Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Encountered a new word yesterday: ensoul.

I was reading an article on the New York Times Science page, under the headline "Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force." As neuroscientists learn more and more about how the brain works, philosophers and theologians must adapt--unless they're the kind of theologians who choose to deny evolution and cling to the six-day creation. The duality of body and soul, deeply embedded in western thought, doesn't jive with the scientific evidence that emotional reactions, moral reasoning, even the illusion of free will are the result of physical processes. There's no more "mind over matter." Mind is matter. And nothing more than matter.

Mind, soul, consciousness--don't ask me about the metaphysical distinctions--whatever you want to call this thing that we believe makes us uniquely human can be explained away as a function of neurons and neurotransmitters. Human emotion and human thought begin as physical reactions. The nervous system sends impulses to the brain, chemicals are released, and other brain centers are activated. The experience, the recognition of the experience, and its effect on future experience can all be explained by brain structures and processes. What human thinkers identify as a rational thought, a sense of control, or a spiritual encounter can be viewed with an MRI. And pictures of a chimpanzee's brain, or a pig's, are not all that different from pictures of human thought.

What part of my brain is lighting up now, as I think about "what does this mean?" When I was a child, lying in bed at night and not sleeping, I would wonder if I was really alive, or if I was just an elaborate robot that my sisters, parents, and schoolmates only thought was real (though a bit odd). Maybe the real part was hidden deep within me, and just the exterior was the robot. Were other people real, that is, really alive, possessors of souls, life force, unpredictability? Or were we all just machines, and nothing meant much of anything? This dark-of-the-night path scared me almost as much as contemplating eternity. It led to the same kind of tossing and turning now caused by a) financial matters and b) teenage offspring

How did my brain at the age of seven or nine have this capacity to reflect on itself? Did something going on at home or school make me want to disassociate myself from me? Did other children share my awareness? I remember being aware of God's presence as this debate raged in my mind. God lived in the dark and under the covers, or hovered in the air, just beyond the words of my prayers. God was there to snatch my soul away (if I had one) were I to die before I waked.

That soul would leave behind a body that was curled under the pink-striped sheets and the chenille bedspread.
The body was clay, dust, corruptible--and not me. The soul was me, the mysterious image of God bestowed on Adam at creation. It made him different from the beasts of the field and the fish of the air, over which he had dominion.

But now, neuroscientists see the same patterns in the brains of mice as in the brains of men. Cats and cat people are not that different. Lions and tigers and bears--oh my!--may have interior lives like we do.

Neuroscience is the new epistemology (how do we know what we know?), and theology and philosophy must catch up. One of the experts interviewed for the New York Times article, philosopher Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary, compared the dilemma created by brain science to the earth being knocked out of the center of the universe by Copernican theories of the solar system. She and theologian John F. Haught, also interviewed for this article, agreed that if humans have souls, whatever it is that souls may be, animals must be similarly ensouled.

And there's my new word: ensouled, or, endowed with a soul.

What would a God-denying scientific materialist have to say about this solution? That religion just gets crazier and crazier? Or would he turn to experiments and experimental designs for studying consciousness in people, plants, and animals? Cruising the internet yesterday, I read a long article about studying consciousness. (Typical summer vacation reading for someone who used to lie in bed wondering if she was a robot.) The author meandered through mainstream and fringe consciousness research, with side trips into the history of brain science, quantum mechanics, meditation, spiritual oneness, and near death experiences. He was not going to yield to anyone who says the brain is it, all of it, and the body is the boundary.

God? Always beyond our knowing, yet known through the matter that is mind. The image of God become flesh.

My brain is too tired to go any further.

Friday, June 22, 2007

You got to have friends

Yesterday, while looking for an old insurance quote, I found a birthday card sent to me several years ago by a good friend. In the black-and-white photo on the front there are two older ladies, seated on the ground, dressed in fashions from the 1940s. The heavier one holds her purse in her lap. Her legs are crossed at the ankles. The skinny one has her knees pulled up to her chest and clasps her hands around her shins. Both have pulled their skirts over their knees, as a matter of decorum. They don't want anyone to be offended by an accidental glimpse of the undergarments that cover their nether regions.

Why are they sitting on the ground? There are no sandwiches and deviled eggs spread around them, no picnic blanket underneath them. The grass is ragged and the ground rather lumpy. It's not a comfortable spot, but these two ladies are deep in conversation. They sit side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, but they lean in toward each other, each intent on the other. The brims of their bell-shaped hats almost touch. They are saying things meant only for each other. The more ample woman touches her chin with the knuckle of her forefinger, intensifying her air of concern.

