently suggesting that the individual human soul, at least in its function as the  “form” of the body, dissolves upon death.[10] However, others, pointing out that for Aristotle, the human soul, inasmuch as it possesses the power of thought or mind (nous) is reabsorbed into the eternal mind or collective soul that animates and gives form to all nature[11].

        One can readily see how this philosophical tradition derived from Socrates and especially Plato appealed to early Christian teachers. In their efforts to spread Christian doctrine, and particularly its promise of eternal life, the Socratic concept of the soul, shorn of Plato’s idea of its pre-existence and of Aristotle’s hint of its possibly being reabsorbed into a kind of world soul and further refined by the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (205-270 CE) not only influenced much of the theological thought and mystical currents of the late classical and early medieval period[12], but also seemed to offer a perfect “spiritualized” way out of the difficulties presented by all too materially graphic (and hard to imagine much more to believe) concept of bodily “resurrection” that was then current in the Semitic world.

        Thus it is that the Platonic concept of the soul, at least in a modified form, as (to quote Webster’s’ again, “an entity which is regarded as the immortal or spiritual part of a person … [and which after death is] thought of as separate from the body and possessing a life of its own” seems to have become a fixed part of Christian orthodoxy, so much so that in 1950, in his encyclical letter Humani  generis Pope Pius XII, admitting that the human body might be descended from other forms of life, nevertheless insisted that “the Catholic faith commands us to retain that souls are immediately created by God.”[13] However, in his analysis of this statement, Robert North asserts that, up to this point, there never had been any such clear dogmatic assertion. So was this actually meant to be one? As North points out, the exact wording in the Latin text is curious, with “commands” (jubet) where one might expect “teaches” and retinere (“retain”) where similar doctrinal statements generally use the Latin equivalent of “hold” or “maintain.”[14] Instead, the impression one might get when one reads the text this closely is that the pope, even while giving a cautious nod toward the possibility of recognizing an evolutionary explanation of human origins, was, nevertheless, anxious to hedge his tentative acceptance of that theory with caution (the necessity of retaining a monogenetic view of human origins seems to have particularly worried the pope) lest certain theological understandings, such as the unity of the human race the doctrine of Original Sin, be compromised.[15]

        In fact, the closest the Church had ever come speaking out on these matters previous was the so-called “Creed of Leo IX,” which was a 1053 profession of faith included in the rite of consecration of a new bishop and included the statement that “The soul is not a part of God, but created out of nothing; and apart from baptism it is subject to original sin.”[16] Following that, there was the condemnation, by the Council of Vienne in 1312, of the opinion known as “traducianism” (that the physical procreative act itself generated a new soul) and again, in 1341, the condemnation by Pope Benedict XII of what he took to be the Armenian view which he described as being that the generation of “the soul of the son is by the soul of its father as the body by body”—sometimes called “spiritual traducianism.” However, according to the Armenian bishops, this was not their belief, but that it was instead that “Souls are created noviter [i.e., as new entities] by God; and, at the time of animation, the creation of the soul and its inserting in the body occur simultaneously.”[17] So what seems to have happened is that over the centuries, as a result of a number of disputes, there had grown up something of a majority opinion, if not a complete consensus among the theologians, that while the conception of new life may be the parent’s responsibility, human soul itself is not created by them but by God. Yet there has been no real agreement as to how or even when this creation of the soul takes place.

        Nevertheless, the position taken in Humani generis was repeated by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 “Creed of the People of God” and quoted, almost word for word, by Pope John Paul II in a 1994 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences—even though the main (and most quoted) point of his talk was that for Catholics thinkers, evolution has to be taken seriously and is more than [just] a hypothesis. But this reiteration of the 1950 position (now contained in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church[18],) carries within it a serious problem, even in terms of the usual criteria for belief inasmuch that Pope John Paul II had to admit, in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,”[19] that neither philosophy nor the Scriptures can be used to determine at what point in human development this special creation of the soul takes place. Instead, as is clear from both the encyclical as well as from the official catechism, what is really at stake here is not to determine at what point a soul is present, but to protect the integrity of the human embryo which “must be treated from conception as a person.”[20]  

