The Public Nature of the Human Soul

The Question: In his speech to U.S. bishops last week, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Any tendency to treat religion as … Continued

The Question: In his speech to U.S. bishops last week, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted . . . To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?

I agree profoundly with Pope Benedict that religion that restricts itself to the private sphere alone is missing a vital spiritual component. Indeed, I think on this we agree completely that it is a matter of your very soul.

I wish to be quite concrete in my agreement with the Pope’s statement and give a very specific and urgent example of where I think the public nature of the soul is at risk in the United States today. In recent years the United States, in adopting the practice of torture, has lost its soul and that this imperils the souls of every citizen in this nation. This is a religious matter of profound import and we ignore it at our spiritual peril.

The human soul, when people think about it at all, is often regarded as the “ghost in the machine.” It isn’t. What we call the soul is best understood as the integrity between our values and our actions. This is the common sense definition and it is correct. When someone abandons his values for purely material gain, people will say, “He sold his soul.” For someone to have a soul, his actions in individual and public life need to line up. When they don’t, this is the essence of soullessness.

Whole nations, too, have souls, I believe. When the actions of a whole people do not match their expressed values, then that whole nation has lost its soul. I have written and spoken on this many times in relation to the fact that we as a nation, despite our core value of freedom, have now adopted torture as a practice we routinely employ. And we are paying a huge spiritual price for this.

In 2003 Amnesty International was already raising questions about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, and in 2004 photos raced around the world showing the inhumane treatment these prisoners were receiving. The pictures showed hooded men attached to wires and positions of blatant sexual humiliation. There was international outcry, but gradually many in this country have come to accept, while they may not like it, that this is the price they are willing to pay for a version of “security.”

And so it became legal to torture. On October 17, 2006, President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA), marking the first time in American history the right of habeas corpus has been curtailed by law. Habeas corpus means “you should have the body” and it functions to protect the innocent from unlawful imprisonment by making government produce evidence in a court of law, or it did until Tuesday October 18, 2006. Now our government can declare someone an “enemy combatant” and keep him or her in jail basically forever without the right to have the charges against them presented in a court.

The President signed important democratic principles away on October 17, 2006 and effectively set the United States on a course to make the U.S. less a democracy and more a totalitarian state, a state that can hold people in secret prisons, abuse them without abiding by the Geneva Conventions against torture, try them for evidence they may not be able to see and sentence them to death on evidence that may have been obtained under torture. And the American people have seemingly accepted this extraordinary act on the part of their government because they have become convinced that without torture they will be less safe. Indeed, the podium where the President spoke during the signing ceremony for this bill had a sign on it that said “Protecting America.” We have become complicit in great evil because we have allowed ourselves to give in to fear.

The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises. And you cannot act like this as a nation, or as an individual, and expect that your spiritual as well as your democratic life will remain unscarred.

When you start to lose your soul as an individual or as a nation, you think you can keep it confined to just this one bad act, but you can’t.

A South Africa colleague, Dr. James Cochrane, and I have been emailing each other, comparing the dreadful Military Commission Act in the U.S. with its parallels in the build up to the Apartheid regime in South Africa and we agree this should be published. What it is important to realize is that as a South African, Cochrane, who is of European descent, came to recognize that in being afraid to extend the true equality of democracy to black Africans and other racial minorities in his country, the white South Africans became fearful and cowed and unable to believe in their own democracy. Their fear made them complicit in one of the greatest evils the world has known: Apartheid.

In South Africa, there were several laws similar to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that laid the groundwork for Apartheid. The 90-day detention laws (General Law Amendment Act No 37 of 1963), followed by one allowing for 180-days detention (Criminal Procedure Amendment Act No 96 of 1965), culminating in the Terrorism Act adopted by the South African Parliament in 1967 that allowed for indefinite detention without trial or representation, while the public was not entitled to information about who was held where or why, set the stage for the many horrific things in the decades after. People could, and did, effectively disappear for official legal reasons.

