Tertullian: On the Body and Soul Dialectic. (03/26/2001)

The clearest, and perhaps earliest, example of how Western and Christian ideology confused the distinction between itself and animistic philosophy, at the most fundamental level where that confusion can arise, can be found in Tertullian's Treatise on the Soul. In Chapter VI of his discourse he says that

"it is impossible for the soul to be called either an animate body or an inanimate one, inasmuch as it is the soul itself which makes the body either animate, if it be present to it, or else inanimate, if it be absent from it."

The problem with this statement from a purely animistic point of view is that the word "soul" itself is the wrong term to use in the context of discussing what it is that animates a physical body. Animistic philosophy would refer to "spirit" instead of "soul" in this same context. A second problem with Tertullian's statement is that "spirit," if it is used in place of the word "soul" in this same comment, cannot be referred to as a "body," whether animate or inanimate. In Tertullian's Treatise, he argues that the soul is a physical body, not an immaterial substance, on the ground that, if it were non-physical, it would be incapable of being moved by anything that affected the human being who possessed it. This is especially true with regard to the afterlife, where he believed and argued that reward and punishment in eternity would be meaningless if the soul were an immaterial substance. The early Fathers of the church apparently found it easier to believe that pleasure and pain were somehow limited to material reality and could not be said to exist on a purely spiritual level at all. Hence, the soul had to be a material reality in order for God to reward individual people with the pleasures of Heaven, if they were good, or punish them with the pain of Hell, if they were evil, in the afterlife.

Now, drawing the proper distinction between animistic concepts of spirit and Christian concepts of soul is a very difficult thing to accomplish for a number of reasons. On the one hand, there is a natural tendency in Christian ideology to draw a sharp distinction between things that have a soul and things that do not, as Tertullian does here in suggesting there is a difference between animate and inanimate bodies. Also true is the fact that animals, because they do not possess a human soul, but are obviously animate creatures, must also possess something like a soul but have one that is by definition inferior to the one possessed by human beings. Augustine always refers to the human soul as "rational," which necessarily distinguishes it from any other kind on the ground that it informs the person who possesses it about the true nature of the Creator. This accounts for the fact that human beings have a natural right to subjugate animals to their own will and use in much the same way that God does to man. On the first point, animistic people believe that everything has a spirit and that spirit is different for everything that is animated by it but that difference is never perceived or described in terms of hierarchical structure. In other words, the spirit that animates a tree is not better or worse than the one that animates a bird and the one that animates a bird is not inferior or superior to the one that animates a person. The difference, then, between one spirit and another is a difference of kind but never a difference of value or power.

Animistic people believe that spirits "leave" the body they animate when the person or animal or plant animated by them dies. There is a distinction here as well, however, because spirits do not inhabit bodies in the way that Christians believe that souls do, so saying that spirits "leave" the body at death is not the same as saying that a soul leaves the body when a person dies. Spirits do nothing except animate the body to which they are attached. They determine how a person or animal or plant behaves relative to the rest of the world and determine the qualities that the thing or person exhibits but they do not have a "rational" faculty that informs or changes a person or an animal over time, as Christian ideology has always insisted that the soul does. In fact, when an animistic person resists the natural tendency his/her spirit inspires, that person falls out of balance with the natural course of events that exists in the world and falls into a condition of disharmony which might be compared to a state of sin. Christians, on the other hand, tend to believe that the natural person exists in a state of sin to begin with and is transformed and made better by the influence of the soul he/she possesses over time. Spirits are essentially impersonal as well; that is, the same spirit (of the Bear, for instance) can animate more than one person at a time in the same tribe. While these two (or more) people will not be identical in the way they behave, there will be basic similarities in the way they respond to the natural world. The difference between one person and another who share the same spirit arises from the individual personalities that the two people have. In other words, personality is essentially free from the influence of the spirit that animates the person who exhibits it. Personality develops in a person by virtue of his/her social relationships in the tribe and is not determined by the spirit he/she has, although spirit does color a person's behavior because everyone in tribal culture is socially connected to people of a like kind, to people who are animated by the same spirit. In Christianity, on the other hand, the soul is thought to be the faculty that informs, more than anything else, the way in which an individual person develops his/her personality over time, but only in terms of whether that person is good or evil.

A final distinction, then, concerns the fate of the soul after a person dies. In Christianity, of course, every person is judged according to his/her deserts in terms of how well or how badly he/she behaved (good/ evil), and by how much or how little he/she adhered to the basic articles of faith expressed by the doctrines of the church. Since the individual soul is also the seat of a person's ego-consciousness, everyone has the opportunity to survive death as a personal consciousness of the I-am that defines who that person is in a blessed state of eternal life or in a damned one of eternal death depending on whether they are judged good or evil by the omniscient Creator. In native belief, in animistic philosophy, since the spirit is not a personal one the defines an individual ego-consciousness, but is merely the power and the force that animates the person possessed by it, there is no particular emphasis placed on the fate of the individual after he/she reaches the final stage of life. The spirit world is perceived more in terms of time than it is in terms of place. What this means is that people who have entered the spirit world, people who have died, continue to exist in the body of time which encloses their living reality from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Since the past continues to exist in animistic philosophy as a real and active world, so too does everyone continue to exist as spirit in the world of the past. Much of animistic philosophy in practice is concerned with maintaining communication with the spirit world, with the past, because the people who "live" there are as much a part of the human community as are the ones currently alive in the real world. Christianity has always accused animistic people of worshipping our ancestors. We do not worship our ancestors. We listen to them. We seek their council. We take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom and bring it forward into the present moment of our own lives so that we can benefit from their experience, so that we can use what they know to make our own lives better. We do not pray to saints to intercede with a vengeful God to save us from the natural processes of being human, as Christians often do; rather, we honor our past and renew the world in order to make it a better place where all people can live.