Save souls

Save souls

September 24, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Albert Einstein


Grace to you

Language changes over time. A word that meant one thing at one time can mean something else at another time. Failing to understand this can have terrible consequences.

Take for example the phrase from the USA Declaration of Independence, concerning three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Life and freedom make sense to me but happiness? Really? Is this an unalienable right”? I confess that when I think of the word a smiley face comes to mind ?. Today the happiness is associated with feelings and a range of positive emotions that in popular culture is closely associated with the accumulation of wealth and status. Yet none of this is what was meant in the writing of the Declaration. The roots of Thomas Jefferson’s use of the word ‘happiness’ lie in the Greek word for happiness: eudaimonia which is linked to aretê, which is the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.” In other words, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of the civic virtues of justice, courage, moderation, and integrity. This “social happiness” is in fact the foundation of freedom and the good life.

Another example concerns the word “soul”. This time the popular definition of the word is shaped by Greek mythology rather than its Hebrew roots. The Greeks divided the human person up into “body, mind and soul”. This three-fold division of the human person is commonplace to this day even (or especially) within religious circles. So when people speak of “saving souls” its understood as the “saving” of some special part of a person – an immortal part – the immortal soul. This is Greek thinking and is totally at odds to the biblical usage and thinking. The Hebrew word Nephesh is the word we translate into English as “soul”. Nephesh means one’s entire being or living being. In other words, to save souls is to seek the well-being of the whole person. In including every aspect of what it means to be human, it resists all the false dichotomies of spirit and flesh. No wonder John Wesley said to his preachers: “You have nothing to do but to save souls.”

In these two examples the understandings ascribed to the words mentioned have shrunk the original meaning to something small, private and selfish from what was originally large, all encompassing and interconnected with the whole. Words and their meanings matter, so best we watch our language.

Grace,
Alan


“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
Albert Einstein

 

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Albert Einstein


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