        However, aside from these issues as to how and when the soul is created, lurks the question regarding the nature or even the existence the immortal soul itself. Regarding the first, it seems that the church, under the influence of the medieval scholastic tradition, had slowly moved away from the Platonic concept of the soul being a kind of separate spiritual “substance” or “entity,” more toward Aristotle’s concept of “form,” as seen especially in Thomas Aquinas[21] not as a preexisting entity in its own right, but as that element or agent (the morphē in his hylomorphic understanding of nature) which gives substantial shape to matter. Thus the church’s insistence (first stated at the 1312 Council of Vienne) and as the official catechism now puts it: “…because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”[22]

        According to Dudek, Aquinas had first modified Aristotle’s hylomorphic approach to allow for the soul to exist apart from the body after death, however “awkwardly.”[23] Nevertheless, he used this same hylomorphic approach to defend at some length Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time—how else could we conceive of a full redemption of human nature or restoration of the universe, with “a new heavens and a new earth” if eternity was populated only by disembodied souls?[24]

        Nevertheless, despite this insistence on the role of matter and physical aspect of creation,

the continuing problem with the church’s teaching, especially in the light of our understanding of the evolution of life, the role of DNA as determining “form,” and neuroscience when it comes to analyzing the nature of human consciousness is to find a role for the soul, however it be conceived. Otherwise, why would Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in his former position as Prefect of the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) have gone out of his way in a 1998 clarification (regarding changes in the church’s Canon Law regarding charges of heresy) to point out that there are certain teachings (and here he singled out, among others, the doctrine regarding “the immortality of the spiritual nature of the soul”[25] as being so vital to Christian doctrine that they cannot be denied or even contested without that too also being heretical?

        This, again, seems like something of an overstatement which can only lead to an impasse

in the church’s relationship to contemporary science and especially (despite the caveat dating back to the 1950 encyclical) Pope John Paul’s urging that we take evolutionary science seriously. Meanwhile, we must turn to look at several alternative views to those we just considered.  

2.  Anatta in Theraveda Buddhism and Contemporary Neuroscience

According to Buddhist teaching, the fourth of the “four noble truths” is to live according to an “eightfold path” (consisting of practical program of “right” or correctness in thinking, aims, speech, action, occupation, effort, attention, and concentration).

        However, when it comes as to what is “right thinking” there seems to be several contesting interpretations, especially when it comes to Gautama’s doctrine of anatta, or even over how to correctly translate that word—a Pali dialect rendition of the Sanskrit term an-atman, which when translated literally, means “no-soul.” The greater part of the Buddhist world, consisting of the many sects of Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, seems to tend towards understanding the term as meaning selflessness, openness, generosity, or even simply humility. In contrast, those Buddhists who claim to follow the Theraveda or “Way of the Elders” (sometimes called Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle — especially by their opponents) take the term quite literally as a denial of anything such as the atman, which in Hindu thinking is the term for the higher soul or self that is ultimately identical with Brahman or divinity in its highest form. Instead, when coupled with Gautama’s doctrine of “dependent origination” (which holds that all worldly entities are but interdependent phenomena which disappear whenever their components change) the doctrine of anatta would seem to lead to the conclusion that the existence of a “self” is an illusion that needs to be overcome if we are to achieve lasting happiness of any sort. (I will leave it to the experts to argue over just what this goal, termed Nirvana, really means, but if one follows the logic of the Theraveda reading of Buddhism, it probably should be taken literally as a kind of “blowing out” [of the flame of desire?]. However, this is not the main point here—rather it is the question as to whether the soul actually exists.)  

        R. Puligandla, in his Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy[26] points out that the Theraveda understanding of the doctrine of anatta is practically identical to the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s characterization of the self as an illusion produced by the mind seen as a “bundle of sensations.” Certainly, it would seem so. In addition, if so, seems to be little in contemporary science to lead us to any other possible conclusion. In view of humanity’s evolutionary origins, the kind of philosophical dualism enshrined by the Platonic tradition and continued into more recent times by Descartes and others who have maintained a strict demarcation between body and soul seems no longer tenable. So too the ontological distinction between mind and matter. A recent book that expounds at great length (624 pages!) on the subject, mentions of the subject of “soul” on only three.[27] While mind (or more exactly intellect), like will, has been seen (again the Webster’s definition) as being a function or capacity of the soul, nevertheless, contemporary science and, increasingly, popular understanding sees it quite differently.   Thus, we have the following statements among those quoted by Dudek from a book written by Noble Laureate Gerald M. Edelman and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi:

There is a material basis for the mind as a set of relations. The action of your brain and all its mechanisms, from bottom to top, atoms to behavior, resulted in a mind that can be concerned with processes of meaning…  This mind is completely based in and dependent on the physical processes that occur in its own workings, in those of other minds, and in the events involved in communication. There are no separate domains of matter and mind and no grounds for dualism…  The history of science, politics the biological science, has shown repeatedly that apparently mysterious or impassable barriers to our understanding were based on false views or technical limitations. The material bases of mind are no exception.[28]

        All this would seem to destroy not only any traditional Christian concept of the soul, but the classical western philosophical concept as well, at least as so far at it is derived from the Platonic tradition. So where does this leave us?

