2016-06-30
Catholic | Methodist | Unitarian Universalist | Hindu | Buddhist | Orthodox Jewish | Conservative Jewish | Sufi Muslim | Pagan


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.

Arvind Sharma (Hindu)
Arvind Sharma is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University and author of 'Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction.'

The question of souls in Hinduism is a bit tricky, because two terms are often translated by the word "soul," but they are different. One is the atman and the other is the suksma sarira, or subtle body. And it is the subtle body that migrates from one life to another. Now, breathing belongs to the subtle body. So the soul as subtle body will be there as long as the person is not physically dead. But in a brain-dead person, the subtle body is there in potentiality, since the other functions are not there.

So in a person like Terri Schiavo, the suksma sarira was still residing in her body while she was alive.

As to the question of what Hinduism teaches about the proper course of action in deciding whether to preserve life in a circumstance like that of Ms. Schiavo: Hinduism as a tradition accepts the presence of moral dilemmas as authentic. It accepts ambiguity as a part of life.

If you are a rationalist, then you might conclude that if only you have enough reason, you will find the answer to the moral question before you. And if you are a person of faith, you can hold the view that with enough faith-or through revelation, if that is part of your religious belief system-you will find the answer to all moral dilemmas. The Hindu position has been that you have to acknowledge the fact that life presents you with authentic moral dilemmas, meaning that you will only be able to follow one moral course, at the expense of another. It's not right and wrong; you have to deal with two rights, and you have to sacrifice one to live by the other.

It's not that there are no guidelines left for the Hindu, but Hinduism recognizes this fact of life. And that is why you have the doctrine of karma, because it addresses the fact that it is the individual who has to make the decision, and you'll have to live with the consequences of that decision. You are making the moral choice, and that helps determine your karma.

But Hinduism does provide some guidelines about how you should go about making your moral decision. In this particular situation, the guideline is a basic presumption in favor of life. This is in the whole of Hinduism. However, there are important qualifications. Three come to mind: One, you might call sublime passion. It is like giving your life for your country. Self-willed death. You decide you've lived long enough, you've had a good run, you fast to death. Not everyone does it, but it's quite accepted in Hinduism. A person decides I'm going to stop eating and drinking, and just fade away. But remember, it cannot be a decision made out of despair. Hinduism is opposed to suicide out of dejection. It has to be positive, heroic. It cannot be a negative emotion, running away from life, because you cannot handle life. All of that is bad karma. Taking one's life-or anyone else's life-in that frame of mind is bad karma.

Second is plain compassion. The very famous example, because Mahatma Gandhi faced this situation: There was a calf in great agony, and Gandhi had poison administered to the calf to die, although he was an advocate of non-violence. And everybody jumped on him for this. Gandhi said, "Look, this is not some kind of iron-clad rule. In this case, its suffering was so great, relieving it was a greater act of non-violence. Leaving him suffering was violent."

Third, the claims of others. If you want to prolong your life, you also have to look at what it's doing to others. For example, in Terri Schiavo's case, the amount of resources that were spent in keeping her alive, which could have been used in many cases of benefit. So, again, this guideline will not yield a clear-cut decision. As a Hindu, looking at the same factors, you might decide on course A, and I might decide on course B, because I attach different weights to the various arguments.

The Schiavo case is a very useful case in promoting this kind of reflection, to bring it to self-consciousness.

Here is where the doctrine of Karma kicks in a very interesting way. In one interpretation, suppose you had the power to make the decision. Then what you are going to do is exactly what will happen to you in a similar situation. So if you make the decision to withhold a life-support for a person in a vegetative state in this life, and you find yourself in a similar state in your next life, life-support will be withheld from you. If you let her have it in this life, you will have it in the next.

In death, the fate of the soul is decided by the sum-total-the balance-sheet-of karma. The sum-total of actions she's performed in this life will determine her soul's future.

Both her parents and her husband are acting in good faith. It's very important to recognize that, because it is a genuine moral dilemma. In general, Hinduism does not regard people as evil; people do evil. It doesn't essentialize evil. There is no devil. There will be a series of events in which one might play an evil role, but once you have played that evil role, you will get your evil karma and you will have to suffer for it. But you are not evil; you have done evil deeds, and you will get karma for that.

As to why Terri Schiavo fell into the vegetative state in which she languished for so long: The standard line from within Hinduism would be that she suffered that outcome because of actions in previous lives. When one finds oneself in such a situation, it is probably the outcome of what one has done in a past life before. This perspective is actually clearest in Buddhism.

Buddha was once asked whether if someone dies in a famine, is he dying because he has done some bad karma in the past, or is he dying because social and economic arrangements have failed? Buddha answered in an extremely interesting way: It can be either, and only Buddha's insight can help you determine it. In other words, these deaths can be purely natural developments.

So the basic guideline for Hindus is that one should act compassionately as wisely as possible in any given situation you should choose that option that is most consistent with compassion and wisdom. Because otherwise we will get lost with all the arguments and counterarguments and finessing of various concepts of Karma. So the central concept is to do good, to refrain from evil, and to calm the mind, as the Buddha teaches.