White South Africans dismissed the idea that these bills undercut their democracy, saying to those who opposed these legislative moves, “you have been brainwashed, our leaders wouldn’t do such things,” or “it’s just an individual aberration. How else do we protect our society?”

Driven by fear and legitimated because of the unspecified nature of what was called the “total onslaught” by “terrorists” on European civilization in South Africa, the idea of unequal treatment under the law took root. And it took deep root, taking nearly half a century until it was dug up and thrown away.

Not all South Africans agreed with these laws. Most blacks did not, of course, and as the decades passed, an increasing number of whites finally opposed this legislation as well.

White South Africans came to oppose Apartheid because they realized it was undermining their own democratic freedoms as well as those of black South Africans. You can’t be selectively democratic—it ends up destroying your whole sense of right and wrong.

Did you ever ask yourself how white South Africa came to be an Apartheid state? This is how, little by little. They told themselves they weren’t doing anything really bad, for how can protecting your security be bad?

This is why I agree with Pope Benedict that religion that stays private, that does not cry out to heaven when fundamental human dignity is violated and does not take this struggle into the public square, is soulless religion.

  • Ryan Haber

    Prof Brooks Thistlewaite,Sometimes I disagree with your articles or think that they have missed the point. This one, though, seems right on to me.I agree with you that our adoption of torture, or to be more precise, of methods that we earlier would have termed torture, is a crucial issue that has lost its media time lately.I am also grateful that you named Descartes’ great error, that of the soul as “ghost in the machine.” It is the unspoken assumption of almost every comment made that touches on the nature of the human person, and it is dead wrong. Your definition of the soul as the “integrity between our values and our actions” strikes me as a bit loose and whimsical, but I enjoy loose and whimsical, and often write that way, so please don’t take my critique as a criticism. By nature I am contrarian, though for now I won’t contradict your words, only refine them if I may. Replace “integrity” with “unity” or “harmony” to yield “harmony between our values and our actions”. That is perhaps a better definition of “moral integrity” than of “soul” because our soul continues to exist even if it has lost its moral integrity, as a car continues to exist if its steering has broken down. Moral integrity is what gives us the ability to do what we truly want, rather than what our impulses overwhelm us into doing.Right now, fearful and having lost much of its faith, America is turning to its might for protection, rather than to its God. In doing so, we have hollowed out our greatest national hymns (America the Beautiful, inter al.) More practically we have taken a large step away from the healthy secularism commended by the Holy Father (in which no view dominates artificially so that each has a fair chance to thrive) to the unhealthy secularism in which God is banished from our decision-making.Our decisions then become not only soulless, as you put it, but heartless (which is probably roughly the same as what you intended). Leaving your word, soulless, in place is useful for my point here. See, I don’t believe that torturing enemy prisoners of war is the first soulless decision we’ve made as a culture. It’s just the next step toward having entirely banished God, conscience, goodness, mercy, and even bare justice from our entire way of thinking and living. There have been a number of big steps in that direction.The 1973 judicial decision to allow the killing of unborn children, rather than requiring our nation to find a way to welcome even people in dire straits – that decision was soulless.The gradual cultural decision of the