3. The Nephesh and Psyche in Biblical Tradition

Surprisingly, the conflicting views outlined above could lead us not to a denial of our Christian tradition, but rather to a reexamination of its biblical roots, with an eye to particularly trying to better understand the anthropological assumptions that underlay it. To begin with, we have to face up to the fact that in the Hebrew, at least biblical Hebrew, there is no one word that can be translated accurately as “soul,” at least in the Platonic-Christian understanding of that term. Although the words appears hundreds of times in our usual translations of the Tanach or what Christians call “The Old Testament,” the fact is, that as any up-to-date biblical commentary (even the original 1968 edition of The Jerome Biblical Commentary[29]) will attest, the Hebrew word nephesh generally means a “living being” as contrasted to the basher or “body”¾especially a dead one. Nor are some other Hebrew words that translators are given to translating as “soul” any more exact, words which when literally translated, come out as “heart,” “liver,” and “kidney.” In much the same vein, but in reverse, the Eerdmans Analytic Concordance to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible[30] lists no less than forty-four other possible translations of nephesh, the most noteworthy, at least when it comes up to the final topic of this paper, its connection (and its possible derivation from a term that once meant “throat”) with the concepts of thirst, will, and desire.

        Second, as is clear from Psalm 104:29-30 and many similar passages, it is not the nephesh itself that gives life. Instead, it is the ruach or God’s breath or spirit that makes things live. Take away that ruach, and the creatures “return to the dust of the earth.” Send forth that ruach, and (depending on the translation) “the earth is renewed” or “Life begins.” Again, as the famous vision recounted in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel tells us, it is the spirit alone that can raise the dry bones to life. True, these are but figures of speech, but they point to something else than an imagined “immortal soul” as the cause of life. It also explains not only the imagery but also the logic behind the Hebrew concept of “resurrection.”

        So how then did we end up with the Greek term psychē being confused with the Hebrew concept of nephesh? Perhaps we could blame the Jews of Alexandria and their production of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Apparently the word psychē occurred to them as a fortuitous chance to present their Hebrew concepts in more sophisticated language—a tendency that appears in a number of their other vocabulary choices when they were faced with rendering the very concrete language of the Hebrew idiom into the richness of the more sophisticated Greek vocabulary. We see this even more strikingly when in an associated book that was added to the collection. The Book of Wisdom (sometimes known as “The Wisdom of Solomon”), which was originally written in Greek (thus later deemed non-canonical by more traditional Jews) does not mention any hope of a physical resurrection at all but instead speaks glowingly of “the souls [psychai] of the righteous” being in “the hand of God,” where “. . . no torment will ever touch them,” and “. . . they are at peace” (Wisdom 3:1-3; see also 8:19-20 and 9:15 where psychē is paired with nous or mind). So too, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria set about reinterpreting the whole biblical tradition in terms that he felt to be more in turn with those trained in Greek philosophy.[31]

        So should we be surprised when we find St. Paul a century or so later using in his letters a term like psychē when writing to his Greek speaking converts to Christianity?  But at the same time there is marked difference between the way Paul uses this term and the way that Christians have understood (or should we dare say misunderstood?) it. Although he contrasts psychē and soma (body) in a number of places, much as he does pneuma (spirit) against the sarx (flesh). there are a few places where psychē is replaced by nous and a few more where we find a tripartite arrangement (of sōma, psychē and pneuma). Clearly, Paul’s vocabulary remained rather, if not imprecise, fluid. But we can find within these changing forms a pattern of thought that is unmistakable. Note especially this passage concerning the resurrection:

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians, 15:44-46)

        Paul’s paraphrase of what “is written” is, of course, a reference to Genesis 2:7, which in the Greek Septuagint translation speaks of Adam becoming a psychēn zōsan, whereas in the Hebrew we find the phrase nephesh chayyah—again the same words used in Genesis 2:19 to describe “the beasts of the field” and “the birds of the heavens”—in sum, all “living creatures.” To this is contrasted the “last Adam,” the risen Christ, who is now a pneuma zōonpoioun—a “life-giving spirit.” It would seem then that at least to Paul, the psychē was hardly the immortal “soul” envisioned by Plato and his followers, but simply the natural condition of humanity, especially in its mental aspects, as subject to death. In contrast, it is the pneuma or Spirit—“the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead” (Romans 8:11)—that is the only possible source of immortality. Put all this together and perhaps we have the beginning of a whole new evolutionary understanding of human potentialities.

