Calling Dr. Soul (A Reflective Essay)

heart-soulA Theological Reflection On Evidenced-Based Chaplaincy For Pastoral Care Providers 

I grew up in the seventies, and enjoyed listening to heavy metal bands. One of bands that I dug was the strange, but glamorous band Kiss.  I especially remember their hit song, “Calling Dr. Love.”   I heard this song on the radio recently, and it reminded me that you and I, as institutional chaplains, are true doctors of love (but not that crass love of Gene Simmons’ Kiss).  Really, we are doctors of souls, experts in soulology, and, each of us in our own way, is an eminent soulogogist.   Let me explain why I am talking this way.

There is a mystery to life that is at the same time both troubling and beautiful, both truth and love, both law and grace.  It is because of the dyadic nature of this mystery that some have tried to resolve the paradox of existence in a dualistic manner.  To deal with the troubling aspect of the mystery of life, it has been tempting to try to comprehend the soul primarily with the mind using reason and empiricism.   On the other hand, the spiritual theologian or philosopher might focus unevenly on the beauty of life in the spirit through a mystical/emotional approach.

I have tried to combine both approaches, but without much success, saying in a blog a few years ago, “My mind tells me that truth is more important than love, yet my heart feels as if love is more important than truth.”   Nevertheless, as hard as I tried to integrate the mystery, I remained caught in a dualism.  And even though I have occasionally glimpsed the two sides of the coin at once, in my attempt to understand the mystery of life through its enigmatic beauty, I have often negated the necessary “hardness” of truth. This is the weakness of the mystical way.  As I have heard it once said, “The mystic is always right; but only for him or herself, not for everyone.”

These two approaches of reason/empiricism and theological mysticism often seem to be at odds with one another when it comes to understanding the soul or the spirit of humankind.  Actually, they really are on the same trajectory.  Science has an intense desire to explain, to figure out, and to measure.  Spiritual theology, interestingly enough, also has this same burning desire to understand (but maybe not so much to measure).  To ensure that spiritual theology didn’t become arrogant in its program, St. Anselm devised a clever aphorism which states the theologian’s study of the spirit, soul, or the mystery of God should always be, “faith seeking understanding,” not understanding seeking faith.  Nevertheless, the theologians that I have studied seem to be on a quest to decipher the mystery of the soul and to understand its inner workings.  Thus, it seems to me that most theologians, philosophers, and scientists are all seeking to crack the code of life, so to speak, whether arrogantly or humbly.  But is cracking the code really what life is all about?

Heart And Soul

The Bible says that God breathed into humans a Spirit and then humans came to be (Genesis 2:7).  This breath of God is most often ruach in the Hebrew and pnuema in the Greek, and thus the spirit could be simply translated as “air.”  Still, in the context of the life-force or the soul of humans, that breath or air must be of a different substance than what science has determined to be the element O2 or that which we breathe that is neither an element nor a chemical compound.  Yet, even substance is a poor word for the soul, because the essence of our life-force is incomprehensible and intangible, just as God is ultimately incomprehensible and intangible.   Nevertheless, this real spirit or soul “resides” mysteriously as an integrated actuality with and in the corporeal human person.

In attempt to explain the soul corporeally, different cultures locate this life-force as metaphorically emanating from different organs in the body, such as the liver, spleen, but most commonly, in the West and Near East, in the hearts of humankind.  For the Hebrew people the life-force of humans (and animals) was in the blood (Lev. 17:11).  And this blood, which needs the “air” of God to circulate throughout the body, also feeds the brain.  Thus, the heart is not only a physical organ, but is fundamentally spiritual.  So much so that Jesus would say, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, NLT).  Additionally, we humans are commanded to love God with all our heart, not with the physical organ, but with our mysterious, enigmatic soul that resides therein (Deut 6:5 /Matt 22:37).  This fairly uncomplicated understanding of the soul and its corporeality was widely accepted until the late modern era.

Soulology or Psychology

However, by the end of the nineteenth century, a major shift took place when the study of the soul slowly emerged as a field of study distinct from theology or philosophy.  No longer would the center of a human life be found in the mystery of the soul or spirit, which the heart physically or metaphorically represented. Now the soul was in the process of becoming equivalent with the brain or the mind, which itself contained the ultimate mystery of humanity.  This new science of the human spirit located in the brain, and not the heart, came to be known as psychology, which Webster’s defines as the study of the mind.  Nonetheless, this is quite the misnomer because, properly translated, the Greek word psyche literally means soul (psukhē = breath, spirit, or soul), not the mind which in the Greek is known as nous.  Thus, psychology should have been called nousology, not psychology, which should have be confined to the study of the soul, or soulology.

Nevertheless, in 1890 William James popularized the term psychology as the study of the mind. Professor James, who is considered the father of American psychology, defined this new scientific field as “the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and their conditions.”[1]  James is most well-known among religious and spiritual practitioners as the writer of the landmark study called The Varieties of Religious Experience.  This paradigm shaking book viewed spirituality and religion primarily through a rational and scientific lens, emanating from the cognitive mind.  James’ influence was so strong that even today the American Psychological Association defines psychology as “the study of the mind and behavior.”

