Soul Keepingby John Ortberg
Length: Approximately 7 hours. To read (207 pages)
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"The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper" (14), says John Ortberg in Soul Keeping. The human soul is a depraved, unruly stream, that needs tending. To demonstrate Ortberg shares testimony, his story under the influence of his mentor, the renowned Dallas Willard.
Who should read this?
Soul Keeping is a good read for anyone seeking to cultivate a deeper spiritual life, and an example for pastors who are called to lead others on the path of spiritual formation. While you will not agree with all of the conclusions set forth by Ortberg, or all of the thinking expressed by Willard, the story of their journey together stirs a hunger to to search the Scripture for yourself, and creates a longing to live an interior life based on eternal principles that impact the souls of those around us.
John Ortberg uses his own life as an illustration of soul keeping, by sharing his journey and the stories of his encounters with Dallas Willard. He begins by defining the soul in the words of Willard, who says, “The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of the self. The soul is the life center of human beings” (38). This definition is then expanded on, again in the words of Willard, who says:
Your soul is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your values and conscience), and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life. A soul is healthy — well-ordered — when there is harmony between these three entities and God’s intent for all creation. When you are connected with God and other people in life, you have a healthy soul.
English poet John Donne, in his oft quoted phrase, once said, “No man is an island.” This seems to be the focal point of how Ortberg and Willard define care for the soul. The soul in their view, is how you and I connect to God and in relationship with people around us. To care for our soul, is to first maintain relationship with God, then commit to relationship with others. None of us can stand alone, without experiencing the results of a self-centered disordered soul. “. . . And self carries a totally different connotation than soul. To focus on my soul means to look at my life under the care and connection of God. To focus on myself apart from God means losing awareness of what matters most” (45).
To care for our soul means that we must nurture our relationship with God. Out of that relationship, we come to understand, as Dallas states in his book Renovation of the Heart, that “our soul is like a stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other area of our life” (15). So, soul keeping must be recognized as vital to our very being. According to Willard, “Your soul is not just something that lives on after your body dies. It’s the most important thing about you. It is your life” (23).
Ortberg rightly recognizes that, “It is the nature of the soul to need” (81), and he equates this need with desire. In Ortberg’s view, “There is only one area where human beings are unlimited. As Kent Dunnington puts it, ‘We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire’” (81). Ortberg continues, “The truth is, the soul’s infinite capacity to desire is the mirror image of God’s infinite capacity to give” (81).
Throughout Soul Keeping, John Ortberg rightly recognizes the human capacity for idolatry, to replace our need for God with cheap things, temporary things, dangerous things to the well-being of our soul. And he is definitely correct that we need to tend to our soul, nurture our relationship with God, but in identifying the problem, I struggled with some of Ortberg’s thinking.
In my understanding of Scripture, even before Adam and Eve sinned in the garden so long ago, we have always been limited beings, with souls dependent on the life-giving grace of the infinite, glorious God of creation. To equate the human soul’s capacity for desire with God’s infinite capacity to give, to me is an erroneous understanding of our soul’s relationship with God. Perhaps, I am misunderstanding Ortberg’s meaning, but this thirsty soul would have liked him to define the relationship more clearly, or if my understanding is correct, to recognize that the problem is not that our desires are infinite, but rather that they are limited, and we must constantly draw strength for our soul from an infinite God who gives graciously and lavishly of the infinite life within Him.
Ortberg rightly argues that our souls need tending. He correctly addresses our responsibility to care for our souls by nurturing a relationship with God, but Ortberg builds this argument on shared experience with Dallas Willard, philosophical speculation and argumentation reflective of Willard’s background and profession in philosophy, and expertise on the work of Edmund Husserl who’s Phenomenology emphasized a focus on experience and consciousness. At times, some of Willard’s thinking, or Ortberg’s regurgitation of Willard’s thought caused me to think of the philosophy of Husserl’s famous student, Martin Heidegger, whose concept of Dasein in Being and Time, translated Husserl’s concept of ego with the concept of presence (being-there) in the world.