4. Seeking a New Synthesis: Teilhard. Delubac, and Rahner

In his foreword to Dudek’s book on human consciousness, George J. Dyer cites a passage given in a 1987 message by Pope John Paul II. It reads (in part):

If the cosmology is of the ancient near eastern world could have been purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meeting of the human person as the image of God, the problem of Christology, and even upon the development of doctrine itself? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science?

And then, as if to answer his own question, the pope asserted:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition: religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutism. Each can draw the other into a wide world in which both can flourish.[32]

        To all these questions, and here we are specially concerned with the second (regarding theological anthropology), as well as to the concluding statements of this passage, we can also give a resounding “Yes!” Our only question is why, especially after all the preliminary work done by theologians like North, Dudek, and even Karl Rahner (whose 1961 essay on “Hominisation”[33] also raised questions about the immediacy of God’s creative role in human origins), as well as the encouraging words of Pope John Paul II, we are still stuck in the formulations of Humani generis some sixty years after its publication?

        To one of the reasons already proposed—(especially regarding Teilhard’s questioning of the monogenetic origins of the human line—which of course throws into question any literal understanding of Adam as a single progenitor)[34] might be added, on the more general level, a suspicion of the nouvelle theologie  which had begun to gain ground after World War II.  The fear was that if there was any significant change in the elaborate structure of traditional theology the whole theological edifice (epitomized in the more or less official adherence to neo-Thomistic scholasticism) might collapse.  Thus the ideas of both the French Jesuits Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Henri Delubac (although neither writer was mentioned by name) were seen as critical, and so revolutionary that if left to continue to gain ground, incalculable damage might result.

        The story of Teilhard’s long and futile struggle to have his masterwork, Le phénomène humain[35], approved for publication is fairly well known. Revised several times to try to allay the fears of his Jesuit superiors, it still was never published in during his life time, but instead, through the agency of his non-clerical friends, some of them fellow scientists, only a few months after his death, in 1955. Soon after its translation into English and many other languages, it was banned or kept under the restricted reading shelves in Catholic institutions of higher learning. People who were otherwise qualified to teach in such institutions were even refused jobs simply because they had specialized in his thought.

        With Delubac, the story was, at least for a while, much the same. His monumental study on the doctrine of grace, titled Le surnaturel, was also denied church approval for publication a number of years.[36] The main difference was that Teilhard had died at age 73 in New York, more or less in exile from his beloved France, less than four years before Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), by which he hoped to open up the church to begin a new dialog with the wider world. Delubac, a few years younger than Teilhard, managed to quietly bide his time and after serving as a very influential behind-the-scenes advisor to the theological panel assigned to the council, lived long enough to be honored by his being raised to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1982. However, it must be said that, largely due to Delubac, the influence of Teilhard on the council was evident, especially in its final document Lumen gentium, known in its English translation as “The Church in the Modern World.” 

        The key idea underlying of Teilhard’s thought was his frequently repeated contention that, at least in the created order, matter is the “matrix” of spirit—one eventually giving rise to the other.[37] Matter, of its very nature, contains a certain potential to being combined and recombined in ever more complex relationships that sooner or later lead to the occurrence of life and then, eventually, thought. How explain this? As Teilhard saw it, matter and spirit are two different states or aspects of what is essentially the same thing, a single “stuff of the universe” which, according to him, possesses a dual character, or as he put it in Le Phénomène humain, matter contains both a without (le dehors—as studied by physics but ever more problematic when dealing with the life sciences) and a within (le dedans).[38] In 1953, he even went so far in his essay on “The Energy of Evolution” as to adopt a single German word Weltstoff (certainly no small matter for a Frenchman!) in order to express the essential unity of what he had in  mind.

