The Vale of Soul Making
Self-Definition as Creative Participation and Response
by Obi Martin
The general predicament in which humanity finds itself is accepting and living well within the sorrows and limits of temporospatial reality. By “reality” I mean something that is synonymous with “life” in its common usage: the typical engagements of creatures such as ourselves across time and space. The simple fact is that there are barriers of time and space between us and the things we desire. Working and living across time and space toward the things we desire is difficult, and the limits of otherness are such that often when we get to what we desire we find it to be not what we expected. As a result, it becomes difficult for most of us to continue to accept reality as valuable enough in itself to be justifiable of itself as we find it.
A common, and I think worthy, preoccupation of humanity in the face of this difficulty is a search for some meaning or justification of reality beyond reality as we find it. I don’t think, though, that the meaning that we look for can be totally beyond reality as we experience it, because, if it were totally beyond and exclusive of the meaning we currently inhabit, it would be a denial or cancellation of our reality and also of our looking. In a letter written in 1819 to his siblings, John Keats critiqued the Reformed and neo-Platonic Christian views that approach this denial as “superstitious” and “misguided.” He characterized the popular religious view of reality in his time as “‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” If reality is nothing more than something for us to be taken out of, then no matter where we’re going—heaven, nirvana, or final oblivion—it’s hard to conclude that reality as we find it is something worth engaging in. If the meaning beyond our reality were not somehow tied to our reality, we could not recognize it as meaning.
The best models or understandings of meaning therefore will locate meaning as occurring simultaneously within and beyond reality as we understand it. This essay assumes an orthodox Judeo-Christian view of God, and accordingly sees the Divine transference of meaning to reality through creation, attention, and incarnation as simultaneously within and beyond temporospatial reality. Models which value reality as a lens by which we can see meaning beyond it or as a catalyst for becoming meaningful beyond it would also fit the within-and-beyond criteria. If, on these models, life as we find it is not ultimate meaning within itself, what relationship does it bear to ultimate meaning? I suggest that the relationship is metaphorical.
How widely is it possible to use the word metaphor? It is derived from two words: meta, meaning “over, above, or across,” and pherein, meaning “to carry or to bear.” Commonly, we use the term to refer to a transfer of meaning, usually comparing an abstract concept like love or despair to a concrete image like fire or flood. Metaphor is a transference of meaning across the distance from the material to the abstract. In this sense, we could also say that metaphor is the inverse of incarnation, which is the transformation of abstracted meaning into reality, or into the concrete. We could think then of life, which is the engagement of a self with reality, as the transference of meaning from concrete to abstract reality. Materiality is the metaphor, the comparison, or the reflection by which the soul comes to know itself. In the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is recorded as saying, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, that is a marvel, but if spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels.” This conjunction of opposite movements—where meaning is both transferred into and out of temporospatial reality—may create a picture beautiful and compelling enough to justify belief in the value of engaging in reality as we find it.
Following his critique of life as a “vale of tears” from which souls are simply exported, John Keats suggested that the world is the “vale of soul-making.” Thus, he gives the limits and difficulties of temporospatial reality a creative value. Keats asks,
How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How but by the medium of a world like this? This point I surely want to consider, because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion—or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three materials are the intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from the intelligence or the mind), and the world or elemental space suited for the proper action of mind and heart on each other for the purpose of forming the soul or intelligence destined to possess the sense of identity.
What “salvation” or “Spirit-creation” is for Keats is not clear, but whether he means the creation of something eternal or only of something beautiful, it would seem to be something more than or beyond “elemental space,” and thus a transference from reality as we find it to something beyond. For Keats, unlike in the Christianity to which he had been exposed, reality is a medium for the transference of meaning beyond itself. Of course, in orthodox Christianity, this transference can happen in both directions, both into reality from beyond it through creation, revelation, and incarnation, and from reality to beyond it in theosis. This is the vale of soul-making, and temporospatial reality the metaphor providing the texture or surface upon which it occurs.
Reminiscent of St. Paul’s analysis of the Jewish religion serving as a “school master” before the era Christianity, Keats develops an instructive analogy to describe our basic relationship to the vale of soul-making:
That you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible—I will call the world a school institute for the purpose of teaching little children to read. . . . Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! . . . As various as the lives of men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity.
As Keats sees clearly, the engagement of the self with reality is essential for its formation. That engagement, in that it is formative of the soul and the self’s identity, is essentially creative. Engagement is necessitated by existence and is validated by its transference of meaning beyond reality or the soul’s relationship to God. In that the soul’s engagement follows God’s methods of engagement of reality, it is moral and draws the soul toward God. In that it does not follow God’s methods of engaging with reality, it is destructive, immoral, and uncreative. Therefore, our engagement should also be practically creative, mimicking God’s own engagement with the world. Again in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is recorded as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” Following God’s engagement, our engagement with reality should be gracious, sacrificial, constructive, self-giving.