late 1980s and 1990s to allow all manner of violence to be broadcast into our homes, schools, and workplaces as a form of “entertainment” – that decision was soulless.The cultural decision and legal indecision to allow sexuality to be deracinated of its human-personal content and displayed for predatory gratification, symbolized best in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (SCOTUS, 1988), but continuing in the relentless advance of internet pornography – that decision was soulless.The federal legal decision of the mid-1990s (1994 rings a bell) to allow authorities to seize property connected with drug use, regardless of its ownership or the conviction of the offender, while giving a kickback to the enforcing agency, effectively reviving the old Roman proscription (blacklist) system – that decision was soulless.I could go on, but I think readers get the point. What surprised me at the time of Abu Ghraib was not Abu Ghraib, but the people’s response to it. Everyone was shocked, or at least feigned shock. It is beyond me how, swimming in a sea or pornography and violence for at least 20 years, we could be surprised to see people getting wet with it. We are soaked in the stuff and carry it with us. It has deformed many of our individual characters, what you call our souls, and in doing so has deformed the shape of our national character. It would be more shocking, to an outside observer, if all the murder and bestiality actually stayed on the TV screens.I agree with you, Professor, that whole nations have “souls” as well, though again used in a looser sense than Aristotle’s or Thomas’. Not only do they have souls, but according to the classic Jewish-Christian tradition, they also have guardian spirits, or angels. Powers and principalities, they might have been called in St. Paul’s writings, but I cannot remember. His basic premise was sound – that societies have shared hearts, and that supernatural powers try to move them, every bit as much as they try to move individual hearts.I am not here looking for devils under every rock, only trying to progress from where you began. The combat in which we engage, the combat for the soul of our nation, is not a combat against flesh and blood, to use St. Paul’s words, and certainly not a combat of weapons against neighbors. It is a spiritual combat against the powers and principalities that want to deprive our great and beautiful nation of its soul – to turn us into our enemy – cruel, greedy, harsh, brutal.”When you start to lose your soul as an individual or as a nation, you think you can keep it confined to just this one bad act, but you can’t.”Ah, so right, Professor. So right. That’s why the Catholic Church has traditionally called certain root sins the “deadly sins” – because they spread from one to the other, like cancer, develop into worse things, like bronchitis does, and are contagious like the flu. Our actions infect each other.Your brief analysis of the growth of Apartheid and its effective deconstruction of democracy even among S.A. whites is telling. If we begin to condone the use of fear and torture because we are afraid of torturers, we will necessarily become torturers of whom others are afraid.”Did you ever ask yourself how white South Africa came to be an Apartheid state? This is how, little by little. They told themselves they weren’t doing anything really bad, for how can protecting your security be bad?”True again. We humans are organic creatures, aren’t we – and the things that we do that last the longest have in themselves a certain analogous organicity, that is, they gradually progress, sinking deep roots and growing when the time is right, with a certain flexibility to accomodate circumstances. By gradually de-souling ourselves (to us a Spanish-language concept) we are, as a culture, planting deep roots for something I think we shall not like very much once the tree has started to yield its harvest of bitter fruit.Your article was very insightful and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

