Saturday, March 21, 2009

What is the price of a soul?



While sorting through old books in my possession, I came across a copy of Goethe’s Faust.

Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for information, for knowledge. The one great flaw I can see in this premise is that Faust, given how smart he is, certainly ought to know that no matter what you do, there is one thing you never, ever do, and this is to sell your soul to the devil.

Why does he do this? Perhaps it’s because Faust is quintessentially human: there are deals to be made, advantages to be gained, and everything is a negotiation. (“Faust,” by the way, means “fist” in German; and what more appropriate name for one who wishes to so firmly grasp?)


Well, never mind those little details. The discovery of the book got me to pondering about the soul, and death, and so on, and the pondering has continued, so to speak, unabated for days now.


Everything has its price. If man is, as Gurdjieff contended, a “soul in embryo,” then his life is the price he pays for it.


I don’t, however, properly understand this. From the perspective of ego, I behave not as though my soul belonged to God, but as though it belonged to me. As though my life—and my soul—were my own property, to dispense with as I please.

In regard to this, I have a thought about religious conservatism. Despite all its excess, it generally has at least one thing right, and that is the idea that the soul belongs to God, and that our behavior should be moderated accordingly. (Readers will probably agree that we get more than a little of that flavor from "Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.") If there is any one great failing in the interpretations of the religious conservatives—be they Muslims, be they Hindus, be they Jews or Christians—it is that the understanding of just how our behavior ought to be modified is very subjective.

Secularism, on the other hand, has popularized the view that man’s life belongs to him and him alone; the idea is, in some senses, enshrined in the principles of the US constitution, although it’s fairly certain that that particular philosophical angle wasn’t first and foremost in the founding father’s minds when they wrote it.

Modern science, leaving no room whatsoever for the idea of a soul or a God, can’t move past that same premise, because it lacks the philosophical equipment. So many of us—even those who are supposedly religious-- grow up in a confusing environment where the ego ultimately takes a front seat. To be fair, the problem isn’t a new one; it’s been this way in civilizations for thousands of years.

In an age that, due to an overflow of information and the polarization of science and religion, must increasingly come to grips with these questions, we need the philosophers more than ever. Hence I was most amused to be sitting outside the library of the Gurdjieff Foundation last Tuesday and overhear the following snippet of conversation from within the library itself:

“Do we need some Kierkegaard in here? Do we have any Kierkegaard?”

“No, we got rid of all the philosophers.”

...To be fair, the library is a very small one, but I’ve perused the books, and there are more than a few we might want to consider “getting rid of” and replacing with some good solid philosophers.

Back to the subject at hand. I don’t own my life or my soul. These elements of Being are not mine alone (despite our mantra of “I Am”), they belong to a set of forces much larger than me. They are a product of the intersection of many reciprocally interacting energies, and this “I Am” which I may (or may not) experience from day to day is not my own property, but rather a manifestation of something much larger which I lack the understanding to comprehend.

If I do “have” a soul, such as religious believers propose—and yes, I feel certain there is a truth in this, although exactly what truth, I don’t profess to have properly understood—then that soul belongs to God. It is, moreover, a very expensive piece of property, and I have it only “on loan,” so to speak. If we examine the many parables Christ told about masters and servants I think we can garner a flavor of this idea: man is “given” his soul because there is work to be done on it; it's an unfinished entity. This is, of course, one of the main underlying principles of the Gurdjieff work, & we encounter this idea, or the seeds of it, in most religious practice.

In all the Christian parables, and in other works, we also encounter the idea that failure to do one’s work gives "bad results."

As the custodian of this precious entity called a soul, I understand my work to be the process of inward formation: of carefully learning how to digest the food that is given to me in life, that proper growth may occur. I don’t take this work seriously enough most of the time for three reasons: because I think this thing called “life” is mine to do with as I please, that my “soul” is my own property, and that there is plenty of time to get whatever needs to be done, done.

And here we come to the crux of my point:

I don’t see that the price I pay for having this life, this soul, is my life itself. In other words, the coin I must pay with is what "I" am,

and I make that payment with death.

Thus the process of coming to God is enormously, impossibly expensive: in doing so I must absolutely surrender what I believe to be my very most precious possession: my life.

To be sure, I am given the choice of surrendering this life willingly or unwillingly, but surrender it I will and surrender it I must. This is the point where my (and Faust’s) quaint little ideas that I can make deals, and that everything can be negotiated, come to a ruthless and uncompromising end. Apparently I can make a deal with the devil... but I cannot make a deal with God.

One might say that the devil, unlike God, is a salesman.

It is in the understanding, perhaps, of how I surrender my life and why I surrender it that something new may be born. Surely, we are offered enough parables in the Bible alone (from Abraham’s sacrifice right up through the crucifixion of Christ) to offer compelling evidence as to just how important understanding this question, that life des not belong to us, is. And, of course, this question is also central in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism.

We live in a culture where the ego clings frantically to life. Even fundamentalist Christians do. In an exquisite irony, a recent study shows that in conditions of extremis, they cling to life more steadfastly than those without faith: in other words, when dying slowly, of disease, they live longer than those without any faith: on average, 30% (!) longer.

So despite their intense belief in Jesus, they aren’t really in any hurry to meet Him personally.

I can’t blame them, really. Given the way most of us behave in life, it doesn’t seem like a final interview that’s likely to go well. So, the more certain you are you will have it, the more incentive there is to put it off for as long as possible.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

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