Nov. 25, 2020
The concept of the soul has all but vanished in today’s culture, according to Nancy Duvall, professor of psychology and expert on the soul. However, in the 30 years she has researched the concept, she has witnessed an increased acceptance of its study amongst psychologists and theologians.
Last year, as a research fellow with Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought (CCT), Duvall engaged with other scholars in a conversation on neuroscience and the soul and how the two interact.
Duvall argues against the way culture has used “self” and “soul” interchangeably, stating that singing “Jesus, lover of my self” is not the same as singing “Jesus, lover of my soul.”
At a faculty retreat, Duvall experienced others’ discovering this same idea after reading a book on the soul.
“It’s like they reconnected with something they knew in the fiber of their being, but we just don’t talk about it,” said Duvall. “Our culture doesn’t talk about soul. Our culture talks about self.”
In this faculty spotlight, Duvall expands on both her academic and personal journey in discovering the concept of the soul, and encourages others to explore a deeper understanding of the soul to deepen their daily walk with God.
When did your interest in the soul begin?
I was practicing psychology at the time of my conversion. After I became a Christian, I was intrigued with how psychology fit with Scripture. I realized that psychologists and therapists talked a lot about the “self,” so I asked, “What is the self? What are we really talking about?” So I began collecting articles and thinking through the concept of self. Although many writings dealt with self as self-esteem, self-concepts, self-image, I found very few articles simply on “self.” I found that to be a problem.
I thought that if we are psychologists, we ought to know whom we’re dealing with — what or who is it that we are helping when meeting with clients and people. And since I am a psychologist who wants to help people know who they are in light of Christ, what good will I be if I have no biblical understanding of self? So that was the beginning of my research and work in defining the self.
I came to the realization that society has used the word “self” in reference to the “soul.” Or as Allan Bloom says, “The self is the modern substitute for soul.” Furthermore, I realized that Scripture talks about soul; it doesn’t talk about self. That, then, led me to asking: what is soul?
What did you find as you continued your search for the “self”?
Psychology technically means the study of psyche or soul, but there was an ironic deficit in talking about the soul and self. So [Biola professor] J.P. Moreland and I decided to team-teach a class titled “Perspectives on the Self.”
He brought in some excellent philosophy, and I brought in my background in psychology. As we intersected, we realized we were coming to the same conclusion about the soul, although he was doing it from a philosophical perspective and I was doing it from the perspective of a therapist.
At the same time, we continued to see how the larger culture devalued an awareness of the soul: some psychologists would say there isn’t a soul at all or there isn’t a self at all, whereas others would say the only thing a psychologist should work with is the self.
So in our class we had our students read many articles that argued that regardless of which word you use — soul or self — the human being does partake in a transcendental dimension. We are more than just the self. Something in us contains transcendental qualities, which are designed to relate in the spiritual domain.
What is a book or article that has made a large impact on you in terms of your study of the soul?
I ran across A Little Handbook on Having a Soul by a pastor named David Hansen. It says, in essence, “In my pastoral work, I’ve become convinced that many devout Christians have slowly lost their understanding and appreciation for what their soul is and how it operates.” That has been my experience — we Christians have lost our understanding of soul.
It sounds like Christians have “lost something” in not being in tune to the idea of soul.
I would say so and I think Hansen would say so. In my exploration, I began to realize that newer translations of Scripture did not translate the word psyche into soul.
A scholar and author named Jeffery Boyd wrote two books about that. He concluded that if you look at translations, soul is often translated out of Scripture to the word “person” or “self.”
I think soul reflects something deeper than just your self, your subjectivity, and your agency. I think that as Christian culture has been waning and losing some of its impact, the world has let the word go by the wayside and we’d rather use a secular word that doesn’t have a depth connotation. All other ages and most other cultures will talk about something like the soul, but it’s our Western culture that has become increasingly secularized and seems to have dropped out the word.
My point is that soul is a rich word. In my class we talk about how it doesn’t suffice just to sing, “It is well with myself” or “Jesus, lover of myself.” Something’s lost. It just isn’t the same.
How does that idea (that you are not just material substance and you have a soul) affect you as a Christian?
God gave you a soul because through your soul, you are trained and formed into who you are. I believe that there will be continued development of our souls when we are in heaven, but earth is where our spiritual formation begins. If we allow God to work with us and if we align ourselves to him, our souls will be transformed and our whole being will become more Christ-like.
Since you’ve been studying this, have you seen a shift in psychology, our culture or Christianity to further embrace the idea of soul in the recent years? Or has it stayed stagnant?
I will confess, when I began my journey more than 30 years ago, I had psychology colleagues who were saying that psychologists didn’t need to talk about the soul. And now they will talk about it. I think the honoring of it has increased.
For someone who is not in the academic world and will not have discussions about the definition of the soul, how would you recommend or encourage him or her to look at this idea?
Soul is “the depth” in our lives. It represents us in our life and in our deep relationship with God. The best practicality of it is to recognize that although we want to be honoring of the body because God gave us the body and Christ came in the body, we are more than the body and we must recognize that deep dimension.
How has this played out in your own life?
It plays out in how I relate to people. I’m not relating to just your sense of self but that you are a person who is alive, which is psyche, and you have a deep core element of who you are that is in some ways like all others, in some ways like some others and in some ways like no others — but that is related to God.
What were some of the things that came out of your participation in the Biola University Center for Christian Thought?
I think CCT and the integration they have done is awesome. They have brought in people to look at the philosophy and psychology of how we can further our thinking about the idea of the soul. They conducted an in-depth study of neuroscience and the soul, and brought in experts to give a scholarly, academic grounding for this issue.
One of the people who came was Stanley Klein. He’s a psychologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara and he’s a neurologist. He has done some really excellent papers stating how the neurosciences can only study certain aspects of the self and the soul as an object, but they can never completely get to the self and the soul as a subject because the nature of science is to look at objects and study them and measure them.
Klein is putting this argument out there: we must recognize that science is wonderful and great for what can be measured, but will probably never be able to see everything about the person, the soul, the self through its lens alone. I think that is sometimes difficult because science wants to say it is the measure of everything. You cannot directly measure the soul and the self, though you can measure the activities of the soul.
What would you say are the activities of the soul?
Everything we are and can do: thinking, feeling, worshipping and moving. It impacts everything. But having a soul is saying that you are more than your functionings. Our culture tends to look at things for how they can function and what they can do. We get people who have some cognitive defects like in Alzheimer’s or dementia, and we start saying there’s not a person there. No, there is a person there, but they just can’t access all of their functions. The reality of soul really honors the fact that we are more than our functionings and that underneath our functionings, there is still somebody there who is a person with a soul who is honored and loved by God.
How would you say this practically impacts the work therapists are doing with their clients?
It’s not a technique; it’s not a teaching of skills. It’s more of a deep conceptual understanding of soul that grounds therapists’ respect for others and themselves. The key is that “soul” is a mindset more than a practical application. Even as I’m thinking about it, my mind is wandering to the connection with spiritual formation. For example, in the history of the church until a couple hundred years ago, caring for people was called soul care, which reflects that deeper dimension. Historically, soul is a word that we have used for that deeper part of us, the part that doesn’t die when our body goes to the grave.
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