C. S. Lewis is famously misquoted as saying “You don’t have a soul; you are a soul. You have a body.” Rather than Mr. Lewis it was in fact his predecessor in the realm of theological fiction, George MacDonald who penned the slogan.[1] Though attributed to the wrong man, the statement holds true as a signifier for a popular attitude within modern Christianity in regard to the nature of the soul and body. On one hand, I do not disagree with Mr. MacDonald’s assessment of the soul. According to Jewish tradition, the soul, or “nefesh,” is the totality of the human being.[2] It is not the “spiritual side” or the good-hearted, merciful side of the human person; it is the entirety of the person. However, I would like to offer a polite rebuttal to George’s convictions as they relate to the body.

As a non-omnipresent inhabiter of an upright-walking, two-legged body with opposable thumbs, I can say with complete confidence that there is no part of me that exists anywhere apart from this very body. Perhaps thoughts of me live in distant people’s memories, or a hair or two (or hundreds) of mine have found their way through my shower drain to the local water treatment plant. Even so, there has never been nor will there ever be a part of me that does not find its origins in the physical body that got its start in my mother’s uterus and my father’s testicles. What else would I be?

According to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. In a sense, then, the matter and energy that has come together over time to amass my body has been around since the beginning in one form or another. However, any sort of identity that was Rachel Ann Parsons, seven pounds, nine ounces materialized roughly a quarter of a century ago. Certainly God “knew” me long before then[3] as he “knew” everything else that was to come into being, but that does not mean that I existed yet.

Theologians argue that God does not exist within the limitations of time and space, but he did create the limitations of time and space. In an act of pure, unadulterated intention, God created the Universe–a physical, limited, beginning and ending Universe.[4] Within this Universe, he set into motion the forces that would eventually come to form Rachel Ann, the product of a necessarily physical system. Therefore, if, as Jewish tradition would claim, the soul is the entirety of the being, and the being is the daughter of a necessarily physical Universe, then the soul is a necessarily physical entity.

This is the foundation for the argument of the constitution of humanity, a long-debated issue in the history of the Church. The discussion asks the question of whether we are made up of simply bodies (the monist perspective), soul and body (the dichotomist perspective), or soul, spirit, and body (the trichotomist perspective).[5] Paul addresses this very question in his letters to the Corinthians.[6] Within the deeply religious culture of first century Greece, Christianity had a lot of spiritual nuances to navigate. Inherent to this culture was the notion of dualism, a belief based upon interpretations of Plato’s writings (though Plato himself was not entirely anti-corporeal)[7] that the body and soul are separate and unequal entities.[8] The body represented the material nature of humanity and therein all that is evil and base in our nature, while the soul was the human person’s true and perfected form. According to this philosophy the ultimate goal of the soul is to exit the material world and to be finally free in a spotless, spiritual existence. Paul challenges this notion in favor of the Jewish perspective which promises not freedom of the soul from the body but rather the perfection of the soul as the perfection of the body.[9] While Pauline theology does not appear to be clearly monist, dichotomist, or trichotomist, we may at least draw a distinction between Christian and dualistic thought. While dualism condemns the body, Christian theology actualizes the body.

The Church at large tends to hold the dichotomist perspective which argues that the soul and body make up the human being. I personally have adopted a more monistic stance, but in truth I think all three perspectives are different sides of the same coin. The dichotomist view is a logical stance, as in the book of Genesis God forms the human person out of physical material and then “breathes” life into the person–a two-step process.[10] However, even those who take a dichotomist stance argue that the soul and body are yet indistinguishably unified. In the passage in Genesis, the human person becomes a nefesh when God breathes into them; they do not simply receive a nefesh.

So what does this understanding of the body mean for us as Christians? This understanding calls us to a complete embrace of the body as the created realization of the self. This means that we are to worship God with the entirety of our beings–our lungs, arms, teeth, feet, skin, ovaries, bellybuttons, and rectums. We are to relish in God’s creation as we dance, eat, have sex, run, sleep, breath, and build. Within our spirituality we must not simply incorporate the body or seek to worship in spite of the body, but we may instead uphold the body as the integral substance of our spiritual personhood. With all due respect, Mr. MacDonald, I am a body.

[1] George MacDonald’s original quote was also worded slightly differently. W. H. F. A. “Be Not Entangled Again in a Yoke of Bondage.” The British Friend 1, no. 1 (January 1, 1892): 157.

[2] Ryan, Thomas. Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004, 82.

[3] Jeremiah 1:5

[4] While the Universe has no yet discernible edge, the Universe is necessarily finite as an entity separate from and created by God, the true Infinite Being.

[5] Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, 662-664.

[6] E.g. 1 Corinthians 15:35-54

[7]  Ryan. Reclaiming the Body, 3-4.

[8] Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 166.

[9] Ibid, 198.

[10] Genesis 2:7

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Rachel Parsons

Rachel Parsons

Blogger (Christian)

M. A., Spiritual Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary, Littleton. B.A., International Studies from UNC-Asheville. She engages the creation by hiking, dancing, playing guitar and banjo, and traveling with the other physical bodies she loves.  She is a spiritual director in Littleton, CO. You may reach her at [email protected]