“How is it with your soul?”

We probably wouldn’t think of asking someone that question today, but maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing. The question itself sounds outdated and very 19th century, certainly not the kind of question we would ask anyone in this postmodern, technological era. But our failure to ask that question may be a clue to why people are increasingly choosing to stay away from our churches. Let me explain.

The concept of soul has fallen on hard times in our uber-scientific age. We no longer entertain the quaint notion that we need to attend to or care for our souls. As a matter of fact, the whole business of the human soul is up for grabs.

I just finished reading “Whatever Happened to the Soul?” Its authors discuss the various theories of the human soul, including the theory that the soul doesn’t really exist, that humans are no more than their component physical parts. The book rejects that notion and opts for a holistic view of human beings as a unity of body and soul.

Thomas Moore, in his best-selling book, “Care of the Soul,” writes from a monastic background but expands the idea of soul to include more than a person’s eternal destiny. Moore contends that we need to care for our souls, the essence of who we are as living beings, and pay more attention to the “soul” of all things both living and inanimate.

Of all places, we should be talking about and attending to the idea of soul in our churches. And that is the way things used to be. John J. McNeill’s classic book, “A History of the Cure of Souls,” traces the importance of the soul in pre-Christian and Christian cultures. In short, the church used to pay great attention to the idea of soul and the condition of the souls of its congregants.

Before the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am,” man’s existence revolved around the idea of his soul. Granted, there was a lot of Platonic dualism, separating the idea of physical body from immaterial soul, but even with that duality, soul was more than just that part that went to heaven. Soul was the essence of humanity, the part of mankind that responded to God; souls needed “curing,” which meant both caring for and gathering into the Christian community.

But with the Enlightenment, science and the scientific method pushed faith and God out of the public realm. One could talk about things that were provable, but of course, faith and the soul were not among those things. Hence, the loss of the soul began.

In the 20th century, the shift continued as the Christian message was intellectualized. The appeal was to what the individual had or had not done: Have you accepted Christ as your savior? Have you been born again? Do you believe the Bible?

And mid-20th century evangelicals asserted a fundamental faith in the Bible, and several denominations engaged in what Harold Lindsell in 1978 called “The Battle for the Bible.” Again, an appeal to a system of beliefs, not the state of one’s soul.

Of course, belief is important and the history of the church confirms this with the ancient creedal statements of the faith that addressed doctrinal matters from an intellectual standpoint. But what was lost in the 20th century was an emphasis on the condition of one’s soul because that was displaced by the condition of one’s mind. “How is it with your soul?” was replaced with “What do you believe?”

But if we return to the question of “How is it with your soul?”, we would accomplish several things.

  • The human soul would again become the location of our spiritual lives. Some might call this a heart-versus-head battle, but that doesn’t really express it. To be a human soul is not to choose warm affection over clear-headed intellect. Being a human soul encompasses both. But if we must choose a focus, that focus should be on our souls, not our brains.
  • Focusing on the condition of our souls would remind us that the soul needs constant care. The loss of concern about the condition of our souls has come about because we think that all we have to do for our souls is to “trust Jesus as our personal savior.” That certainly is a critical part of both caring for and “curing” our souls. But to assume that the totality of soul care is a one-time decision is equivalent to believing that we only need to eat one meal in our lifetimes to care for our bodies. We attend to our bodies each day with food, drink and care, and our souls are no different and no less important.
  • To ask “How is it with your soul?” is to invite others to search their own souls for the answer. The question can be asked of believer and nonbeliever alike and can lead to further conversation about the care of souls through prayer, spiritual practice and surrender to God through Christ.

Churches should be communities in which the real issues of our humanity are presented. Instead of answering questions about the soul, however, much of our effort focuses on popular problems and their solutions.

While it’s fine to have a series on “How to have a great marriage” or “What the Bible says about finances,” the problems of 21st-century life are soul problems, not just technical problems followed by self-help answers. We must not become cultural technicians when what the world needs are doctors of the soul.

So “How is it with your soul today?” Not “Did you attend church last week?” or “Do you have a quiet time each day?” but how is your soul doing? And how are the souls of your church members today? Are they strong souls, grieving souls, healthy souls or lost souls? We may need a new way to ask that old question of “How is it with your soul?” If we fail to ask it, we are failing to attend to the most basic need of human beings.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. This column appeared originally on his blog.

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