The Worth of a Soul

Long lay the world in sin and error pining/'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth…

Despite the coming holiday season, the news from around the country has been pretty devastating. Racial tensions, riots, torture, abuse of power, and more. Even if you avoid the major media outlets, you’ll still find yourself confronting the brokenness on social media. Headlines of stories never even read split friends and families along the fault line of  “your interpretation” and “mine.”

For a world that is preparing to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, this is hardly the way to go about it.

We know, of course, the solution to it all. At least, the more enlightened among us do. The answer is that we must see each other as image bearers; we must respect everyone—male, female, black, white, friend, enemy, born, or unborn—as made in God’s image and deserving of our love because God Himself loves them.

But as so often happens, theological jargon and daily life don’t connect easily. Even as we use the correct language and construct proper paradigms, too many of us still don’t know exactly what we’re talking about. “Made in God’s Image” becomes nothing more than a label affixed to a person, like a tag telling you that your sweater has been “Made in the USA.” Proclaiming that someone is “made in God’s image” has no meaning unless you understand who God is, who we are as human beings, and what this daily requires of us.

I was thinking about this when I ran across a lovely bit from Alexander McCall Smith in his book Sunshine on Scotland Street. One of the protagonists, Angus Lordie, a middle-aged portrait painter, is hosting a party when he has a moment of awareness. He looks out over his guests and for the first time, sees them for what they are: souls.

The small crowd… became not just a collection of people conversing with one another at a party, but an infinitely precious band of souls. Souls, thought Angus; that is just the right word. And he remembered reading something that had made a deep impression on him—a small thing, in one view of it, but a very major thing in another. He had read that in the language used for radio communication at sea, the number of people on board was always expressed in terms of souls. “We have ten souls on board,” a sailor might say when asking for assistance from a passing ship. Ten souls. Not ten people. Not ten passengers. Not ten customers. Ten souls.

It was... the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received—the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that Angus was suddenly vouchsafed; that insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, singing, exalting love. To see another soul was to acknowledge the magnificent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different form seeing others simply as people. The word soul had a big job to do, and it was the only word that could do it.

That “hinterland of value” that each of us possess is what we’re trying to communicate when we say that we are “made in God’s image.” But McCall Smith’s point is that this value only reveals itself when we acknowledge “the lives that we have led, the thoughts we have had, [and] the love we have given and received.” Proclaiming that someone is made in God’s image is pointless unless we acknowledge the “magnificent, epic course that life is for each of us, and experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course.”

This requires a bit of imagination. It requires putting yourself in someone else’s place and learning about their experience. It requires listening to them as they tell us what it is like to “be” them. It also requires dropping categorical thinking. We are not truly engaging people as image bearers if we insist on speaking of them as “crowds” or “enemies” or “fetuses.” We are not these things; we are souls.

Those of us who believe in the direct act of God to make people in His own image must be the first to shift the conversation. It is not enough to acknowledge people as people, to slap a label on them as “Made in God's Image.” We must see them as souls, as great expansive, eternally valuable souls. Until we do, we will never be able to love them the way that God, with His own great, expansive, eternal Soul, loves us.