You Don’t Have a Soul

New Jewish Cemetery, Kraków, Poland. ©2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

Last month, my wife and I attended a music performance by a young married Israeli couple. We first saw them in YouTube videos posted by friends on Facebook. I began looking for them on my own on YouTube and subscribed to their channel. When my wife heard they were coming to Be’er Sheva, we decided to get tickets to their performance.

Like musicians often do, the couple interspersed their singing with stories, most of them related either to the song they had just sung or to the one they were about to sing. Their comments were usually in Hebrew, though they also sometimes spoke in English. I do not speak Hebrew, but my wife does. From time to time, she would translate for me portions of what the performers said that she wanted to share with me.

At one point, the woman mentioned a magnet on the refrigerator in her home. It says, and I’m not sure if the magnet is in English or Hebrew, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I liked the sound of that. I decided to research the saying the morning following the concert.

Online, the quotation is attributed, almost universally, to the British Christian academic, writer, and lay theologian C. S. Lewis, known by many for his series of fantasy novels titled The Chronicles of Narnia. However,—a website containing articles by people who describe themselves as “a small group of young Christians who have spent the past 12 years working out what our faith looks like in public”—maintains that Lewis never said it. I agree with them.

In an article on the topic, “You Don’t Have a Soul”: C.S. Lewis Never Said It, Hannah Peckham identifies a possible source of the quotation, the Scottish minister, poet, and author, George MacDonald. Lewis considered MacDonald, who was a pioneer in the writing of fantasy literature, as his master. So, there is a connection, a kind of teacher and student relationship, between Lewis and MacDonald.

MacDonald wrote a novel, Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood, about a country vicar named Henry Walton who longs to be not only a priest for the members of his congregation but a friend as well. I did not find the quotation as recorded on the magnet. There is, however, a relevant discussion in CHAPTER XXVIII – OLD MRS TOMKINS. Mr. Walton pays a visit to one of the members of his congregation, a Mrs. Tomkins who is near death. She tells Mr. Walton about one of her fears, about how “perishing cold” she will be when lying buried in the churchyard. Mr. Walton points out that as a believer in Jesus Christ, she can rely on His promise that “whosoever liveth and believeth in Him shall never die.”

Not put off quite so quickly, Mrs. Tomkins answers: “But, you know, sir, everybody dies. I MUST die, and be laid in the churchyard, sir. And that’s what I don’t like.”

Mr. Walton, now better understanding what he perceives as Mrs. Tomkins’ mistake, replies, “But I say that is all a mistake. YOU won’t die. Your body will die, and be laid away out of sight; but you will be awake, alive, more alive than you are now, a great deal.”

At this point, the story’s narrator intervenes:

And here let me interrupt the conversation to remark upon the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls. The consequence is, that they think of their souls as of something which is not themselves. For what a man HAS cannot be himself. Hence, when they are told that their souls go to heaven, they think of their SELVES as lying in the grave. They ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on. Then they will not think, as old Mrs Tomkins did, that THEY will be laid in the grave. It is making altogether too much of the body, and is indicative of an evil tendency to materialism, that we talk as if we POSSESSED souls, instead of BEING souls. We should teach our children to think no more of their bodies when dead than they do of their hair when it is cut off, or of their old clothes when they have done with them.

George MacDonald, Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood

It is what is said here that, I believe, is captured, rather pithily, on the magnet. What appealed to me in hearing the quotation was precisely this, how shall I put it, less than subtle attack on materialism.

Every morning, I recite the following from the “Morning Blessings.” “My God, the soul you have placed within me is pure…You have breathed it into me,…Ultimately, You will take it from me, and restore it within me in the Time to Come.” This Blessing ends, “Blessed are You, God, Who restores souls to lifeless bodies.” There is a clear distinction made between my body and my soul.

So, where does this leave us with Mrs. Tomkins? It’s probably safe to say her dead body will feel the cold neither more nor less than the soil she lies in, or the gravestone marking where she is buried. What if we think of Mrs. Tomkins as not just a soul that has a body, but instead as the two things together, that is, she is her soul and her body—both elements are required for there to be a Mrs. Tomkins? Consider the following verse, Genesis 2.7 (JPS translation): “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

At death, the dust and breath separate; the dust returns to the earth, the breath to God.

And the dust returns to the ground
As it was,
And the lifebreath returns to God
Who bestowed it.

Ecclesiastes 12.7 (JPS)

My hope, and the hope of many others as well, rests in a God who, in time to come, “restores souls to dead bodies.”

So it seems to me.

Anyway, next concert I’m telling my wife not to translate anything; I’m just listening to the music.

All the best.

Resources not cited above via links:

CHAPTER XXVIII. MacDonald, George. Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood (p. 285). Kindle Edition.

Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors ; Michael Fishbane, consulting editor. The Jewish Study Bible : Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 2004.

Text ©2019.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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