What Is the Soul? Part 1
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

What Is the Soul? Part 1

This question has important implications for animal issues, because the denial of souls to nonhuman beings has often been an excuse for treating them badly. I would like to reflect on what is meant by the “soul” and whether or not there are good reasons to deny that nonhuman beings have souls.
I think the Bible describes humanity as a distinctive creation with special rights and responsibilities, but it does not convey that only human beings have souls. The Hebrew Scriptures use the same words, nephesh chayah, to describe the essence of both human and nonhuman beings. When relating the term to humans, translators of Genesis 2:7 have called nephesh chayah “soul” (King James Version) or “being” (Revised Standard Version). In Genesis 2:19, which refers to animals, both versions have translated nephesh chayah as “creature.” Those who have used these verses to claim that only humans have souls have relied on translators’ biases and not the Scriptures themselves. Indeed, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to earth?” (3:19-21)
Among the many stories in which the Bible recognizes the importance of animals in Creation, after the Flood, five times God makes a covenant with both humans and animals not to flood the earth again. Why should there be such concern expressed at the same time for animals and humans if there were fundamental differences between them? If God is responsible for the existence of all living beings, it does not seem reasonable to argue that God would imbue animals with abilities to think and feel yet deny them a soul. Those who find the evidence for evolution compelling, and I am among them, note the continuities between human beings and other beings. If the soul were a unique human attribute, at what point in evolutionary history did the soul arise? If the soul is not uniquely human, who among nonhuman beings have one?
 Next week, I will begin to explore theories about the soul, discussing strengths and weaknesses of different proposals.

Go on to: What Is the Soul? Part 2
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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