In the final days of Terri Schiavo's life, Beliefnet asked a wide range of religious and spiritual thinkers and scholars to describe their tradition's perspectives on the soul. The responses follow.
Sister Joan Chittister (Catholic)
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan Chittister is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality.
The soul is the spiritual entity, the underlying essence, of the physical body. The soul and the brain are not the same thing--just as the soul and the arm are not the same thing. The soul lives before God throughout eternity. The Catholic tradition treats life as that which can be naturally maintained, despite and beyond temporary therapies. It is not necessary, therefore, to keep a person "alive" indefinitely--breathing--through artificial means when all other signs of human response--i.e., brain activity--no longer exist.
Ben Witherington III (Methodist)
Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.
I would prefer to talk about the human spirit rather than the soul. The New Testament doesn't offer a doctrine of the soul. If we want to talk about the non-material part of the person, we need to talk about the human spirit (see Jesus' word: "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit", Luke 23:46).
From what the New Testament says about the human spirit (and it is not a lot, and mostly in Paul) it should not be confused with the material brain. For that matter, the mind is not the same thing as the brain. The brain simply houses and hard-wires the mind. There is more to the human spirit than brain waves. Paul in 2 Cor. 5 says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The person is still alive, though disembodied (and without a material brain). Rev. 6 tells us the person in God's presence can think and respond to their situation. Such a person is not in some sort of coma, and this is also the view of Jesus in the parable in Lk. 16.19ff.
This brings us to a crucial point. The non-empirically verifiable portions of human existence are some of the most important ones. By this I mean that we are creatures who love and are loved, experience a wide gamut of emotions--but when we are opened up and examined, no one can find love, or pain, or guilt, in there. Why not? They are real, and often the driving forces in a human life, but not empirically examinable.
So who are we to say that: 1) Terry Schiavo had no meaningful life left because some aspects of her body were in a vegetative state; 2) a person is dead if we can't find sufficient brain waves?; and 3) which is more barbaric--starving a person to death, or leaving her on a feeding tube? Who is more human and humane--Terry Schiavo or the person who withdrew her feeding tube? These are the questions that should be pondered. In my view, if there is any doubt about such a person being alive, she should be left alone.
Forrest Church (Unitarian Universalist)
Senior Minister, All Souls Church, New York City
As a Unitarian, I would define "soul" as the animating spark of personhood. The contemporary scientific studies of mind-body relationship indicate that we are all in much more interrelated than once was thought in the old classic dualisms, where there was a body and a soul. That said, calling the soul the animating spark of personhood, indicates that that spark can go out before the body dies. I am very hesitant to posit the soul in the embryo, for example. If I see a comatose patient, I feel that I'm involved with a person's body, not with that animating spark of that person's full personhood.
In the Schiavo case, most Unitarian Universalists would believe that the loved ones, the family, the doctors who were closest to the patient would have the responsibility to decide whether the quality of life would be sufficient, the hoped-for recovery was sufficient, to continue to use extraordinary measures for extending the living death. Each of these decisions should be made with deep moral seriousness. But we would not abandon our freedom to make those decisions for ourselves to the extent that we can, and that's why we strongly encourage living wills. Members of my congregation are now rushing to have their living wills amended to include artificial feeding as a form of artificial life support to clarify that issue so that they don't get caught in the niceties of moral reasoning that suggest that one form of live support is more natural than the other.
In these tragic cases, where there's a family divided, we have to rely on adjudication in the courts to make a determination of who has the clearest sense of what the patient's own will would have been.