The nature of the soul is a complex issue which goes beyond religious thought and impacts upon it enormously. The most common view held by Christians and promulgated by the media is that of dualism, a concept which started with Plato in which each individual can be separated into body and soul. "Does not death mean that the body comes to exist by itself, separated from the soul?" asked Socrates in Plato's Phaedo. This understanding permeates Christian theology and is evident in the popular understanding of an afterlife. It has also given birth to the idea that our soul is our real self and it is merely trapped inside our material bodies, creating a damaging dichotomy which inevitably leads to a negative and neglectful view of creation.
Despite its popularity, soul/body dualism is at odds with modern scientific understanding and embracing it leads to a philosophical minefield if one dares to explore its implications.Our personality can easily be affected by chemical substances, most noticeably illegal drugs but more commonly alcohol and even tobacco and operations can permanently alter personality and memory. If the soul is the source of these aspects, why is it affected as though it is a facet of the brain? People with split-brain (where the corpus callossum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is severed) are unable to make connections which require both sides of the brain. If consciousness were the product of an immaterial soul this would not be an issue as it would communicate with both sides without needing a material connection.
More philosophical and theological questions arise from dualism, such as when, during evolution, did the soul become part of humankind? When does it enter the body of each human? How do souls and bodies interact? What is the relationship between the soul and the mind? Neuroscientists have trouble separating mind and brain; throwing in a third component makes the effort intractable. Also, the more we learn about the functions of the brain the less this leaves the soul to do, rendering it redundant. Responses have been formulated to these questions, though they are found severely wanting and unsatisfactory.
Initially this may seem damning to religious sensibilities which hold to the idea that we are made up of body and soul. Many atheist philosophers criticise theism's dependency on dualism, but is this warranted? It turns out that Plato's influence is not found in Scripture, where a very different concept of the soul is found. In the Old Testament we do not have souls, we are souls; the word used is nephesh. In the New Testament the idea crops up again where bodily resurrection is what is promised. Monism is the view of the Bible, not some atheistic philosophy used as a weapon against us. It does, however, need some developing in order to see how it can fit into our theistic framework.
Firstly this change from dualism to monism is one of perspective and the recognition that dualism is a categorical error. It is a mistake to think of a soul as something extra; it is the whole, the sum of the parts. The body is the total human from one perspective; the soul is the total human from another perspective. The true Biblical view is one of interdependence and integration, which applies to both individuals and groups. In Scripture both spirit and flesh are often contrasted, but never body and soul.
One issue which may seem to arise is the issue of identity. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells which are constantly being replaced and recycled so how can that be us? John Polkinghorne uses the phrase "information-bearing pattern" to explain what the soul is. This encompasses everything that makes us unique and brings hope that during the act of resurrection this pattern will be remembered by God. On its own this view may seem a bit dry, a bit dull, and maybe even reductionist; surely not the stuff of Christianity?
Language about the soul must therefore retain its religious importance. Polkinghorne's solution to this is to label his belief "dual-aspect monism" ensuring that it is not forgotten that there are two perspectives here. Ultimately for the Christian language about the soul points to the fact of eternal destiny, made to grow in knowledge and love of God. The soul is a human being when they sing "Praise the Lord my soul... I want to sing to my God as long as I live" (Ps. 146.1-2). The word nephesh originally refers to a body part, the throat, and also is used to refer to bodily needs such as hunger and thirst. An important part of having a soul is having a thirst for life, especially for life in God. The soul speaks to us both of human frailty and of a priceless treasure, for the soul can be harmed yet it can rejoice in the Lord.
One issue with theistic monism needs clearing up (actually the issue of free will inevitably emerges in this discussion, but that is a discussion unto its own, best saved for another time). If the soul is our information-bearing pattern, does it not follow that duplicates can be made, thereby negating our individuality? This presupposes that we are of importance as individuals, a presupposition I will accept for sake of argument. For a Christian it must be remembered that God is part of this equation and that if He desires to love us all as individuals then it is part of His will that we will remain as such. Outside of a Christian framework this answer may not be satisfactory, but within one it makes perfect sense.
The benefits of theistic monism are many. As mentioned, our understanding becomes not only more concordant with contemporary understanding in science and philosophy, but also appears to match the historical views found in the Old Testament and New. It also brings the body back to a position of importance, for it was created "very good". This in turn brings about a more positive attitude towards creation, giving us responsibility, for the material world is not some evil prison; it is an integral part of being. It also brings focus back to bodily resurrection, a concept often mentioned in theology but never really looked into. This promise makes more sense in light of theistic monism, where ever-changing matter is spiritually transformed, yet we still retain what makes us, well, us.
Another interesting bonus is that it distances Christianity from many superstitious beliefs and spiritualist claims such as reincarnation, ghosts, astral projection and séances with the dead. These are beliefs which some Christians confusingly hold despite there being no Scriptural support for them. Such beliefs are given a breeding ground when dualism is rife.
Much more could be said on this topic and my points could be fleshed out enormously. For now though I would like to entertain one last idea, one which may perhaps be controversial. The question is, do animals have souls? Nephesh is often used also in reference to animals in Scripture, but Biblical language is very dynamic, so stating this alone misses a bigger picture. Animals do indeed have information-bearing patterns and Scripture would lead us to believe that God desires all of creation to be renewed, including the animals (which we are connected to through evolution). In this sense they do have souls, however, it is our duty to raise them up in communion with God through our thirst for life in God. So in answer to the question I would say yes and no. Taken alone they are not souls in the same way that humans are, but through our actions they are reconciled to God and become living souls which share our destiny.
In day to day life the concept of the soul is not of much importance, but in order to maintain a consistent theology of nature it must be addressed. I feel like a happy soul for having explained my monistic views.
I have used a few unreferenced resources within this text, they are as follows:
Harries, R. 2005. Life After Death from a Christian Perspective. In Solomon, N. Harries, R. and Winter, T. Abraham's Children. T&T Clark, London. pp 300-301.
Myers, D. 2009. Real Psychological Science, Real Faith. In Berry, R.J. Real Scientists, Real Faith. Monarch Books, Oxford. pp 120-121.
Polkinghorne, J. 1996. Scientists as Theologians. SPCK, London. pp 54.
Taizé. 2005. Seek and you will find. Continuum, London. pp 85-88.
Vardy, P. 1999. The Puzzle of God. Fount, London. pp 224-233.
Ware, K. 2005. The Environment from a Christian Perspective. In Solomon, N. Harries, R. and Winter, T. Abraham's Children. T&T Clark, London. pp 266-267.