The Price of a Soul

For most of my academic life, I have had a minor obsession with stories based on the Faust legend—tales of human beings who wanted something so much that they were willing to sell their soul to the devil to get it. It’s not the oldest story in the world, but it’s up there. What intrigues me so much about the various Faust stories in literature is the wide variety of things that people want most. We learn a lot about individuals, and the cultures that produced them, by studying what they rate as more important than their souls.

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, for example, traded his eternal well-being straight across for knowledge—something easily understood by the Renaissance scholars he represented. Goethe’s Faust, on the other hand, didn’t exchange his soul; he wagered it on the proposition that the devil could never satisfy his endless quest for new experiences—a Romantic notion if ever there was one.

More modern Fausts have had more modern requirements for their souls. Oscar Wilde’s Faust-figure Dorian Gray sold his for eternal youth and beauty. And Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (my personal favorite of the lot) exchanges his ability to love other people for artistic greatness. The two most famous American Faust stories—Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster and the Broadway musical Damn Yankees!—trade souls for the most American reasons imaginable: material prosperity and a winning baseball team.

All of these Faust stories are–or at least can be read as–allegories of something that I see as a profound spiritual truth, which is that God will ultimately allow us to have whatever we want the most. If that thing is the Kingdom of God, we will get it. If it is something else, we will get that instead. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

Lewis continues in this passage (albeit less famously) by saying that “all that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell.” This is closely related to what the Faust stories ultimately teach, which is that those who go to hell do so because they have chosen something other than heaven—or, to phrase it more closely to my own argument, because they have decided that something else is more important than the Kingdom of God.

Let me be clear here that I am not talking about loyalty to any institution or obedience to a collection of rules. Obedience is at best a neutral characteristic (depending on what one is being obedient to), and when obedience morphs into unquestioning loyalty, it becomes one of the things that we want more than the Kingdom of God. The devil’s last great trick is to convince us that obeying a set of rules qualifies us to go to heaven. Once we conceive of heaven (or, if you prefer, “the Celestial Kingdom”) as a place that we can go to, we have already lost the battle.

Because heaven (whether you call it Zion, or the Celestial Kingdom, or the Kingdom of God) is not a destination that we can earn; nor is it a reward for any kind of behavior or belief; it is the consequence of living among people who want it more than anything else. And if we are not that sort of people, we don’t get heaven—not because we don’t deserve it, but because we will not want to build it. We will be too busy building whatever it is that we want more. The long and magnificent tradition of literary works inspired by the Faust legend ultimately serves us spiritually as  a catalog of things that, if we aren’t careful, we may end up wanting more than the Kingdom of God.

Comments

  1. Amen. Thank you, Michael.

  2. This is a profound little reflection, Michael; thank you for it. I feel a need to dissent from part of it, slightly, though I’m not entirely certain of what it is, exactly, I’m dissenting from. You write:

    [H]eaven (whether you call it Zion, or the Celestial Kingdom, or the Kingdom of God) is not a destination that we can earn; nor is it a reward for any kind of behavior or belief; it is the consequence of living among people who want it more than anything else. And if we are not that sort of people, we don’t get heaven—not because we don’t deserve it, but because we will not want to build it. We will be too busy building whatever it is that we want more.

    Maybe, for me, my trouble here comes down to how much emphasis you are putting on “want” in “because we will not want to build it.” I tend to see heaven, Zion, the Celestial Kingdom, and the Kingdom of God as all occupying overlapping but nonetheless distinct conceptual categories: heaven and/or the Celestial Kingdom as (mostly) a state of being; the Kingdom of God as (mostly) a social relationship; Zion as (mostly) an ideal city or community that we really “can go to,” something which occupies actual space and time. The notion of building doesn’t even relate to the first two of those, in my view; I don’t think we can say we “want” to build heaven in any kind of active, programmatic sense, because we have no conception of what it consists of, and I don’t think we can say we want to build the Kingdom of God either, because–while seeking after spiritual gifts and cultivating godly virtues are both things we are called to do and should want to do–to realize those relationships is a function of grace, something which occurs immanently, as the Spirit wills it. Zion, though–that is something we can, should, want to build, and think practically about, if only because the attempts to build Zion can, I think, make us more receptive to the Kingdom of God as it is experienced in our midst, and make more accepting of God’s judgment and redemption. So yes: Faustian idolatry gets in the way of Zion, which is something which depends upon our collective wanting and building. I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about the other concepts in the same way, though.