  • Jeff P

    I loved this post. I had a response to Ryan Haber. Why am I being blocked?

  • Paganplace

    Only thing to disagree with there is that ‘religion’ is the same thing as ‘soul.’ (Or, ‘values,’ per se, as often articulated by religions, though many religions seek to encapsulate ‘soul’ in terms of values and ‘standards.’ )Which is kind of an academic point, as clearly, there’s massive soul-loss, both in personal and national and other terms that’s caused by acting out these fears and compromises of American values. …except when you consider that looking to religious articulations of ‘values’ to try and fix the problem is a tactic that can be used for any ol’ side of the debates anyone cares to. In fact, the ‘Christian Values’ agenda of recent decades has in fact *primed* a lot of the ‘faithful’ to express the agendas they’re fed as if their ‘soul’ were at stake, and that’s part of what caused so much of our nation to greet this recent challenge with fear and authoritarianism, rather than confidence, strength, and understanding. While compromising or abandoning important values and principles can *separate* us from our souls, collectively and individually, ‘soul’ isn’t defined by words or the contents of our current brains, or in fact, anything that can be *taken away* from what we experience as what makes us, essentially *us.* To my experience, soul is also there when we *can’t* evaluate. Say, when you’ve had most of your memory knocked out… (This is an interesting experience, by the way. It’s an irony in some ways, but forgetting everything can really teach you *who you really are.* ‘Reincarnation on the fast track’ I like to call it.) So much of what people speak of as ‘soul’ in terms of verbalized religious values can motor along just fine in a human brain, while in terms of ‘soul,’ lights are on but nobody’s home. A lot of people actually enjoy the sensation, …actually being totally removed from the situation into some distant, dissociated abstraction. You see it in the affect of a lot of people selling ‘holy words’ with schooled but vacant expressions, or in transports of angry fire-and-brimstones narratives. *Soul* is *grounded in our being,* individually, collectively, …everything. It is not defined by words or the works of human hands. Sometimes *soul* is most truly expressed when all ideas and values say ‘submit,’ and it’d be so much easier to believe, but something rises and says, ‘No! This is all gone wrong!’ Soul, Rev. Thistlethwaite, is not defined or conferred by religion. Soul may *participate* in religion, but religion does not grant ‘soul.’ If done well, religion can *connect our minds with our souls.* Or it could be words. It’s not the words. When people wave a flag and disinterpret American principles, try to say, for instance, ‘The Founding Fathers’ *really meant Christian Nation, when they gave us some good words and principles,’ …well, they’ve already lost contact with the American soul that *birthed* those words. And what those words have come to mean. They’ve tried to appropriate American ideals and our very systems for *their religion,* …separating so many from *expression of soul* into a superstition of, once again, Christian words *conferring soul,* and justifying actions if you can spin the ‘Founding Fathers’ words right or be scared enough. Yes, American ideals are almost a religion unto themselves. A soul. One that is for all of us, not to be claimed by a single God’s or patriarchs’ religions.Mixing them together sometimes confuses the issue. If you’re a nation, and you play at soldiers, sometimes, you lose. Mix it with a religion that insists on ultimate and perfect triumph, and it becomes almost impossible for some to admit, ‘Ok, if we waltz into Iraq without a plan, we could lose. Badly.’ Or ‘Now that we’ve done it, we really screwed up. We *can’t* lose. We must do anything to ‘not lose,’ but we don’t know what that *is.* Flailing begins. Hostility ensues. People forget what we *are* as Americans, what we’re supposed to be committed to *being,* *win *or* lose.* Even if we forget why, *because* of our soul and *in spite* of some of the stuff we’ve done, and *accepting* certain personality conflicts, a lot of the world has loved and put up with us and our crap. For our soul. Soul never really goes away, as much as we speak of ‘soul loss’ in the shamanic trade. We do. We walk with soul, we accept change, and we are in tune with what we are. We are even *empowered* to stand up for our values and idea.sIf it’s about words and ideologies, we could end up leaving our souls behind and wondering why our power is gone.

  • JWS

    As far as I can tell there is no biblical basis for the ‘modern’ notion of soul. I have found some OT references to God breathing life into people, but that is about it. I’d be interested to know if there is something I missed.I do like Rev. Thistlethwaite’s definition as I also like R. Haber’s refinement. I don’t like the ‘ghost in the machine’ definitions that I have heard, but I can’t say that one is more valid than the other since they all seem to be mythologies that we humans use to describe/justify our existence and behaviors as well as our relationship to God. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Rather, the concept of soul, as far as I can tell, helps us to understand our selves and our world. What is both confusing and interesting is that there are many different definitions on what a ‘soul’ is.btw, there is a fictional book called Kiln People, written by David Brin, which has some very interesting speculations about the nature of a persons ‘soul’ from a more materialistic point of view.

  • The Moderate

    Dear Ryan Haber,A most insightful response. Particularly on the “deadly sins” that spread, and a progression to violence and exploitation in entertainment. The 24 series seems to have figured into some individual cases of prisoner abuse. Seems some of the young men involved had seen Jack Bauer on this show and thought that such behavior was the way real interrogators did things. It was visualized, filmed, and sold to them as a script for real life.Well thought out and written.

  • Jeff P

    Susan: excellent observations all around, I’ll agree with Ryan Haber and JWS that it may have been more accurate to describe “moral integrity” as the entity we’re losing.I’m glad you used the word “totalitarian” in your post, because it’s such a dangerous and harmful concept and needs to be pointed out.Ryan Haber: You’d do well to remember that this administration was nothing if not supported by the “values voters,” and the separation between church and state has been anything but eroding with the last 8 years. Bringing more gods into the public “soul” doesn’t seem to me to be a legitimate solution to our woes.I’m more concerned with the “dumbing down” of Americans, and I think above all that is what has contributed to our overall attention-deficit mentality, our mindless television additions, our 30-second political sound-bites, and the not-so-subtle loss of democratic processes in government. My posts are being held so I’ll keep it short.