In the twentieth century the study of spirituality began to be viewed as the province of rational scientists: psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and even neurologists — no longer the exclusive domain of theologians and philosophers. The academic cleric who traditionally held sway over matters of the soul and the spirit seem to have allowed this to happen remaining sheepishly in the realm of systematic theology and the practice of organized religion.  Thus, in 1978 M. Scott Peck, a clinical psychiatrist in his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled could say almost authoritatively, “As a psychiatrist, I feel it is important to mention at the outset two assumptions that underlie this book. One is that I make no distinction between the mind and the spirit, and therefore no distinction between the process of achieving spiritual growth and achieving mental growth. They are one and the same.”[2]  (Though later on in this same book, Peck would seem to contradict himself and acknowledge that, “we cannot locate this [spiritual] force.”[3])

Even so, just twenty-five years after Peck defined the spirit as coterminous with the mind, experts in neurology who study spirituality have concluded that it is the brain and the not the soul (or even that nebulous word “the mind” which James and Peck preferred) which contains the answer to the mystery of God and the spirit.   Dr. Kevin Seybold, of Grove City College, recently said, “I understand spirituality to be a property that emerges out of the brain; it is an embodied capacity which enables us to have personal relatedness. An emergent property is a mode of functioning that comes into being on the basis of the interactive operations of less complex subsystems. In the case of spirituality, these operations are of the brain.”[4]

Evidenced Based Chaplaincy?

In my work as a hospital (clinical) chaplain and as thinking/feeling theological reflector (I am not sure I can call myself a theologian since this is now an academic title seemingly reserved for university and seminary professors), I am somewhat alarmed by these trends.  My sense of alarm is primarily because the mystery and beauty of the soul seems no longer even to be dyadically understood as being in a both/and relationship between mind and soul, truth and love, grace and law.  The soul, it seems to me, is now being confined to a part of the rational, scientific, and physical brain.  The mystical side of the soul is slowly but surely being ignored, even among chaplains.  Some chaplains who work closely with spiritual scientists are even calling for our specialty to function from an “evidenced-based” (rational/empirical) paradigm of chaplaincy and spiritual care.  In the Executive Summary of the recent Healthcare Chaplaincy’s initiative called Testing the Efficacy of Chaplaincy Care, we read:

“The acute health care context requires that all services, including chaplaincy, be informed by credible research-based evidence.  Professional chaplaincy currently has very little quality research to direct its clinical practice.  To guide and improve chaplaincy practice and further integrate spiritual care into health care, clinical investigations specific to the profession are needed to provide a basis for chaplaincy practice.  Chaplains, just like all other health care professionals, must develop patient-centered care research.  Without this research, spiritual and religious care will continue to be informed only by anecdotes, opinion, and beliefs whose validity remains untested.”[5] (Italics added for emphasis)

Here is where I take exception with those who would relegate spirituality to the sterility of the scientific research and the cognitive mind.  Spirituality is ultimately about love, and love for me will always emanate from the heart, which is the seat of the soul or spirit, enlivened by the breath of God.  I can confidently say that my spiritual and religious care, and that of the many other chaplains, priests, rabbis, imams, and spiritual caregivers who minister in institutional settings is not informed “only by anecdotes, opinion, and [untested] beliefs,” but primarily by love, compassion, and the inter-relatedness of human spirits bound together in divine solidarity.

I hope I have not sounded too polemical in my questioning of the evidence-based chaplaincy movement.  I do believe there is much to learn from science.  Yet, I pray that I have sounded an alarm which warns us to protect the mysterious, beautiful, and incomprehensible soul from being lost in what may become a quagmire of rationalism.  You see, it is quite probable (and ironically, I would venture to say evidentiary) that the oppression of endless distinctions and definitions, the research of the myriad phenomenon of human/religious symbols, and the intricate and complex investigation of the functioning of the brain is what will ultimately lead many humans to actually lose their souls.  I know this may sound extreme, but I am afraid that we chaplains, in our attempt to see ourselves as equals with men and women of science, are getting dangerously close to joining in on the construction of a new Tower of Babel or riding on a new Platonic ship of fools.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  I’d like to close on a bright spot on the landscape of those attempting to honestly discover meaning and being in the soul of humanity.  The psychologist and mystic Thomas Moore said, “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is.  Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway. [But] soul is revealed in attachment, in love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy. Psychology is a secular science, while care of the soul is a sacred art.”[6]  And even Peck acknowledged that, “Ultimately, love is everything.”[7]

Thus, the proof of the soul or the spirit, and how to care for it, is not in the pudding (the evidenced-based research), but in the love that made it.  And pastoral care should be contemplated and practiced from the indescribable and incomprehensible soul of the heart. That is why we chaplains should be known as doctors of love and practitioners of soulology.

© Paul Dordal, 2015

[1] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1890), 1.

[2] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 5.

[3] Ibid, 263.

[4] Kevin S. Seybold, “Biology of Spirituality” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 62, No. 2, June 2010, 89.

[5] Downloaded May 17, 2015, from https://www.healthcarechaplaincy.org/docs/publications/templeton_research/testing_the_efficacy_of_chaplaincy_care.pdf, 2.

[6] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), xv.

[7] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 22.

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