    Reading over this, I see I’ve made a comment basically about theology on a post basically about ethics, so feel free to disregard. Doesn’t take anything away from your reflections, though. I’ve never read any Mann before; someday I ought to.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice post; thank you.

  4. Excellent. I may steal parts . . . um, make that quote with attribution.
    You shift from singular “he” for the Faustian case to plural “we” for the kingdom of God. This fits a pet theory about the Faustian contract, conceived without reading even half of your examples. Am I making to much of a word choice?

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Jibes with the Olive Leaf: “And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.”

  6. I just hope I am in the Mother Teresa ward. Wherever that one is.

  7. I like thinking of the “rules” in terms of what behaviors will help us get along with other people best, so I agree.

    I always felt there was a medieval anti-intellectualism in the Faust story: the Augustinian attack on curiosity. If one is too curious and delves too far into mysteries, one will end up being led astray the devil. That’s how John Dee was always presented. So don’t go too far. Joseph Smith was all about attacking that attitude: “I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to.” WJS, October 15, 1843.

  8. Love the Faust legend.
    Thanks!

  9. Brother Sky says:

    Really nice reflection, Michael. One of my bishops once told us in a talk a similar thing. He said: “The great AND terrible thing about God’s plan is that we get exactly what we want in the end.”

    Also, just as a note, you didn’t mention Byron’s Manfred, which is my personal favorite among all of these. Manfred in the end chooses neither Heaven nor Hell, rejecting the false binary of what Byron clearly saw as the dogmatic, corrupt church’s either/or system that didn’t tend to honor human agency. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

    And to any theologians out there, my question when all of this comes up is what about those of us who tend not to value community? Maybe it’s because I read too much Byron when I was younger, but all of God’s kingdoms feel like they’re going to be kind of crowded. In a church that values social/familial connections so much, is there room for those folks who would just like to spend an eternity exploring Montana’s rivers mostly by themselves? Just wondering if the communal emphasis is at all related to Mormonism not having much of a contemplative tradition in comparison to, say, Catholicism.

  10. When I think about these Faust stories (or, for that matter, the old southern legend about the fiddle/guitar/banjo player who sold his soul for the ability to play), I can’t help but think of the revelation of section 18, which basically says that the price of a soul is equal to God’s own mortal life.

  11. Russell: I see what you are saying there, and I like your distinctions and the emphasis on grace. I think that I would also say, though, that although the Kingdom of God and the Celestial Kingdom may be predominantly a function of grace, I think (at least in LDS theology; I know that most Protestant theology has a different emphasis) there is a sense in which we “build” it by building up our relationship with God, by submitting our wills to God, by accepting God’s grace in our lives. So in that sense I would still say it’s a helpful way for me to think about it.

    Brother Sky: Hmm, I didn’t know much about the Catholic contemplative tradition — thanks for bringing that up; it was very interesting to read about. My sense is that the constant in both the contemplative and the communal emphases is the relationship with God, which (I believe) is the key to the kingdom of God. (Also along the lines of Martin Buber’s I-Thou.)

    Though you bring up the important point that I’ve definitely been informed by an LDS view of theology to think of community as an essential part of the kingdom of God — I think community is still important for those of us who mostly are not that fond of it. I’m a super introvert and need a whole lot of time just for myself, without friends or family, or else I explode — but it’s still essential, I think, to have the connection with others even if not necessarily the more extroverted versions of it. Perhaps heaven, for some of us, will involve interacting with community over the equivalent of a computer screen :)

  12. BHodges says:

    Thank you for this short and thoughtful post, Michael. We are what we eat.