Dallas Willard’s view of the soul, especially as shown in a diagram in Soul Keeping, which draws the soul as the outward circle, knitting all the inward circles of body, mind, and will together, and leaving the soul as the outward manifestation of engagement with the world, seemed to me to convey the idea of Dasein (being-there, being in the world), more than a Biblical understanding of the human soul, which in my opinion contains much more depth of being, that which was breathed into us by God, than what is presented in Soul Keeping.
Ortberg certainly does recognize the indwardness of the human soul, that it is our interior life, but it was difficult to determine if, through the thought of Willard, he is also carrying forth the idea of the soul as our means of being in the world. At times, I found myself agreeing with statements, based on my understanding of Scripture, but as I moved forward in the book, wondering if the definitions of Ortberg and Willard meant what I really thought they meant. I certainly benefited from reading this book, and engaging in some heavy thinking about the practice of Soul Keeping.
However, at times I was lost in philosophical obfuscation, ideas that seemed modified to represent Christian concepts. Some seemed far too simplified to have any value, others far too complex to really give me insight into Ortberg’s thought (or Willard’s for that matter). The problem is not so much due to the use of philosophical methodology, but rather that at times Scripture seemed to be torn from its contextual understanding to reflect the current spiritual thought of Willard and Ortberg. I enjoyed the story of their shared experience, I was awed by the faithfulness and humility of Willard, but that didn’t stop me from asking the question of some of their thought: Is it Biblical?
This book is strengthened by the power of Dallas Willard’s testimony as shared by John Ortberg. Willard was truly a remarkable man of conviction, faith, and humility. I have no doubt that Dallas Willard was a brother in Christ, both through this story, as well as a reading of Willard’s own books, and the testimony of others who have been impacted by his life. I love the study of philosophy, so it is a blessing to see how Willard capably blended the study of philosophy with his faith.
And, I appreciated Ortberg’s humility as he shared his journey alongside one of his precious mentors and friends until they were parted by the ravages of death and disease. Both men definitely share a hope eternal, and Soul Keeping was a tremendous tribute to the impact of Dallas Willard on the life of John Ortberg. More stories like this need to be told.
For me, the weaknesses of this book are reflected in the foundations. While philosophy certainly has its role in Biblical thought, even Paul quoted the philosophers at various points in Scripture, laying that philosophical thought as the foundation of Biblical understanding is a dangerous path. In my opinion, Soul Keeping focused far more on small, paltry, human efforts, and less on the glorious, grace-giving, God that Christians serve. Soul Keeping seemed to be a mixture of philosophical and psychological thinking with a pinch of Bible thrown on top. It left some of the thought obscure and shallow, while elevating human capacity in a way that seems to me to be less than Biblical.
Soul Keeping is valuable tool for demonstrating the importance of cultivating a healthy interior life, as well as for recognizing the disrepair found in the human soul. It is a well-developed picture of growth in John Ortberg’s life, and the example set by Dallas Willard. It is an encouraging journey of faith, but should be read with caution. Some of the definitions and understanding expressed by Ortberg and Willard need to be examined closely.
Not everything appears to me to reflect Biblical understanding. However, with a spirit of grace, I must acknowledge that tales of the heart are never easy to express clearly. Perhaps, that is the real limitation of this book, and its essential call. Soul keeping is an individual work, under Divine direction, that can lead to earth-shaking impact. Yet at its core, it is still a very personal journey. And this journey was a testament of love from John Ortberg to the life of his mentor Dallas Willard. It excels at expressing that devotion.
- “. . . We all have issues in life that emanate from our souls, from parts of the soul that have been ignored. It is the human condition; we ignore our internal life, and as a result, we do not have the outside ‘life’ that we desire, relationally or functionally” (10).
- “The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper” (14).
- “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe” (21).
- “Arrange your days so that you experience total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God” (97).