Parallel to Keats, in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis goes to great lengths to argue that if you wanted to make self-volitional souls via the multivalent dialectic of choice and action you would need a material universe and consequently the possibility of pain. He argues that love implies otherness, and otherness implies being, and that a created, freely-willed-but-finite being requires a material universe as a field of potential interactions between beings. The created, material universe becomes the metaphor or explanation for the soul to both recognize and determine, by living out reality, what it as a being in reality is like. Part of that metaphor, that interaction, is of course creation, using the materials of creation. Indeed, the Lord’s creation is not individual, not selfish. He invites, He commands, He implores us to participate in it. His desire is a defining work which find us where we are and asks us to work with Him.
In The Truth About Stories, Thomas King retells the Native American creation story of the Earth Diver, and contrasts it with the Genesis account, claiming that the Earth Diver provides a better framework to inform our own necessary participation in the world. Against the seeming individuality of the Creator in Genesis acting independently from any assistance, King contrasts the commonality of all the animals working together to provide a safe place for the woman who falls from the sky to give birth to the two creating twins. He says that the Earth Diver story better instructs our awareness of the necessity for collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual-submission in our moral action in the world. What King fails to appreciate is the relational and creative aspect of the Trinity present and operative at creation, including St. John’s understanding of the creation narrative. God mutually creates in relationship; furthermore, beyond the initial act of creation, God creates in such a way that his creatures would continue to create with Him. King’s point however is sound: we need an awareness of the participatory and mutually constructive nature of our actions. Our participation in the world should be good, creative, and cooperative with the good and creative participation of others.
Similarly, I cannot see why Keats thinks that his view of the world as “a vale for soul making” is different or antithetical to the narrative of Christianity. I can only surmise that his opinion on the subject is a commentary on the cultural expression of Christianity of his time and place, not of Christianity in its universal sense. I’m most compelled by Christianity because I see it as the most compelling, the most dramatic iteration of the human condition. It contributes the most pathos, the most drama, to human existence and to the seeming absurdity of human suffering and death. Major worldview competitors, Hinduism, fatalism, nihilism, functional-hedonism, and scientific-empiricism simply fall short. Stoicism, Daosim, and Islam come closer, but ultimately stop before they reach a full telling of Divine Incarnation. Persuaded by arguments from scope and drama, I’m intrigued by Keats’s comment on a grander system of salvation than what he sees in Christianity, but I don’t see that a view of reality as the veil of soul-making stands opposed to Christianity at all. To me, this view seems to be already assumed within Christianity.
That God created, became like us, and suffered so that we could become like him is the most sophisticated and dramatic telling of the universe that we find in any religion or philosophy. If, as Keats says, it “affronts our reason,” that shows that we did not indeed come up with it. The Christian system of salvation is grander than the Keatsian, because it assumes both directions of meaning transference, not only the metaphorical but also the incarnational. Not only is spirit formed by body, but body is also formed by Spirit. In His life, Christ took on the materiality of our life so that we could take on the perfection of His. The ideal, complete, abstraction of perfection became concrete and material in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
St. Athanasius said “The Son of God became man, that we might become god.” Thus, the Christian understanding of “salvation” or “Spirit-making” is the process by which the individual enters into relationship with and takes on the characteristics of the perfection of Christ. This process is a simultaneous transference of meaning into temporospatial reality in that the individual becoming like Christ is acting within the limits of time and space, and a transference of meaning beyond temporospatial reality in that the engagement of individual spirit with reality is further developing the spirit to its godlike potential. St. Peter describes the revelation of Jesus Christ as given “so that we might become partakers of his divine nature.” In any case, the vale of soul making still provides a useful and coherent framework for developing identity and characteristics which allow us to engage with reality in better ways, ways capable of communicating more value to you and to reality.
We define our identities in a number of ways, but there can be no identity prior to relationship, prior to encountering the otherness of what is outside of self. We define and are defined by the dialectic of encountering and responding to circumstance. There are elements to both our circumstances and our responses that are within our control, and there are elements to both that are beyond our control. There will always be circumstances that are entirely out of our control, and at best we can only hope to influence minor elements within them. Similarly, even the most carefully and powerfully manipulated circumstances will always carry elements that are beyond the control of the one intending to manipulate them. In a general instance though, we hold far more control over our responses than over our circumstances, and so our responses are able to tell more about us. Situations which we control say something about our identity, in that they indicate what our desires for circumstance are, but since they are already considered and self-directed they provide less opportunity for us to learn what we don’t already know about ourselves. Situations which we control provide us less opportunity to demonstrate dialectic, dynamic identity formation. To truly understand yourself, you must accept circumstances that you can’t control and observe your responses within them. Your responses define your identity. Therefore, to take command of and to revise your identity, consider those responses, and, when you find yourself in similar circumstances, employ the changes and responses that you would most like to identify yourself by.
We understand ourselves by the reflection of our choices within and responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. This is why self-reflection is so important—our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions are, to the extent that they occur in the moment, involuntary; thus if we would really have them be our own, we must always examine them and, with the knowledge we then have, consider whether they are responses which we would like to disavow or to continue to own.
A version of this essay was published previously on the author’s blog: https://foederatifornow.wordpress.com.
Artwork: Forest Sunrise, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).