Robert Thurman (Buddhist)
Robert Thurman, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and director of Tibet House in New York City, is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.

From a Buddhist perspective, a brain-dead person is unlikely to have the soul-continuum intact within the body, perhaps roaming around the body uncomfortably, now free to move on to other lives, not able to return to this life. Testing could probably be done on a comatose person. If no dream-like MRI activity is detected, she is likely to have lost her soul connection.

If dream-level activity were detectable in her brain, life-prolongation could be of benefit for a comatose person. If the level of brain activity was purely vegetative, i.e. simple monitoring or registering of autonomic functions of the body, artificial life-prolongation probably would be harmful to her soul-continuum, impeding its progress into a better future life embodiment.

Tara Brach (Buddhist)
Tara Brach, founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., is a lay Buddhist priest and the author of "Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha."

Buddhists describe our essence as "Buddha nature"--the awakened heart and mind. This true or original nature is prior to and not dependent on the changing circumstances of our bodies, our brains, our lives. All beings, including someone who is brain-dead, have Buddha nature. It is our changeless, timeless source.

The belief that all beings have Buddha nature would not lead to the preservation of a life, if someone is brain dead and without any hope of resuscitation. All schools of Buddhism hold as a central teaching the reverence for life and a commitment to non-harming. Each school also has a profound acceptance of the nature of all conditioned things--including these individual lives--to pass. Reverence for life means we do want we can to nourish and protect life, and then, out of respect for the natural way of all life, let go when we need to let go.

Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield (Orthodox Jewish)

Vice President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and co-author of "Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care."

Given that the Hebrew word for soul is breath (neshamah), if a brain-dead person is still breathing, we would argue that her soul is fully present with her body. That transcends all differences in Judaism. The idea that she is a soulless entity would violate any denominational understanding of the sanctity of who she is. That does not mean that there will be uniformity about what the next steps in her life or her death should be. That's one of the critical things to be aware of. Right now in the religious world, so much energy is going into proving either, her soul has departed, so the hell with her body, or she still has a soul, so keep shoving that paste into her body. Both of these extremes are a terrible mistake, and they are not reflective of Jewish tradition's commitment that we are all human beings body/soul unities and that you don't try to get rid of one to feel good about doing something to the other.

Religious history is littered with examples of religious traditions being willing to separate body from soul, to justify doing terrible things to other people's bodies in order to save their souls. So I think everyone would agree that her soul was with Terri Schiavo while she was alive. There is a Jewish view that upon death, the soul departs the body. Where it goes is a matter of widely divergent views. But neither side should premise its decision about what to do with people on life-support on the basis of whether or not her soul is with her. From a Jewish perspective, it most certainly is and the question is how best to honor the departure of both her body and her soul.

The presence of the soul is dependent upon the presence of bodily life. In some traditions, if the soul is there, you take care of the body, which is basically just a shell. In Jewish tradition, they are equal partners. So as long as the body is there, the soul is there. It's not that you're waiting for one to depart so that you can feel good about killing off the other. Literally, the word for soul is breath (neshamah). And going back to Genesis, the body is created first, by God, and into that divinely made body is infused divine breath, which is the soul. What is powerful about that cosmology is that it establishes for all eternity the equal sacredness of our physical and spiritual selves.

As to those Jews who argue that a brain-dead person has only the nefesh or soul common to all creatures, animal or human, it's a disturbing argument, because it's taken from Yehuda Halevis's argument that only Jews have a neshamah, that even when they're perfectly healthy, gentiles only get a form of soul known as the nefesh, just like cows. It's one of the most racist understandings of ensoulment that we have in Jewish tradition.

The reason why the fight over end-of-life decisions is so nasty is because all spiritual traditions right now are sorely challenged by living in a moment where our technological and medical capacity far outstrip our ethical and spiritual awareness. That's the real challenge here rather than defining souls--to support each other through a moment of learning, when our spiritual and ethical sensitivity needs to catch up to our medical and technological capacity. One of the gifts of polytheistic traditions is their ability to handle ambiguity. We monotheists tend to dig in hardest when we need to open up most. Each of the world's great traditions has within it the ability to argue for letting go and sustaining a brain-dead person. And the real test for people who are advocates for each view within their tradition will be whether they can manage to maintain their advocacy without demeaning people with whom they disagree. The truth is, our traditions are going to be judged much more by that, than by when and how Terri Schiavo and others like her die.

Rabbi David Kraemer (Conservative Jewish)
David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a senior associate at CLAL, is the author of several books, including "The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism."

The rabbis of the Talmudic period believed that souls survive the body after death. They saw death not as a moment, but as a process. Death was assumed to progress over the course of approximately a year and death was over, it was finished, only when the flesh had decayed from the bones. And the way we know all of that is that the bones were reburied at the end of approximately a year and that was actually the ceremony that marked the end of the process of death.

