Molly CahillDecember 24, 2020
Joe Gardner in "Soul". Image courtesy of Disney Media Center.

The title of Disney+’s “Soul” is, at first glance, a tribute to the New York City music scene that the main character, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), loves so much. As the film’s plot unfolds, though, a deeper meaning emerges. A near-death experience provides Joe a peek at the afterlife, and he meets 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul lost in a kind of pre-life limbo because she has not yet found a purpose or passion to guide her through life on earth.

The afterlife presented in “Soul” is a vibrant one, and the influence of many different cultures and traditions is clear.

When we Catholics profess that we believe in life everlasting, what is it that we visualize? What greater meaning does this belief bring to our lives? What is going to happen after I die, in a very concrete sense? I, for one, spent my time watching “Soul” wondering just how much I really understood about this tenet of faith that I often claim to hold but rarely take time to interrogate.

The afterlife presented in “Soul” is a vibrant one, and the influence of many different cultures and traditions is clear.

Dawn Eden Goldstein, the author of My Peace I Give You, has a doctorate in sacred theology and has taught in seminaries. Thankfully, Dr. Goldstein was willing to provide her expertise on what we as Catholics really know about life after death.

You might remember from philosophy class that the Greeks believed that the soul was our animating principle, the spark within us that made us live and move. This talk of “spark” is present in “Soul,” too, as 22 searches for a spark that will give meaning to her own life. For most of the movie, Joe believes that an individual’s spark comes from a specific passion or drive. For him, that source is music, but 22 isn’t drawn to any hobby or art form the way he is. But as Joe shows 22 life on earth, they both realize that his notion of the spark is far too narrow and that life’s meaning comes from something much more innate, much harder to pin down than one’s earthly passion. The ancient Greek philosophers would agree.

This almost ethereal understanding of the soul also informs the Christian understanding of the afterlife. But while the Greeks believed that once the body died and could no longer be animated, the soul, too, would dissolve, the Christian tradition holds that there is a greater life for the soul. According to Dr. Goldstein: “Our understanding is that God did not create us primarily for this life. This life is an extremely brief prelude to the eternal life that God wants us to enjoy with him. Our bodies are mortal, but our soul is, by its nature, immortal and created to spend eternity with God.”

The movie “Soul” does not explicitly portray a “heaven” or a “hell.” In the “Great Beyond,” where Joe finds himself climbing up the ladder to eternity, he sees historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Copernicus, George Orwell and Mother Teresa. A kind of opposite place where grave sinners would exist is not depicted. 22 and the other souls who are waiting to experience life on earth are in a space that the film calls the “Great Before.”

In a poetic or analogous sense, all souls exist in the mind of God, desired and loved by him before all time.

In the Christian understanding, there is no specific space connected to the “pre-life.” Dr. Goldstein explained that, in a poetic or analogous sense, all souls exist in the mind of God, desired and loved by him before all time. But, she said, “there was no waiting room in heaven for my soul before God put my soul into my body.”

Dr. Goldstein suspects that the creators of “Soul” were in some way familiar with Plato’s idea that the soul is taught things before its corporal life that it in some way remembers. In the Christian understanding, the soul does not have that same prehistory, but there is a sense that the soul remembers the God who created it.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this concept, insisting that our memory of God not only allows us to remember our creation but also our ultimate destination: “The memory of the Creator is engraved in the depths of our being.... It is also a memory of the future, because it is the certainty that we come from the goodness of God and are called to reach the goodness of God.” Benedict XVI and Pope Francis both speak about this concept, memoria futuri, in the encyclical “Lumen Fidei.”

One could say that “Soul” is largely a story about vocation. Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher who dreams of being a famous jazz pianist, loves nothing more than music, so much so that he believes that it was what he was made to do. 22, on the other hand, does not know what she was created for, and this causes her a lot of emotional pain.

While our souls were not created for any one earthly thing, there is a Christian notion that our lives have a blueprint, and we will spend our lives trying to discover and live up to that plan.

While our souls were not created for any one earthly thing, there is a Christian notion that our lives have a blueprint, and we will spend our lives trying to discover and live up to that plan. Dr. Goldstein cited Fulton J. Sheen’s book The World’s First Love, which is about the Blessed Mother. In the book, he discusses this idea of calling, which Mary fulfilled perfectly. While we may not always adhere to God’s blueprint for our lives, each one of us is called to a grace-filled life that is our own, marked by our own talents and loves.

The Catholic understanding of the afterlife remains complicated. “In recent years, there’s been some discussion about whether heaven is a place,” Dr. Goldstein said. “That’s still an open discussion.”

In a series of audiences in 1999, Pope John Paul II gave new life to this debate. The pope said that the idea of heaven as a place is a metaphorical one and offered a different characterization: “We know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity.” Not long after that, he also said that hell was a state rather than a place.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the pope was right that heaven is not a palace in the clouds, but we do have some sense that heaven is a place because of scriptural discussion of bodies in heaven. While these bodies are described as spiritual bodies, they are believed to have some physical component.

At the end of a year in which many of us have only been able to think one day—even one minute—at a time, it might give you a chance to think bigger, to reflect on the long-term meaning of your life and where it can go.

As Dr. Goldstein put it: “We do believe that, in some sense, heaven is a place. We also believe it’s not a place with the same kinds of dimensions as the ones we know on earth.”

Since there is a continual discussion of exactly what our life after death will look and feel like to us, it is understandable that the afterlife’s depiction on screen might be imperfect. Still, a film like “Soul”can be a great gift. It dares to ask rich questions about the meaning and ultimate destination of life, and it encourages us to interrogate what we know and to imagine what is to come.

“Soul” is available on Disney+ starting on Christmas Day. At the end of a year in which many of us have been able to think only one day—even one minute—at a time, it might give you a chance to think bigger, to reflect on the long-term meaning of your life and where it can go.

 

Update, Dec. 28, 10:20 a.m.: This article has been updated to include the preferred academic title for Dr. Goldstein.

More: Film / Music / Theology

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