        As for the soul itself, in the early pages of the Le phenonene humain, when the term is first used, it is bracketed by quotation marks, even while Teilhard, in addressing what he calls the “problem of the two energies,” admits that he is attracted to the idea of considering “that the ‘soul’ must be as it were the focal point of transformation at which, from all the points of nature, the forces of bodies converge, to become interiorized and  sublimated in beauty and truth”[39]  Later on, he uses this approach, now speaking of  a “Soul of souls”—but now without quotation marks—“developing at the summit of the world,” that is, the goal or “omega point” of evolution.[40] However, as for the former, what separates us as humans from the world of the animals is the complexity and thus the capacity of our thinking apparatus (the brain) for reflective thought, or as Teilhard put it: “Admittedly the animal knows. But it cannot know that it knows . . .” [41]

         Clearly, the implications of Teilhard’s views on these matters had (and can still have) an enormous potential to our understanding of human nature and its origins, and most particularly, on what, in classical philosophy and much of what has become identified as being essential to religion, belief in an immortal “soul.” Teilhard certainly realized it, and took great pains to mollify (disguise?) the revolutionary implications of his thoughts by stressing the decisive leap involved in crossing the “thresholds” from non-life to life, and again, even more from animal life to the human capacity.[42]   However, apparently this (as well as a carefully phrased footnote on the matter) [43] was not enough to satisfy the censors in Rome. Hence the reaction, on the part of Pius XII (or of his theological advisor on this matter) in insisting that the soul be seen as created “immediately” by God.

        Nevertheless, continuing to argue from what he considered to be phenomenological viewpoint (or what he sometimes called “hyperphysics”), Teilhard also asserted his belief that once our psychic capacities had reached this point in their evolutionary development, then there was little reason not to believe that

. . .the universe—a well-defined universe in the outcome—goes on building itself above our heads in the inverse direction of matter which vanishes.  The universe is a collector and conservator, not of mechanical energy, as we supposed, but of persons.  All around us, one by one, like a continual exhalation, ‘souls’ break away, carrying upwards their incommunicable load of consciousness. [44]

        Years later, just a few months before his death and in a lot less lyrical mode, Teilhard confronted what he called the “death-barrier” in much more universal, existential terms. Science, by enabling us to see farther ahead, has placed us in a situation that even worse than before. It is not just the individual person, but evolution itself that faces what he termed “the materialist dead-end.” Thus, while it still may be true that

Today ninety-nine percent of men, perhaps, still fancy that they can breathe freely this side of an unbreakable death-barrier—provided it is thought to be sufficiently far away. Tomorrow, (and of this I am certain because, like so many other people, I am already experiencing it) mankind would be possessed by a kind of panic claustrophobia simply at the idea that it might find itself hermetically sealed inside a closed universe.”[45]

The “closed universe” in question is not so much the cosmological shape of things to come[46]  but rather has to do with the future prospects for the human species regardless of the cosmic scenario.. According to Teilhard, the real key to understanding this dilemma lies elsewhere:

All this is because deep within us (without, perhaps, our suspecting it) reflective being has from all time been oriented, in its very substance, towards a super-life to which there can be no end: but also because we could not have a ‘mass perception’ of this primordial polarization until, all around us, co-reflection had attained a certain critical value.”[47]

In his appendix to this essay, Teilhard stated his belief that this critical stage in human evolution has begun to be reached and that “it can continue to function only in so far that man comes to realize that there is some prima facie evidence that the death barrier can be broken.”[48]

And it is here . . .that there make its way into physics and comes out into the open, not simply the ‘philosophical’ problem of immortality but (something much more unexpected) the question, in appearance completely ‘theological’, of a revelation”—the  latter term which Teilhard describes “in its Christian sense. . . the beyond making itself manifest ‘personally’ to the here-below.[49]

        Here it might also be said that Teilhard, though science, had reached the same conclusion that his younger colleague, Henri Delubac, in the latter’s study of the ancient church theologians had already reached in 1946. As a patristic scholar, Delubac became a severe critic of later scholastic theology, particularly that which prevailed in the church following the Council of Trent—in fact, so severe was the judgment on Delubac’s book that it led to his being banned from teaching as well. In it, he had particularly zeroed in on what he saw to be a distortion, in standard Catholic teaching at that time, of the distinction between the natural order (especially humanity, even before any primeval sin may have been committed, but even as originally created by God) and the “supernatural” order of divinely imparted assistance or what is called “grace.” Not that this assistance should not be seen as important, but in their efforts to emphasize its pure gratuity as purely a gift from God (the Greek word charis means “gift”) these counter-Reformation theologians had stressed the idea that human nature was, as far as human nature goes, totally closed to transcendence of any sort, this from the very start.

