“The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.” -- Emerson
But first, I need to explain what I believe a soul is.
I believe a soul is effectively “on loan” for each human being. Emerson called it the Oversoul, process theology sees it as one encompassing event that has always been, yet is progressive and changeable in nature. From this oversoul, we each are given a part. We humans share in a giant pool of oxygen, it becomes one with us, yet it is still part of the oxygen that exists worldwide. Similarly, we each have a soul within us that becomes part of us, yet is still part of the great oversoul that unites us all.
It seems logical to me that our little part of the oversoul, now called “our soul,” develops in us, in the womb, in a natural way, just as our hearts, lungs, and brain develop. We are born with everything we need, we do not at 20 years suddenly sprout a new organ, so it seems to me that we are born with a soul.
But just like a brain, our soul at birth has a ways to grow. How we are loved, how we are challenged, how we learn to love and exist, all grow and strengthen our inherent soul. I have written about the soul being an organ, but perhaps it is more appropriate to describe it as a muscle. Never using it causes atrophy. Exercising it, through compassion, through working for others in this world, strengthens it. And to continue the metaphor, yes, it is possible to overtax one’s soul; when the balance between serving versus enjoying the gift of existence tilt so far into serving that one forgets the gift of being here, the soul is exhausted. It needs time to heal.
And it can. Our souls are wonderful, elastic things, that in most cases, with the right “medicine,” can heal. As ministers, we are doctors to the soul, prescribing exercise for those who need it, rest for those who need that, love and attention for all the souls. And right now, just as the vast majority of medicine is being done at home, by dads putting on bandaids, moms giving cough syrup, individuals offering an aspirin to a a friend, we each minister to each other. Life circumstances can damage a soul; deeply and lovingly listening to the person is our stethoscope. We listen for where the damage is located, applying compassion and offering a safe place to rest while the healing takes place.
But is the soul eternal? is another point of argument. For me, I say, yes. When we die, our bodies don’t cease to exist. They change form, they become one with the earth. So, too, our souls do not cease to exist. No longer in individual form, carried in our human container, they return to the oversoul. In most cases, it is a different soul that returns to the oversoul (well, really, it never left, just as the oxygen within my body is still part of earthly oxygen). But the portion of the soul carried within an individual has grown, and changed. And thus, it affects the rest of the oversoul, just as the person’s life on earth affected the lives of others, affecting who they became.
In this way, yes, I believe in an eternal soul, that takes residence in us before we are born, and continues to exist after our physical body dies.
UU Salon: May 2010, "What is a Soul?"