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In Search of a Soul

It’s a rare thing indeed to observe members of the media from across the left-right spectrum offering something like a collective mea culpa in response to how they reported something. But this is, incredibly, what is happening in the aftermath of the storm generated by the already infamous video of the encounter between the Covington Catholic boys, the Native American elder, and the Black Hebrew Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial last week.

A relatively ordinary dustup at a protest that probably wouldn’t even have been news before the dawn of the smartphone touched off a quite predictable conflagration of outrage and virtue signalling and the reinforcing of moral and political narratives. When the story turned out to be a bit more complex, a bit more resistant to tidy narratives of obvious good vs obvious evil, some journalists did a peculiar (and commendable) thing. They said, effectively, “We should have resisted the hot take. We were too quick to judge in ways that served our preferred version of the story.” In some cases, there were even calls to withhold judgment (can you imagine?!) going forward. To take a step back. To ask inconvenient questions. To be the adult instead of the reactionary child.

Of course, these sober pleas probably won’t live long in our collective memory. Like everything else on the internet, they will disappear after their few hours on the online shelf, to be replaced by the next shiny digital object. “Cold takes” don’t sell, obviously, and as long as there is money to be made on online outrage, people will continue to be shepherded toward snap judgments and the stoking of inquisitional flames. Our dopamine-hungry brains will continue to obediently trawl the internet for vindication of our views. These calls for more measured responses to the news of the day (or what passes for it) will bounce around for a while in the aftermath of the Covington fiasco, but I doubt we will learn much from them. The next viral video of the next outrage-worthy offense will offer us the next opportunity to perform and parade our righteousness online. And we will, I suspect, gladly seize it.

This is the point where I often pivot to a plea for a lowering of our collective anthropology. We are all self-interested, all biased, all stupid and sinful. We should be more suspicious of our virtue and our rightness, etc., etc. But today, I find myself inclined in a different direction. It’s not that I don’t have a low anthropology. I do, certainly. I think it’s vitally necessary to make sense of ourselves and of the world, and to act with the humility appropriate to our station. But I also think we have lost something vital when it comes the inherent value and worth of each human being. This is evident in how we speak about our enemies, how quickly we leap to hammer their every transgression (real or imagined), how eagerly we shame and mock them, particularly online. Very often we don’t think nearly as highly of one another as we ought to.

I sometimes take pictures of quotes in books when I have nothing to write with. I found a note on my phone today with a snapshot of the following quote. I had no idea where it came from, initially, but I sleuthed out the source as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The quote itself is from the nineteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle and is approvingly cited by one of the characters in the novel:

Does it ever give thee pause, that men used to have a soul—not by hearsay alone, or as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew, and acted upon! Verily it was another world then… but yet it is a pity we have lost the tidings of our souls… we shall have to go in search of them again, or worse in all ways shall befall us.

I don’t know the specific context of the quote. On one level, I imagine it is probably a religious argument for the eternal destiny of human beings. We’re not just the accidental products of biology and sociology, little more than a quiver in the dirt destined to eat and breed, make a bit of noise for a few decades and return to the dirt. We have souls, damnit! We are more than that! It’s probably a plea for an exalted view of human uniqueness that many in our day are quite keen to (inconsistently) leave behind.

But today, I’m also wondering what it might be like for us to, as Carlyle alludes to, act upon the idea that we are en-souled creatures. We might cast a thought toward God now and again, certainly, but we might also pay more attention to our fellow en-souled human beings. If we really believed that our neighbours, whether insolent teenagers in MAGA hats or Native American war veterans or Black Hebrew Israelites or whoever else, really had souls that could be shaped toward goodness, truth, beauty, eternity, even… That they weren’t just object lessons in the reinforcement of our worldviews. That they were particular and precious, not just placeholders in some irredeemable category in our brains. How would that change our discourse? Our behaviours? Our judgments? What if we actually believed this? It is indeed a pity that we have lost the tidings of our souls.

I’m not naïve. I know that people have always behaved in beastly ways toward each other, even when most people were convinced that they had a soul. But I’m with Carlyle. I think we shall have to go in search of them again. Bad things are befalling us and we need healthier and more life-giving ways of understanding ourselves and our neighbours if we’re ever going to find a way out of all the ugliness, both of the news of the day and of our reactions to it.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    The time for a widespread understanding such as this, has past. The Christian narrative has sold itself for comfort. We think it enough that groups of us continue to worship a Christian God even though that worship is neither trans-formative for us, or for our societies. We are varieties of secular people selectively, “cherry picking” certain aspects of Christian culture. In the same way someone home decorates, borrowing superficial cultural symbols from somewhere else we adorn our homes, ourselves…..our faith is mostly fashion; lived somewhere else at some other time.

    If there is even a true remnant left it must withdraw itself from a western secularism that has reduced our faith to one of a multiplicity of options and self truths and ours a rather primitive, dated superstition, at that.

    Your hope is impossible, I am afraid.

    It is far worse then we imagine.

    I really think we are Sodom and we are need of an Abraham to plead on our behalf to find even a few truly righteous people.

    January 23, 2019
    • mike #

      The Truth spoken from a Prophet of God, hear him.

      January 24, 2019
      • Paul Johnston #

        I believe in the charismatic gifts, Mike, prophecy among them but I make no such claim here. This response was not born of prayer and reflection, rather it is something of a default disposition based on the experiences of my, “half lived” life of faith.