  • Hank Whatever

    The basis of it all is communion. No wonder those interned at GITMO became suicidal, McCain could have clued them in on that one himself. When our most recent forgetten soldiers are isolated, they may become suicidal too and McCain could have clued them in on that one too. Are not noble ambitions followed by noble deeds ? Or in the absence of noble objectives what are deeds but blind ambitions ? I see the affect of isolation leading to the rejection of life itself or self homicide (attempted suicide is illegal in most states).If we all had a direct batphone to the Guy in Sky, why would we need religion or each other for that matter ?Someone said that anything on earth can become addictive through abusing the Gifts from the Creator. Someone also said that all addiction is at its basis, seeking God or communion.Now for the rest of the story, please submit several million dollars in spiritual consultation fees to or Are they fictious websites, I wonder.


    thi is a very nice piece, but it avoids an answer to the question stated.

  • artistkvip

    i think in spiritual matters, ethical matters and moral matters there must be some uncomplicated simple truths that are true all the time to undepin the legitamicy of the effort to define parrameters of personal and public conduct. the truth i s true in all intances, in every situation at all times … or it is simply not the truth… the person has placed the incorrect title upon whater shade of grey they have trundled out to parade or masquarade as somthing it simply is not. in the real world absolute truth exist to start in small bits but when bits of undeniable truth are bound together and built on amazing things can be built on the sturdy foundation… i’m reminded of e=mc2… spirituality and society are much like science in this regarde eye think….when structures no matter how grande are bult upoun grey they do not last the test of time in fact the grander the structure the faster it will fal of its own weight from a rotton foundation and incorrect starting point…. garbage in .. garbage out such a simple eloquent tidbit of absolute truth… please check 4 truth i’m just a dyslexic artist

  • bobbo

    I must state I wanted to read the post in depth but had to stop at “Even nations have souls.” To argue the truth of what can only be a metaphor is only an exercise leading nowhere.My thought is just the opposite. That religion and faith is an entirely private matter. When it goes public, it is politics that you are actually addressing.When politics poses as religion, a great evil has been set loose.

  • Ryan Haber

    Jeff P.,”I will challenge one point: I for one won’t let someone tie-in all of society’s vices in a neatly packaged “we’ve just kept the gods out of the public square.” You mentioned Falwell in your post, and the way you describe our evolution into torture is similar to his proclamation that all of society’s “trash people” helped bring on 9/11.”Lol. I am glad you mentioned that, actually, Jeff P. It is a point I will have to draw out more clearly in the future. We have a lot of weird bedfellows in this country. How it is that being (1) opposed to the taking of unborn human life and thinking (2) hardworking, desperate newcomers should be thrown out on their ears… I cannot see how those two are connected. But in the minds of America’s “conservatives” they are.I am not a conservative, nor a liberal, and I cannot see an underlying fabric to their respective “seamless garments”.To point: “Values voters,” as well as well-meaning liberals and most Americans, for that matter, are continuously manipulated by a stream of propaganda that helps them to connect things like: “Christianity” with “Bombing Iraq,” connections that are, needless to say, not inherent in either theme as the Holy Father has been saying for some time now.The solution to these mismatches is serious philosophical discussion, and as you said Jeff P., the current dumbing down of America, also promoted by our mass media, makes that all but impossible.Our evolution to torture, as I described it, probably was not even on Falwell’s radar screen. It is a sad thing that so many of the leaders of Christianity in America are such weak examples of Christianity. That is what, by and large, makes the presence of Christianity in the American public square so distasteful, and understandably so, to so many Americans.America needs a Mother Teresa or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pray God raise up a few for us.