Weigh the Soul

2011 marks the one hundredth anniversary of Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s experimental attempt to prove that we have souls. His results? We do, and they weigh precisely 21 grams.

Color me skeptical.

Whether or not one believes the doctor’s results, the idea of weighing one’s soul in the balance is a good thing to ponder at the start of a new year. But while Dr. MacDougall focused on the weighing, I’m more focused on the balance. Consider Psalms 139:4-6:

Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. (NIV)

At first I thought this was just a run-of-the-mill Biblical a statement about God’s omniscience. Then, considering it more carefully, I realized there’s something surprising being said here about...me.

I expect an omniscient God to know everything about me, including the instincts—the deepest, inmost urges and forces—which inspire even the words I use to think. What I didn’t expect, is the Psalmist’s insistence that I cannot know myself on that instinctive level because “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

In short: there are things about my mind that my own mind simply cannot know.

What a paradox. And what a dilemma, because if I cannot know myself on the most fundamental of levels—the pre-thought level that inspires all thought—how can I improve myself fundamentally?

If you’re skeptical that this is really true; if you believe you can learn to understand your own instincts, consider this, from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos:

Can you explain why it is that there are, at last count, sixteen schools of psychotherapy with sixteen different theories of the personality and its disorders and that patients treated in one school seem to do as well or as badly as patients treated in any other—while there is only one generally accepted theory of the cause and cure of pneumococcal pneumonia and only one generally accepted theory of the orbits of the planets and the gravitational attraction of our galaxy and the galaxy M31 in Andromeda? (Hint: if you answer that the human psyche is more complicated than the pneumococcus and the human white-cell response or the galaxies of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, keep in mind the burden of proof is on you. Or if you answer that the study of the human psyche is in its infancy, remember that this infancy has lasted 2,500 years and, unlike physics, we don’t seem to know much more about the psyche than Plato did.)

In other words: if you really believe you can understand your own instincts, then you’re going to have to explain why science has a better understanding of galaxies a billion miles away, than it has about the nature of the human psyche.

This speaks to the fundamental problem with the human condition, the thing that causes every kind of bad behavior from genocide to snarky comebacks: when a temptation to do the wrong thing comes, I may be able to manage my response, but before willpower or self-discipline has time to kick in, I still have a visceral reaction—a pre-response response if you will—that I cannot control. And I will never be able to control it.

The reason my instinct is beyond control is obvious when I think how it works in real life. Suppose someone treats me rudely. I may be able to grin and bear it. I may even—with many years of practice—be able to turn the other cheek. But my most basic response to a rude person, the thing which inspires the thoughts I’m forced to try to manage with willpower and discipline, is still just as ugly as his rudeness and I have no idea why.

This is why Jesus said, "There is only One who is good." None of us is "good" on this deepest, pre-thought level. Yet I don’t want to have those kinds of instincts. Who in his right mind would?

Imagine instead if that very first reaction before a word was even on my tongue, was to love. How would it be to encounter someone’s rudeness and instinctively think, “What a sad, unhappy person he must be. I have to find a way to help him.” There would be no need to struggle for self-control, no need for constant vigilance, for the exhausting, joyless maintenance of willpower and discipline which are always on the verge of breaking down to expose the underlying instincts I so desperately want to hide. If love was the thing that inspired words before they were upon my tongue, then I could simply do the natural thing in every situation, knowing it’s the right and healthy course of action. What freedom that would be!

So, I read that Psalm and came to this idea, and as so often happens, as soon as it occurred to me I sensed it had has been loitering in the antechamber of my brain for quite a while, waiting to come in. Because of course now that I think of it this way, I realize this disconnect between my desire to love and my base instincts is exactly what Jesus came to earth to change.

Again and again, in dozens of ways, he tried to help us understand the problem:

“...unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) NIV

“...no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3) NIV

“...whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) NIV

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus deliberately chose humanly impossible metaphors? How could I become like a little child at my age? How could I go even further back and be born a second time? How could I find my own life after losing it? Such things are beyond me. In fact, (surprise, surprise) it turns out the solution to this problem, as Jesus has proposed it, can be described in the same words used by the Psalmist to describe the problem in the first place. Both the problem and solution are “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

This is where balance comes back in.

On one side, I can know part of the truth about my inner self, but never everything. On the other side, I can know part of the truth about God, but never everything. If pride presumes (pretends) to know it all in either case, the scales tip out of balance. But if humility prevails, and I admit my limitations in both cases, balance is achieved. In that case, by the grace made possible through Jesus, the Holy Spirit can begin to change my deepest instinct into the perfect love that God wants it to be.

I sense this happening in me. It’s far from complete. It never will be finished in this life, but it is happening, and it is wonderful, and how I long to keep what can be known, and what cannot be known, in balance so the change will continue in the coming year.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:22 AM  


Brian said... January 8, 2011 at 11:04 AM  

Good thoughts, well presented, Athol. As usual.

Lynn Dean said... January 8, 2011 at 12:20 PM  

Paul sympathized in Romans 7: "So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

I suspect that the dilemma you've written about does much to explain how we must be saved by grace--for we will never deserve salvation through our own holiness--while at the same time God expects us not to "sin the more that grace may abound."

Shaunie Friday--Up the Sunbeam said... January 8, 2011 at 2:30 PM  

Athol, I love how your writing forces my thoughts bigger and deeper! This is so good, so true, such fibrous, substantial stuff!! I will certainly be chewing on this for some time. Thank you for this!!

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