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By Kirsten Dietrich

An angel receives the soul of a dying man: woodcut title of a work by Martin Luther on preparation for death, published in 1520 (picture alliance / akg-images)

In many religions, the soul is what essentially defines a person. But what defines it? Is it immutable? Maybe even immortal? Each belief has its own idea.

“Deep within us lives the soul.
No one has seen them yet
but everyone knows they exist. “

This is how the Israeli children’s book “The Soul Bird” begins and describes an extremely complicated case in layman’s terms. It begins with the word: “soul”. The history of religion and art has found images of it: translucent, human forms, led in light by angels – Hieronymus Bosch drew this vision of the path to paradise at the end of the Middle Ages.

Danced around by angels and demons

Or the drastic graphics, also from the Middle Ages: a person dies, the soul leaves the dying body through his mouth – already awaited by an angel and a demon fighting for this soul. Dreaming and death have always been the moments when religious reflection on the soul begins.

 

Protestant theologian Christoph Markschies is an expert on ancient Christianity and the early Church. He says: “You must be clear: soul is now a widely misunderstood term. Soul is also one of the great mixed terms in which the traditions of the Hebrew Bible entered into and have been found in Greek world civilization. mixed with the Greek tradition. “

750 times in the Hebrew Bible

So: the Hebrew Bible meets Platonic philosophy. Biblical tradition revolves around the Hebrew term næfæš: throat, breath, life, vital force, human being as a whole, vital energy – næfæš describes everything that makes a physical being a living being, as summarized in the authoritative dictionary. .

The word næfæš occurs over 750 times in the Hebrew Bible. In this fundamental text of Judaism, the human being does not simply have a næfæš, that is to say: a living being, a soul – he is. But then, as early as the 4th century before the turn of time, Plato proposed his philosophy: The Greek word is “psyche”, from which psychology derives its name to this day.

In Plato’s metaphysical considerations, the soul is a kind of link between eternal ideas and the ephemeral here and now, it is timeless and immortal – and therefore naturally superior to the respective body in which it manifests itself. This fascinated Hellenistic Judaism first, and then the emerging church as well.

Immortal soul, suspicious body

“The ancient Christians followed Platonism and dealt with a lot of issues,” says Christoph Markschies, “for example the strict hierarchy: spiritual realities are indestructible. And with Plato we speak of the soul in the prison of the body – this has not always led to a very respectful theology of the body in Christianity. “

The question of the resurrection also becomes delicate in this context. If the soul is beyond time, how does that mesh with the resurrection of the whole person – body and soul? The debates come from Antiquity and the Middle Ages, their ramifications are found, for example, in the current catechism of the Catholic Church. There it is said:

“The spiritual soul does not come from parents, but is created directly by God; it is immortal. It does not perish when it is separated from the body in death.”

The soul in the Quran: the breath of God

“What is interesting is that in the three Abrahamic religions, we believe that the soul lives because we believe in a life after death,” explains Islamic theologian Fateme Rahmati of the University of Frankfurt: “According to the Koran, we speak of the soul as“ the breath of God ”. – or Adam – alive. “

The soul as the recipient of happiness and punishment for the life lived – it takes on this role for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Not only the story of creation, but also the terms for the soul in Islam are similar to those in the Hebrew Bible: next to “rūḥ”, the much more common “nafs”. And as in the biblical tradition, the meanings of the words are extremely diverse: the most intimate being, something that gives life, the spirit, the breath of the wind, the reason. What is not in the Quran is the fundamental superiority of this soul over the body, says Rahmati:

“Body and soul are one unit in this context of Islam. It means that you cannot separate them, and one influences the other. That is why we have different hadiths and different rules in it. ‘Islam on how one should take care of his body, how to take care of certain things, even food, because it also affects the soul. “

More clarity in Buddhism

Therefore, the Islamic philosophical and theological discussion remains open on how the soul can affect the body if it is not viewed as objective. And how exactly does body and soul come together. If you are looking for clarity in soul matters, you might be better off in Buddhism.

Carola Roloff, visiting professor of Buddhism at the Academy of World Religions at the University of Hamburg, clearly distinguishes Buddhism from the Hindu traditions from which it comes: “In Buddhism in particular, we speak of the teaching of non- self, . ‘Atman’ was translated as ‘soul’ in ancient texts, so Buddhism would be the teaching that does not believe in a self. “

Buddhist doctrine says that there is nothing inside or outside of physical or mental phenomena that can be described in the highest sense as an independent entity or personality, Roloff explains: “C ‘ is in fact a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. the ego or the ego exists, but what is emphasized is that there is no such thing as a totally independent ego. “

Striving for perfection over many lifetimes

But what about rebirth, could we discuss now. But rebirth does not mean transmigration of souls in Buddhism, replies Roloff, “but it is assumed that this very subtle stream of consciousness continues, and that the things that one has done in one’s life leave” karmic “impressions in it. his consciousness, and that to continually continue these karmic impressions with the consciousness. “

In the temples of East Asia, donations are also specifically intended to facilitate the afterlife of certain deceased relatives. Buddhism is not a monolithic block either, it has also adopted traditions from its environment, in this case the cult of ancestors. Seeking something like an immutable core of being in oneself is therefore useless.

Even more: the realization that this cannot exist is the first step towards what should rather be the goal of human endeavor, says Carola Roloff: “Buddhists assume that everyone has the potential for enlightenment, and that, is the ability to achieve perfection, which occurs in a process over several lifetimes: constantly working on oneself and trying to achieve more and more what the Buddha has achieved. “

And then there needs to be an auxiliary construction like that of the soul, whether immortal or transient, not at all.

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