Science tells us that there are rays of light that we cannot see and spectrums of sound that we cannot hear. Our senses are not equipped to receive them. And we know that there are entire realms of reality not assigned to the senses. Who would deny that such things as intelligence, beauty and love exist? But we do not directly smell, touch, hear or see these things, not even with the aid of scientific equipment.
Religious faith is not opposed to science because it seeks to understand realities beyond the scientific. Realities such as intelligence, beauty and love must be perceived rather than simply seen, which is to say, they must be comprehended, taken in by us, made a part of who we are. Like the other disciplines called the humanities, religion engages these realities, first by asking about their deepest meaning and then by asking what this meaning may want of us.
The problem for knowing, whether in the sciences or the humanities, is that we tend to think by way of pictures.
The problem for knowing, whether in the sciences or the humanities, is that we tend to think by way of pictures. Hang multicolored balls around the classroom, and we suddenly understand what you mean by a solar system. But say that light is both a particle and a wave and you short circuit our imaginations. Which picture should we employ?
When we say that God and the angels are pure spirits, pure intelligences, we speak of realities that are not at all physical, yet those are the only sorts of pictures we draw. So we make the angels physically beautiful because we cannot sketch spiritual beauty. And we give them wings because these suggest that their intelligences are not limited by time and place. But, let us admit, our angel sketches do no justice to the reality. And a white-bearded old man, sitting in for God, on a throne made of clouds, is downright deceiving.
We are at a loss when it comes to picturing souls.
We use the word “soul” to speak of the core of the human person, the place where intelligence, emotion and intention come together. We are at a loss when it comes to picturing souls. We produce something like Casper the Friendly Ghost, a black and white outline, who steps free of the colored background.
And when we try to picture the differences that exist among souls or try to depict the growth or decay of a soul, the paint palettes of our imagination are truly dry. That is what your primary school religion teacher was trying to do when she spoke of your soul being like a white garment, which had stains of sin upon it. Not a bad picture in second grade. Not particularly helpful in adulthood.
Genius that he was, Oscar Wilde found a way to do it in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A man remains ever young, ever beautiful as, year after year, he gives himself over to sin and decay. Only his portrait, hidden away, reveals the hideous transformation of his soul.
Sin rips apart the soul. Draw your image as best you can.
When a great harm has been done to us, its effects remain with us. We can no more deny this than we can properly picture it. When the harm is self-inflicted, we call it sin. Sin rips apart the soul. Draw your image as best you can. Sin distorts the human person, divides and enervates him or her. But the harm may also be inflicted by another, by another’s sin. Then we are the victims of sin, but our souls are no less shattered. To quote Oscar Wilde: “Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.”
When we say that Christ came to deliver us from sin, we can picture salvation as the suturing of my soul, reintegrating it, granting it wholeness and health. Whether my soul is in shards through my sins or those of another, healing can only begin when I open myself, surrender myself, to the highest reality of intelligence, beauty and love—to that which we call God.
A soul that will not seek forgiveness for itself, a soul that will not seek healing from the wounds of sin, those self-inflicted and those inflicted by others, is a scattered, tortured soul. It cannot wander through the chambers of its own history, cannot seek out old loves in the garden of its memory. A soul that cannot forgive itself cannot even gaze upon itself in recollection.
Would that we could see our souls! We would not have to draw such impoverished images for our imaginations. But souls can only be perceived. We know them through recollection and reflection. We heal them, make them whole, only through reconciliation, that moment when our souls open to their ancient lover and healer, the very fullness of intelligence, beauty and love, whom we call God.