        Pray for me, please. It really isn’t a good place to be, to be mournful of your own faith expression and of the faith expression of most others you encounter…..young catholic men in, “MAGA” hats says it all.

        Who is teaching them about Christ? Who is this, “Christ” they are being taught about?

        If I am His and I seek to influence as He would have me influence then all I say is prefaced and contextualized by Matthew 7:3…

        “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

        January 25, 2019
    • I don’t think my hope is impossible, Paul. All kinds of expressions of faithfulness to Christ and his way have emerged from tiny remnants throughout history. And from an Anabaptist perspective, at least, the goal has never been to change culture but to be a faithful witness.

      Mustard seeds are all that is necessary.

      January 25, 2019
      • Paul Johnston #

        Surely the kind of understanding that would lead to us to, “acting as if we were ensouled creatures” would have to have universal appeal for it to take hold. Some group of people would have to be charged with spreading this message to the ends of the earth….they have, it was us and if I see the tide of history correctly, we failed.

        Not change culture? Christ, for us who dare to say we believe, should be our culture! Being a faithful witness, whatever that means to a materially indulgent people, is always contextualized by the command that we are our brothers keeper. How does this faithful remnant come to know God, to know the fruits of salvation, if it is indifferent to the damnation human cultures cultivate….sound more like, “I’m alright, sucks to be you” then faithful witness.

        Calvin so hated the world that this was his vision. I thought we followed a Lord who so loved the world that He died for everyone’s sin, not just the remnants. If we wind up as just a few. Who is that on? The insufficiency of God’s salvic sacrifice or how we lived His message?

        As for the mustard seed analogy, even if my faith were to become such a glorious thing how is it anything other then a Pyrrhic victory for me when it is very likely that almost all I know and love will burn, perhaps for an eternity.

        January 25, 2019
  2. George Epp #

    Ponder this: the school which these kids attended apologized and stated that an appropriate response would happen, up to expulsion. The central aboriginal elder recognized it as taunting. The highly politically charged hats worn by students on a school trip doesn’t mean nothing. For us to take the “the media got it wrong, again” stance is to neglect the fact that if America is to become or return to civility, it cannot afford lax education standards in which students are forgiven (Trump has even suggested he might invite them to the White House) while reportage is blamed. This is revisionism.The Paul Johnston letter leaves me unsettled. The immediacy of the news has masked the fact that socially, culturally, even crime-wise, (by statistics) we’re getting better in North America, not worse. I agree that the church isn’t living up to its mandate, but it never has, and there are people who are working hard to address the shortfalls given the current age.

    January 24, 2019
    • Paul Johnston #

      Hi, George. I hope all is well with you sir.

      George, I am hoping that what unsettles you may result in a deepening of faith, both for you and for me. Words are wasted among us if we don’t deepen our understandings when we converse. Teach each other what we know, what we can say without hesitation, ” the Lord has shown us to be true.”

      I shall not say anything substantive about your concerns, or what I perceive them to be, you addressed, Ryan and may not wish to have a conversation with me. I take absolutely no offense if this is so. His peace be with you, brother.

      January 25, 2019
    • George, were the boys taunting the native elder? Almost certainly. Was there a racist tone to some of their actions? Yup. Is wearing a MAGA hat to a public demonstration unnecessary and incendiary? Without question. I made no apology for the boys in this post.

      And, yes, the school/diocese apologized. It seems this was more a reactionary response to the mob than based on any kind of deep understanding of what happened.

      Neither one of these things changes the point of my post.

      January 25, 2019
  3. Paul Johnston #

    “If you have been foolish, exalting yourself, or if you have been devising evil, put you hand on your mouth. For as pressing milk produces curds and pressing the nose produces blood, so pressing anger produces strife.” (Proverbs 30: 32-33)

    The word of the Lord.

    January 25, 2019
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, I meant to say one more thing, Ryan. Even if I go to heaven, I kinda don’t. Not if people I know and loved are trapped in hell. If that happens then a big part of who I am goes with them. I burn too.

    January 25, 2019
    • All the more reason, then, to place our hope in a God whose mercy is wider, whose justice is truer, and whose love for sinners is far deeper and more reliable than our own.

      January 25, 2019
  5. Paul Johnston #

    An ensouled creature has no other option then but to seek out the path of salvation and draw others with him, to it. The alternative is a path of damnation. There is no middle ground for a soul. Eternal salvation or eternal damnation.

    Perhaps this is why so many, recognizing their own malevolence and the malevolence of others, choose a secular path. Live as best you can, love as best you can, die when you die and disregard any notion of afterlife.

    If a person has lived a reasonably generous life but purposefully without faith and church, I wonder what their future bodes. I think a loving God, recognizing the sometimes toxic expression of His word by others, could be forgiving. My one true hope is that in death they/we are confronted by Christ with an offer of true love, true faith, true salvation and what we couldn’t find the conscience to commit to in life, we will have the chance to embrace in the next.

    I know my future in this regard is less secure then others. I have been blessed with a mother who is a saint. I cannot claim ignorance or that my spirit was poisoned by wicked intent. I have seen how a saint lives. More is, rightfully asked of me.

    Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. Be honest about your life of faith.It is the liars and hypocrites who will suffer. I have to believe, as I encourage all to believe, that even a little faith however humble and unsteady, honestly lived, can be enough for an all knowing and all merciful God to except and deepen.

    May the peace of the living God, our Lord Jesus Christ, be with you always.

    January 30, 2019
  6. Paul Johnston #

    …accept and deepen….

    January 30, 2019

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