The early church fathers or theologians, according to Delubac, saw things quite differently. For them, human nature had been created, as it were, incomplete, or at most, with a capacity for self-transcendence or a built-in openness to God. We even find this in the western church father, St. Augustine, who despite his emphasis on (some might even say his invention of) “original sin,” expressed this more positive and open-ended view of human nature in his famous declaration that “Our hearts were created for thou, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in thee.” In any case, what Delubac emphasized in his reading of the more ancient tradition is that the true reading of the Catholic (as well as the Eastern Orthodox tradition) is to see human nature not only as incomplete, but naturally oriented toward union with God.  As Delubac, quoting from Mark Chenu, O.P., put it shortly after in the preface to his second book on the subject of grace:

There is always, ‘in primeval nature just as in nature as developed through history, a depth, a living response, a nature desire, a “force” upon which freely given grace finds something to work. As the Greeks used to say, the incarnate logos gathers the “seeds” planted by the creating logos. The Latins expressed it in different terms: man, as God’s image, is fitted to enter into communion with him, in liberty of mind and initiative of love.’[50]

Nevertheless, in one of his final chapters, Delubac raises an objection that he felt must be answered. He writes:

However ‘natural’, however real it may be, the desire for the vision of God is in no case what determines God’s actually giving that vision.  God is not governed by our desire.  The relationship between the two things must be in fact the opposite one: it is the freewill of the giver which awakens the desire.  This is incontestable.  There can be no reason for anything being due to the creature.[51]

It would almost seem, in this his second book on the subject, Delubac was bending over backwards to forestall any accusation that he was leaving himself open to the objections leveled at the first, namely, that human nature, for the very reason of its radical incompleteness, demands or has, as its due, completion by God.

Thus, after that citing numerous authors on the subject (including Rahner) Delubac again drives his point home:

Let us say that once more in conclusion: God could have a refusal to give himself to his creatures, just as he could have, and has, given himself.  The gratuitousness of the supernatural order is true individually and totally. It is gratuitousness in itself[52]

However, should it not also be asked “Why would God create us or allow us to evolve as creatures who experience this deep need for completion or transcendence beyond our limited selves?” Must there not be a more balanced way of  putting it? Perhaps this is why, despite his sometimes convoluted way of expressing himself, Karl Rahner coined the term “supernatural existential” to express this delicate balance of recognizing both the inborn need to transcend ourselves and yet the impossibility of doing so in any way that can guarantee permanence.  This need is as well as capacity is “existential” insofar as it is part of our human nature and its potential or openness to the transcendent.  But it is “supernatural” in so far as both its origin and fulfillment is ultimately dependent on God.   Thus the supernatural existential (as Rahner described it in his Encyclopedia of Theology [53]) is “. . . the limitless receptivity to God in one who is not God” and (as he further explained in his Foundations of Theology)

. . . does not become merited and in this sense [is] ‘natural’ by the fact that it is present in all men as an existential of their concrete existence and is present prior to their freedom, their self-understanding and their experience. … In this sense everyone, really and radically every person must be understood as the event of the supernatural self-communication, although not in the sense that every person necessarily accepts in freedom God’s self-communication to man.[54]   

 However, if both Delubac and Rahner are correct, then this raises the question as to whether immortality or survival after death is a natural outcome resulting from the possession of an immortal soul (the Platonic philosophical viewpoint adopted by traditional Christian thought) or even the natural product of human evolution (as Teilhard once seemed to suggest)? Rather, must it not be seen as a gift of God, whose “grace” somehow enables the human person to share in God’s own Being or undying life? Is this not much more in tune with the thought of St. Paul, especially in his writings where “resurrection” is not seen as the revivification of the material “corruptible body”, but rather of its replacement by “spiritual body” or of some yet indescribable existence of some sort?

If so, would this not be new, more thoroughly and traditionally Christian answer to the possibility of life after death, one which expands or extends Teilhard’s understanding of matter as the matrix of spirit, but in a way that both respects the boundaries of empirical science (which by definition would never be able to detect the presence of a “spiritual body” even if one was present) and which at the same time leaves open the door to a deeper appreciation of God’s gift of faith?    

