The Resounding Soul

Reflections on the Metaphysics and Vivacity of the Human Person

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Editor(s): 
Eric Austin Lee, Samuel Kimbriel
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    James Clarke Company
    , October
     2016.
     424 pages.
     £27.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780227175989.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Resounding Soul gives due attention to a gnawing sense that soul talk has been eclipsed in recent times. At least in academic circles, the use of “soul” to connote a deep and pervasive sense of mystery—and/or ultimacy, intimacy, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—seems repressed to give nods instead to the reductionism of scientism, where objectivism may reign. This book with its instructive title and subtitle is thus a welcome contribution in the service of the retrieval of soul talk.

The book arose from a 2013 conference at St. Anne’s College at Oxford organized by the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. It features selected essays including keynote addresses by three of the participants (among one hundred and thirty delegates).  The theme of the soul or human person was further inspired by a prior 2011 event in Krakow, Poland titled “What is Life?”

Helpfully, there is a compact yet comprehensive introduction to the book’s contributions. It is an indispensable read as the remainder of the book tends to high levels of abstractness and is confined to the disciplined writings of philosophy and theology. Would that the book overall included the same degree of readability as the introduction to each of the sections, and above all, included a summary conclusion to tie together the various strands, suggested lines of inquiry, and challenges to engage in further conferences and anthologies.

To be fair, the soul, as a term, defies an easy depiction let alone a consensus definition. However, the five section headings and contents provide a working sense of the subject. They are: “Soul and the Saeculum”; “Fracture and Unity”; “Moving to Wholeness”; “The Soul’s Regard”; and, “Vivacity.” It is tempting to cite from each section something of the nature of the contributions, but suffice it to say that they excel in understanding when imaginative metaphors or images bravely engage paradoxes rather than employ polemically abstract concepts against reductionistics. In “The Psychology of Cosmopolitics,” Anglican theologian  John Millbank critically assists; reductionism is but a “one-dimensional science to the sound track of bad music” (86). Examples that convey the concrete and the abstract include renderings of the soul as the “whole human person” (142); “essence and dignity of the person” (26-27); “principle of animate life” (321 n42), “depth of life” (326); that which is in intricate relationship with the body, “reflects image of God” (150); “a whole way of inhabiting reality in integral ethical community” (15); an intuited sense of “energy as primary substance” (190); and inter alia, that which “transcends all our reflections on it (since) the thought that thinks always escapes the grasp of itself” (318). What commends the anthology to the reader’s appropriation is that reflections on soul are a “permanent feature of religious and theological thinking” since soul is “ultimately and irreducibly real” (308). What challenges the reader is responding to the self’s inclination to the deadly sins and/or inevitable defense mechanisms; what hence resists the soul’s fulfillment and even, its defacement—such as “acedia, despair, and the demonic attempt to destroy the unity of the person into a dispersion of multiplicities resulting in dejection of heart, escapism, and a lack of earnestness about the eternal” (16). Perhaps Millbank best depicts what longingly endures: “The soul reaches down into the darkest natural depth of things and yet up to the most ethereal heights” (88).

Overall, the contributions critique the emergence and domination of a reductionism that seems to accompany a materialistic rather than a spiritually understood and practiced universe, what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has aptly called a “closed” rather than an “open” universe. On the other hand, what the contributors affirm for the most part is the presence (even if at times elusive) sense of real mystery. Many retrieve and commend the Socratic-Platonic Delphic oracle to know thyself, complemented by Augustine’s axiom that to know thyself is to go deeply and patiently enough to encounter God. Kimbell Kornu’s “”Know Thyself’: The Soul of Anatomical Discussion” illumines. There are promises of integrative, metaphysical thinking though process metaphysics founder A. N. Whitehead is referenced only once (8) and Charles Hartshorne, along with the likes of Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin not at all. Nonetheless, there is a lot of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and as above, Augustine, and a host of philosophical and theological writers, many of them new to this reader.

In addition to an invaluable index (over a hundred “soul” entries), what would assist this anthology are some “what ifs.” These include: what if, again, a summary conclusion; more interdisciplinary material (including fiction, psychotherapy, social psychology, hymn spirituals, memoirs or spiritual autobiographies, biblical exegesis); and again, a language written to include lay persons not in any of those disciplines to avoid the risk merely talking to themselves. Nonetheless the title is well chosen. The Resounding Soul intimates promise of a vibrant life force, akin to what Henri Bergson affirmed with élan vital (accompanying duration and intuition), in Creative Evolution. It relates to Robert Bly’s valuable collection of poems via The Soul is Here for its Own Joy and a chorus line of “How Great Thou Art”: “then sings my soul.” The book’s lively subtitle conveys rich meanings. There are certainly metaphysical explorations and reflections on the “Vivacity of the Human Person,” though the latter invites deeper and wider treatment. Chris Hackett’s “The Soul and ‘All Things’” and William Desmond’s “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving” taps into the “resounding soul” theme, as does Mary Midgley’s engagement on the meaning of the whole in “Souls, Minds, Bodies, and Planets,” particularly her encouragement that “We have to see that the potentiality for the full richness of life must have been present right from the start” and, “we can make some sense of this structure if we attend to it carefully” (191, 195). Soulful, indeed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an indepedent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Austin Lee is Research Fellow/Deputy Director, North America at the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, University of Nottingham, where he also received his PhD. He is co-editor of the Veritas and KALOS book series.

Samuel Kimbriel is a Teaching Fellow in philosophical theology at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation (2014).

Keywords: 

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