The Spectrum of Religious Views of the Human Person

Religious views of the human person are, thus, very diverse, and they might even be said to cover every possible form of relationship between conscious experience and material existence. There are five main views that various religious traditions have used. The one-self and the no-self views, of Vedantic Hinduism and Buddhism, respectively, agree that conscious experience and the capacity to control to some extent the content of that experience is distinctive of the human person. But the goal of spiritual life is to transcend individual human experience in some more universal form of consciousness, wisdom, and bliss.

The dualist view of one continuing and potentially disembodied substantial self is not widely held, though it can be found in Jainism. It shares with the first two views the belief that the ultimate goal of human life is the transcending of individual personal existence as we know it and the attainment of freedom from all material existence. That ultimate liberation is considered to be beyond community, relationship, and action. In the liberated state, there are countless individual souls, all omniscient and blissful, but having passed beyond desire and the need to act.

The fourth possibility is that human personhood essentially includes something like a material body, though it may be very different from our present body. Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, looks to a transformation of material existence in different forms of embodiment. The final goal in this view is some sort of individual and social existence, attained only by the sort of control of conscious content and disposition that the first three views emphasize.

Semitic views of the soul are broadly similar but reject the idea of many lives and rebirths, and so place much more emphasis on the vital importance of this earthly, material, embodied existence. They generally accept that resurrection may be in different forms of embodiment and that the ultimate goal of liberation or salvation is to be achieved by forms of moral and mental discipline (even if this discipline is construed as prayer instructed by divine grace).

Finally, the fifth view, also more common in the Semitic traditions, makes material existence in one specific body a necessary condition of human personhood. It holds that bodies can be resurrected in what must actually be a rather different form and agrees with all the other views in giving human life a goal, to be attained by disciplined control of consciousness, feeling, thought, and action.

Meditation may not feature largely in the Semitic religious traditions, but careful self-examination and firm resolution of the will do. There may be no attempt to transcend individual personality by merging with a Cosmic Self, but there is an attempt to overcome the selfish ego, possessiveness, and self-centeredness and to become a channel for a divine power and love that flows from beyond the individual ego. There may be no belief in many lives during which you can determine your own future fate, but there is a belief that you bear responsibility for the character of your future life.

There are differences among these views of the human person about whether the ultimate goal contains any form of material existence and about the extent to which the body is a necessary element of personal identity. But there is agreement that the practice of religion involves a knowledge of one's own personal life that is only possible by meditation or introspective self-examination, that the character of your life can be changed by discipline, meditation, or prayer, and that the goals of such practice are to achieve liberation from possessive and egoistic feelings and thoughts and attain consciousness of a higher state of wisdom, compassion, and joy.

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