5.  Conclusion

To the questions posed above, we must give an affirmative answer, no matter how reluctant we may be to do so. The human soul, if it exists at all, must be seen more in terms of the analogical or metaphorical meanings found in Webster’s, or redefined, as does Elmar Klinger in his article on “Soul” in The Encyclopedia of Theology, as “the constitutive element by which human existence is capable, by nature, of attaining selfhood” or again as “… human nature in its self-awareness and hence the primary force of the [its] subjectivity.”[55]  

Seen thus, the soul is neither the eternal spiritual entity envisioned by the Platonists, nor the “form” given to matter as understood by Aristotle and medieval scholastics. Nor can the soul’s existence be imagined (with all due respect to Descartes’ well-meant efforts) as some “ghost in the machine.” As Pope John Paul II put it, faith is not served by clinging to ancient “superstitions,” no matter how philosophically refined they may have become. Nor can the “idolatry” of our secular belief in humanity’s (or even nature’s) self-sufficiency be sustained.

        Instead, if it exists at all, the soul or our “selfhood” is the transient product or outcome of the evolutionary development of sentient matter, destined to perish with it as a natural result of ageing and decay—that is, unless some other agency were to intervene.  That agency or agent we call God or grace.

        None of this is to say that the individual human can do nothing or is entirely dependent on the will or even the whim of God.  The alternative to nihilism is not predestinarianism.  Instead, if there is one common theme in the authors that have been cited, especially Delubac and Rahner, it is that a certain capacity or openness to self-transcendence is characteristic of human life, whether this be understood as God’s creative self-donation of God’s own being (Rahner) or simply built, by the Creator, into the dynamism of life itself (Teilhard).  In either case, it has only been left to us to cooperate or not.

                                                                                October 25, 2009


[1] J. Ratzinger, The Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, Adrian Walker, tr., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 20.

[2] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2009, pp. 9-28. Wright has relied, in these matters, on such recognized anthropologists and scholars such as Tylor, Murdock, Spier,  Gatschet, Radcliffe-Brown, and Eliade.

[3] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973).

[4] Robert North, S.J. Teilhard and the Creation of the Soul, Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1967.

[5] John F. Dudek, Human Consciousness and the Material Soul: The Consensus of Religion and Science, Notre Dame, IN: Cross Cultural Publications, Inc., 2001.

[6] Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971, pp. 3-10.

7 Ibid. pp. 31, 36-38, 47.

[8] Ibid, pp. 60-65.

[9] Ibid. p. 69

[10] Ibid. p101.

[11] Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, New York, Garden City: Doubleday-Image, 1962, Vol. I, Part II, pp. 70-73.

[12] Ibid. pp. 214-16. See also the introductory essay by Paul Henry, S.J. on “The Place of Plotinus in the history of Thought” in Plotinus’ The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna. London: Penquin Books Ltd., 1991, pp. xlix-liv.

[13] H. Denzinger , Enchiridion Symbolorum , 32nd edition, revised and renumbered by A. Schönmetzer, Barcelona: Herder, 1963, number 3896.

[14] Robert North, 1967, pages 206-207.

[15] Teilhard de Chardin, in particular, expressed doubts about monogenism in his “Note on Some Possible Historical Representations of Original Sin” as early as 1922.  Although the paper remained unpublished until 1969, it resulted in Teilhard’s being banned from teaching at the Insitut Catholique in Paris and his eventually being assigned to do paleontological research in China. (See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, translated by Rene Hague, London: Collins, 1973, pp. 45-55.

[16] Denzinger 685.

[17] North, 1967, page 209.

[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997, article #366.

[19] Evangelium vitae, sections 60, 61.

[20] Catechism of the Catholic Church, article #2274.

[21] Summa Theologica,  I, 76, 1-8)

[22] Catechism of the Catholic Church, article # 365

[23] Dudek, Op. Cit., pp. 42, 81.

[24] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology. Translated by Cyril Vollert, S.J., St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1955, chapters 150-163.)

[25] See

[26] R. Puligandla,  Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy. Nashville: Abington Press, 1975, p. 65.

[27] Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[28] Quoted from Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books, 2000. (See Dudek, Op.Cit., pages 75-77.)

[29] The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, editors,

Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968, Article 77: 66, 170, 174.

[30] Compiled by Richard E. Whitaker, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, p.1485.)

[31] See Wright, Op. Cit., Chapter 8, pp. 188-215.

[32] See Dudek, Op. Cit., p. vi.

[33] Karl Rahner, Das Problem der Hominisation (Questiones Disputatae,12; Freiburg: Herder, 1961); Hominisation: The Evolutionary Origin of Man as a Theological Problem, translated by W.T. O’Hara, (New York: Herder and Herder,1966).