These women remind me of my grandmother and my Great Aunt Clara, sisters who battled each other, cared for each other, stood by one another. They were always old ladies to me, though in just a few years I will be as old as my grandmother was when I was born. I'm sure that my friend who sent me the card saw the two of us in that picture. I'm the well-padded woman. She's the one with the skinny bosom, the crepey neck and the sensible shoes.

I tacked the card on the bulletin board behind the phone. On the shelf next to it sits a snapshot of me and another friend, grinning because we so rarely have our pictures taken together. It is encased in a ghastly purple and pink "Friends Forever" frame bequeathed to me by my daughter.

That daughter loves her own friends dearly, during peaceful times and conflict. Eliza also has imaginary friends, who live in her bedroom and lead lives that parallel hers, albeit much more eventful. There are weddings, showers, funerals and birthday parties every weekend in her room. It is a strange phenomenon. She is sixteen, well past the age of such overt pretending. But she and her real-life friends are all young women with developmental delays, mainly due to Down syndrome. They don't have the language skills needed for first-rate gossip or detailed accounts of their own feelings. But when they are together, they magnify each others' joy, excitement, anger and misery. Eliza feels more alive around her friends, so she makes sure there are plenty of them, even if she has to make them up.

Many of my friends are out of town this week. Perhaps I need an imaginary friend. I bet those two ladies sitting in the grass on that birthday care would understand.

Monday, June 18, 2007


If you want to move bookcases, you have to empty them. And when the painting and the sanding of floors is finished, you have to put the bookcases back in the living room and put the books back on the shelves. Somewhere in this process, a wise woman makes no-nonsese decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

We moved the bookshelves back into their corners two months ago, but the restoration of order among the shelves' occupants is a summer-long project. Currently, the books in the tall bookcases from my husband's bachelor apartment are organized strictly on the "get them to fit" principle. Kurt Vonnegut novels and Jane Eyre are stacked horizontally next to The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder. Two small books by the Yarn Harlot balance on top of a coffee-table volume of Clint Eastwood photos. The read and the unread, the worthy and the trashy, sit side-by-side. Some titles I can't find at all, and others completely surprise me. Who brought home the book about elephants?

I want to get rid of some of these books. I don't mind the living room bookcases being jammed with handsome hardcovers and ragged paperbacks. And the books on the forty feet of shelves over and around the computer desk are the most interesting part of the room. But what about the books in my bedroom and the books in the kitchen, the books that used to be on the stairway landing, and the books that were stacked at the top of the stairs? What about the books in the attic?

It's a two-person, four-decade book collection. It's been weeded out from time to time. The growth rate has slowed. But I'm sure there are well over a thousand books under this roof. And it's not the kind of house where books can be confined to a wood-panelled library.

Practical people say "Get rid of the books you've never opened, and the ones you'll never open again." They're just clutter. They collect dust. My sister says, "Why would you keep a book you've already read?" My brother-in-law says, "Just get rid of them." The article in Woman's Day magazine on reorganizing your home lists books among the worst clutter offenders.

But hey--does anyone ever tell you to throw away your old photographs? To send those boxes of snapshots to the thrift shop, or put them out at a garage sale for 50 cents or a dollar?

The books on my shelves hold memories more vivid than those in any photo album. Memories of reading Anna Karenina during spring break of my sophomore year in high school (and not really getting it). Plowing through Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War when my kids were small. (Didn't get anywhere close to Appomatox until everyone slept through the night.) Real Boys, by William Pollack, has helped me keep faith with my sons and their buddies as they pound and punch each other. Spitta's Bach is a legacy from my father. All those novels by Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard, and John D. MacDonald keep Lon's presence alive in this house. And Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is just waiting to be enjoyed by another crop of tow-headed, truck-loving boys.

Yes, there are books I will give away. Not every book is packed with associations from my past, or hopes for the future. I don't need to keep two copies of Organizing for the Creative Person on the shelf. Some books that end up in the pile going to the library's used book sale will be there because the things they represent are not so important to me any more. I'm not ever going to teach myself Quark Express 4. I really hated The Prince of Tides when I read it twenty-odd years ago. It may be time to let it go.

I'm almost afraid to find the box that holds the Harry Potter books, lest I be tempted to reread volume six--or all six volumes--to get ready for the July 21 debut of volume seven. That Jane Austen biography on the high shelf--I need to take another look at that. I've got friends who'll enjoy the Nick Hornby novels. And maybe someday I'll read the Dostoevsky biography that Lon brought home from the freebie table at the newspaper. It was headed for the discard pile the other night, but then I opened it, and it was interesting, in a weird Russian, Siberia-and-back-again kind of way.

Time to get to work on those boxes in my bedroom. Sort, organize, and wander off into all the worlds contained in those books.