During this entire period, obviously during life, the soul is assumed to be attached to the body, but following the transition toward death, what we would today call death, this was a period during which the soul separated from the body. As long as there was flesh, the soul continued to be somehow enmeshed with the body, though in the body of separation. And only when death was completed would the soul have separated completely. And even at that time, there are stories in the Talmud to suggest that the common assumption was that the soul remained in the vicinity of the bones for the foreseeable future. Now that's a simple description.

The way that would translate into the present situation would be quite obvious. This Judaism, the one I just described, which I believe is not only the Rabbinic Judaism of the ancient world but traditional Judaism over the course of many subsequent centuries, would assume that as long as a body is breathing and a heart is beating, the soul is enmeshed with the body, which is not the same as saying that the soul is united with the body as in the case with a fully living person.

It seems to me that when she went into a vegetative state, Terri Schiavo clearly began the process of death, a significant part of her had died. And therefore, the death process had long since begun in her case but the Jewish perspective would be that the soul remained enmeshed because the process was far from over.

What's the current belief? It depends on whom you ask. What branch of Judaism? What individual within that branch of Judaism? I suspect there are as many answers as there are people answering the question.

There are many Jews today, including not only non-religious Jews but even Reform and Conservative Jews, who would be of the opinion that there is no soul that survives the body.

I think it's true of religious leaders as well. You will find many of those who would follow the description that I just offered.

Here the question would become, how does one define death? Most of the people who have discussed this case, much to my chagrin, actually have not addressed that question. What does one mean by death? One could make the argument that the persistent vegetative state, with no consciousness whatsoever of any kind constitutes death. And if it constitutes death, then Terri Schiavo was already dead for years. In which case, removal of the feeding tube is utterly beside the point.

Now, many people who know the sources will reference the fact that the Talmud, and following the Talmud many subsequent sources, cite breathing as the sign of life. But I think that the extension of that to a broad rule is very tenuous. The reason the rabbis cite breathing is because quite simply that's all they know, given the state of medical science of the time. Does that mean if they knew about brain death they would deny that as a reasonable definition of death? That's not obvious to me.

Looking at contemporary Judaism, I don't think that there is a unitary Conservative Jewish position on the disposition of the soul after death. Conservative Judaism has emphasized matters of practice rather than matters of belief, and this is not one of the matters of belief that this has concentrated on.

Most Jews are uncomfortable with questions like this because with the advent of modernity, Jews became intent on representing Judaism as the most modern faith available. Modernity meant rationality. And Jews then learned the lesson of rationality all too well, which left generations of modern Jews with discomfort in matters such as this. This is all about the Jewish apologia about the modernity of the faith. I can speak of my personal belief, but I can't speak of Conservative Jewish belief on the subject of the soul, because I don't think there is such a thing. Even some of the leadership is squeamish on this subject. Younger Jews are far more interested in what we call "spirituality," including questions about the soul.

Kabir Helminski (Sufi Muslim)
Kabir Helminski is founder and director of the The Threshold Society and a Sufi scholar.

The state of the soul in a brain-dead person would depend on the level of development of that soul. Some people with apparently healthy, functioning brains are nevertheless barely present, living through somewhat automated processes of thinking and feeling. Spiritual development is a process of awakening a capacity for presence that can even detach itself from mental, emotional, and higher structures of perception. Of course, relatively few people develop these capacities.

Theoretically, the soul would have some viability independent of the body but this is hampered when it is saddled with a non-functional nervous system. As long as the soul is "wedded" to a body it benefits or suffers the condition of the nervous system. Keeping a body alive artificially for an indefinite period of time may in fact be an offense against Nature and God, caging the soul.

Starhawk (Pagan)
A witch in the Reclaiming tradition, Starhawk is the author of numerous books, including "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of The Ancient Religion Of The Great Goddess."

First, a disclaimer-as a Pagan and a Witch in the Reclaiming tradition, I want to begin by saying we have no official dogma nor set of approved or agreed upon beliefs. We do have strong traditions, however, and an overall belief that death is a natural part of life, not something to be feared or viewed with horror, but one phase of the soul's journey. Most of us believe in some sort of reincarnation-that there is a soul or spirit that exists independent of the physical body, goes through many lives, each of which is a chance for learning. We don't believe in some ultimate enlightenment that takes us off the wheel-for us, the wheel of life and the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth are sacred.

The body and the brain are the physical vehicle through which the soul can learn and grow. If that vehicle is destroyed, then it is time for the soul to move on and continue its journey. There's no point in artificially prolonging the mechanical functions of the vehicle. And, in fact, there are real dangers that doing so may hold the soul back, keep it trapped in a halfway place-like being caught in a nightmare you can't wake up from. It's possible her soul could simply just go on anyway, but the attachment to the body could be a kind of energetic drain that may hold her back.

So we would say, no, don't artificially prolong a semblance of life. Let go. Let the soul move on to its next set of lessons. Let her walk with the Goddess beneath the apple trees of the Shining Isle, not hang around a hospital ward. And above all, don't let politicians make political capital out of a tragedy like that of Terri Schiavo. When they do, they literally feed on the energy of death for their own benefit. But whatever peoples' opinions, their prayers, and all the genuine caring directed toward a person at the end of life, however, will be healing and protective for her spirit.