[34] This term, denoting a single pair of (in this case, human) progenitors, needs to be distinguished from the concept of monophylitism which denotes a single line or species. Teilhard was to discuss this matter in several pages of the book cited below, beginning with a footnote on page 166 of the English translation.

[35] Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1955; The Phenomenon of Man, translated by Bernard Wall, New York: Harper & Row, 1959. Note, a new English translation by Sarah Appleton Weber, The Human Phenomenon, was published by Sussex Academic Press in 2000. However, references in this paper are to the 1959 Harper & Row edition.

[36] Critical reviews of Delubac’s manuscript on Le surnaturel appeared as early as 1950, the same year as the publication of Humani generis. The book was only published (finally with official church permission) in 1964.

[37] The term first appeared in Teilhard’s writings in the  Easter-time 1919 essay “Les noms de la matière” as first published in the collection Escrits du temps de la guerre (Paris: Editions du seuil, 1965, p.456) where it reads, according to René Hague’s translation (as published in the volume Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980): “Like a little child still clinging to its mother’s breast, our spirit sends down all sorts of tendrils and roots into Materia matrix. It needs that material mother in order to live; and the grand role of the soul is to extract—to the last drop if that were possible—the spiritual power generously stored in the lower circles of the Universe.”  Or again, in his 1950 autobiographical essay “The Heart of Matter,” we can find the following statements: “Matter is the matrix of the spirit. Spirit is the higher form of matter” (p. 35) “. . .  “For me, Matter was the matrix of Consciousness  . . . (p. 45) and finally in the conclusion, again the phrase “Materia matrix” (p. 60).  The phrase “la puissance spirituelle” in the 1919 essay was to in part form the title of his next essay on the subject “La Puissance spirituelle de la Matière” (Escrits du temps de la guere, pp. 467-79) dated August 1919. An English translation of this latter, which is a kind of prose poem, appears in the volume Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, published in London by William Collins & Sons, and in New York by Harper & Row in 1964.

[38] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, pp. 53-54 (Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy. London: Collins, 1963, p. 362).

[39] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, p. 63.

[40] Ibid. p. 268

[41] Teilhard continues “. . .  that is quite certain. If it could [know that it knows], it would have long ago multiplied its inventions and developed a system of internal constructions that could not have escaped our observations.” Ibid.  pp. 165-66. Or again, we find this same approach repeated, in his 1951 definition of “Reflection: the state of consciousness become capable of seeing and foreseeing itself. To think is not only to know, but to know that one knows.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, A Major Problem for Anthropology” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy, London: Collins, 1963, p. 316). In addition, one might even add here, as a corollary, that from this same difference comes also our capacity for true freedom: animals can and do make “choices,” but most of them (as researched by the Behaviorists) seem determined by genetic and environmental factors. Only humans, because of their capacity for reflective thought, are capable of true acts of “willing,” or to put it another way, of overcoming the deterministic factors that would otherwise dictate our thoughts and the actions that result. (Richard W. Kropf, Evil and Evolution: A Theodicy. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Associated University Presses, 1984.  Reprinted by Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR in 2004. See pages 102-9, 125-33.)

[42] The term “threshold” (le pas) is used on at least nine times in The Phenomenon of Man.  See especially pages 164-84.

[43] See especially the footnote on page 169 of The Phenomenon of Man where Teilhard again insists (as he did in his 1947 preface) that he is speaking from a phenomenological, not a metaphysical point of view.

[44] Ibid., p. 272.

[45] Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy,  p. 403.

[46] The most recent astronomical data, in fact, seems to indicate that the Big Bang, in fact, may be actually accelerating leading to an infinitely “open universe,” but one which is paradoxically doomed to be unable to engender or support new life in eons to come. However, the implications of the current data remains much in debate.

[47] Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy, p. 403.

[48] Ibidem.

[49] Ibid., p. 404.

[50] Henri Delubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, translated by Rosemary Sheed, Montreal, Palm Publishers, 1947, p.

[51] Ibid., p.272

[52] Ibid., pp. 309-10.

[53] Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Karl Rahner, New York, Seabury Press, 1975, p. 891.

[54] Karl Rahner, The Foundations of Theology: An  Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Translated by William V. Dych. New York: Seabury Press, 1978, pp. 127-8)

[55] Karl Rahner, ed., Encyclopedia of Theology, p. 1615.