The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul

We have all had that unwelcome guest who didn’t quite fit in. On the surface, he or she comes off as awkward, bombastic, or just a little larger than life. We have also had those cases where, at times, the unwelcome guest positively surprises us. In many ways, the soul is that unwelcome guest. The ancient belief in the soul is now often disregarded in philosophy, ignored by the sciences, mocked in the social sciences, and treated with a hand-wave in theology as no longer necessary and worth taking seriously. However, that same guest who we found a bit off-putting has and is making a comeback as we reconsider what it means to be human. The soul is making a comeback for several reasons.

The impetus for undermining the belief in the soul is that it is not only an unwelcome guest but a spooky, eerie ghost-like figure that no longer has relevance in a scientifically informed view of the world. In fact, it is commonly held by some scientists concerning ultimate reality that souls are not only irrelevant but spooky holdovers from an ancient era that no longer is motivated by what we know from science and has no evidence in its favor. This naturalist frame as I call it here has made its way into many of the “respectable” disciplines of study all the way into the cultural consciousness. Even worse, its creeping influence holds some force in other areas that still desire to retain something of the ancient view of the cosmos as having some relevance to explaining the world and what we hold dear.

Some of the reasons the soul is coming back into mainstream discussions (it never really left) has something to do with ongoing reports of the afterlife, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences that if true require, no, demand, some explanation beyond the material world to something like a soul. But, it’s not just in the contemporary popular consciousness that we find these discussions.

Philosophers have made the soul-concept “respectable” again as a live view of persons worth taking seriously. This is particularly true of figures like Howard Robinson, Richard Swinburne, John Foster, David Lund, Charles Taliaferro, and many others. David Chalmers, who famously articulated a not “new” (it is really only new in an age where materialism permeates) problem and called it the hard problem of consciousness (i.e., the problem of reconciling phenomenal qualitative experience with physics and biology with their explanatory reference being spatially extended objects that are measured by quantities; consciousness just is not the same as the material, nor is it reducible to it) aided in bringing the soul-concept back into discussions about human persons as a respectable option deserving the attention of philosophers.

In these ways, the notion of consciousness, and relatedly personal identity, has and continues to impact how the sciences and the results of the sciences are considered. One of the crucial questions from biological studies is the question of consciousness. Where did it come from? How did it evolve? Was it naturally selected? Does it adapt? And, does consciousness have any place in biological evolution at all? One of the concerns is whether or not the sciences have much of anything at all to say about consciousness or personal identity; the other is whether the sciences have effectively excluded the soul as explanatorily necessary.

Relatedly, the world of religious studies has been influenced by the sciences and some of the dominating patterns from varying scientific communities to rethink this age-old notion of the soul. Some have advanced a complete rejection of the soul as the center of consciousness, the core of personal identity, and the means by which persons will survive this life. Naturally, in an attempt to retrieve these religious ideas, there has been significant pushback to the attempt of a complete revision of the person as a soul.

In The Creation of Self, I address these concerns to the soul by energizing the reasons we should not only believe in the soul-concept, but that we must. While there are other competitors worth engaging as respectable options for consideration, I show the link that these have to their naturalist frame and why the soul traditionally construed is a better option. In fact, it might just turn out that what was once conceived as an unwelcome guest turns out to surprise us as a better option than its naturalist competitors.

In the Anglican world, the creation of the self should be not only a welcome guest, but one that occupies a seat of honor. Unfortunately, there are several factors that render such a view as a forgotten memory of the past. The created self as soul is a fixture of the wider Christian tradition. In fact, the notion that the self as soul is a created entity by God is the most commonly affirmed view in Church history, amongst Roman Catholics and Reformed Scholastics. And, Anglicans have commonly affirmed something like it in many cases as well, as reflected in the Book of Common Prayer with its common usage of body and soul, which highlights the belief held in the wider tradition and codified in the various ecumenical and creedal statements. On this point, Anglicans have numerous sources from which to draw to make sense of a distinctive theological anthropology, which prizes the soul as central to the dogmatic tradition. 

More important still, the present argument draws from the Plato-Augustine tradition of philosophical anthropology that takes seriously the relationship of souls to God. Representing this same tradition is the Reformed theologian John Calvin, who in his Institutes begins the discussion with the epistemic point that knowledge of God and souls overlap and point to the other. The intimacy of such a perspective is notable and permeates Calvin’s corpus. Building on this common and important insight from Plato-Augustine and Calvin, I re-introduce the idea of a created self as soul that opens the door afresh to consider the foundational way in which God and soul inform our wider understanding of Nature as a created entity permeable with signs and pointers to God. The end of the argument, which begins as a unique natural theological argument for God and humans, re-frames our understanding of the world and Nature that makes it not a disenchanted world (as is common to naturalistic and secular views of human persons) but an enchanted world. 

The present discussion, then, helps us to see the world through these fundamental lenses. The world of Nature as a sacramental mystery profuse with signs of the Divine is re-introduced as a viable notion. Further, the unique role of Christian revelation (of the Bible through Tradition) becomes a source to fill in the particulars of our understanding of humans and the rest of nature. Indeed, the old emblematic vision of the world common to the Renaissance and developed by Jonathan Edwards becomes a live possibility granting the Christian vision a unique place amongst its competitors that are, at present, receiving significant attention–namely variants of naturalism, pantheism, and panentheism. The pastoral, apologetical, and worldview opportunities are ripe possibilities given this fertile frame from which a vision of God and soul become fundamental to our understanding of the rest of the world. 

For additional discussion on the nature of the soul with critical interaction of naturalistic and secular alternatives, see: The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul.


Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris, Rev, Ph.D, He is Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum, Germany, 2022-2023; Mundelein Seminary Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor, 2020-2021, March 2020 Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.

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