Until a few years ago, when I began graduate work in theological studies, I had never heard much about the dangers of strands in the Christian tradition that more or less define the human being as a soul living in the shell of an unruly body.
If we think for a moment, many of us can detect this pulse. We can drum up verses like I Corinthians 9:27 (“I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”) and Romans 8:13 (“…if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live”).
Even after people had pointed out to me these aspects of biblical scripture and their influence on Christians’ pitting bodily desire against the health of the soul, it took me a while to see what the urgency of this discussion might be. And I’m still learning, of course…but in the past couple of years I’ve certainly begun to see and feel the weight of this issue.
I say all of this to say that I’ve lately noticed several Facebook friends posting the following quote from C. S. Lewis: “You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I want to take issue with this statement—not only because I now disagree with it, but also because I am a seasoned C. S. Lewis fan, so I’d rather give him a fair run rather than simply shake my fist at him. Also, I would never have taken issue with such statements if I hadn’t been encouraged to reconsider my stances. I would love to pass on that gift, for it has certainly proven to be a gift.
I have too much to say about this topic and too little time to write about it thoroughly (i.e., by drawing in the voices of the scholars and friends who’ve taught me so much about it)…so please read with the knowledge that I’m only hitting the highest highlights to the best of my humble capacities. And, as always, I would love to engage in further conversation about this topic with any and all.
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When I first ran across Lewis’s statement above (taken from Mere Christianity, I believe) indicating that we have bodies but are souls, I probably thought that it was well-placed and profound. Of course, I used to think that pretty much everything C.S. Lewis said was well-placed and profound. When I was 17 my youth minister suggested that I read Mere Christianity; I dug up my parents’ 1950s paperback copy and had my nose stuffed in the book for every spare moment until I finished it. So began a general trend in my late teens and early twenties—in the years that followed I read (and often re-read) everything of Lewis’ that I could get my hands on.
I suspect that my reasons for developing a fond devotion to Lewis are not unlike the reasons of many of my fellow CoC-ers (as well as others from evangelical-ish traditions who have found such a connection with Lewis). His work provided me with a much-craved entre into sustained critical thinking about Christian identity, doctrine, philosophy, apologetics, etc.
More importantly, this invitation was packaged in a fashion that, I think, I needed—coming from the religious and social context that I did, I would have found academic theologians and sociologists of religion off-putting and inaccessible with their unfamiliar jargon, tradition, and systematic aims. In Lewis I found a lay apologist with a prolific mind who produced concise, dryly entertaining prose that stimulated thoroughgoing reflection upon my religious convictions; he did this while preserving the confessional impetus of the Christian faith—not blindly, but with artistic commitment to rationality.
I relied on C. S. Lewis as a mentor for many years. I still find him one of my favorite reads for the sake of spiritual rejuvenation and/or re-centering, and I’d put his best fiction up against most anyone’s (two thumbs up for his sci-fi trilogy and Till We Have Faces. And don’t mess with Narnia or we’ll have issues). However, in the course of my studies I’ve had to reckon with the hard truth that this beloved teacher of ours is, well, human—for all of the gifts that he’s given us, they do not acquit him of human error.
We ought not be overly frightened by this possibility. As much as I’ve read of his work, I am confident that Lewis himself would be supremely perturbed if he found that his 21st century readers were unwilling to refine his insights in preference to clinging to them as life rafts amidst the sea change of “postmodernity.”
All of this to say that I believe this particular statement—you are a soul; you have a body—is in need of refinement. I would argue that the problems with this notion are implicated in many of the troubling post-Enlightenment paradigms in Western thought.
Let me (attempt to) explain: Lewis’s operative assumption here is more or less that our bodies are like vehicles steered by our souls. This notion is akin to broader perspectives of his day presuming that the soul and body are clearly distinct entities, and thus must be related either hierarchically (i.e., the soul/mind is more important than the body/drives) or competitively (the soul/mind is at war with the body’s impulses).
This way of thinking didn’t surface only in the soul/body distinction; it was hospitable to other binary oppositions, such as: discernment vs. instinct, mind vs. matter, inner vs. outer, light vs. darkness, male vs. female, order vs. disorder.
Notice the hierarchy? Notice what/who is supposed to win?
We Westerners like to claim that we are “post”modern, that is, that we have moved beyond all of those oppositional pairings. But take a moment to observe human behavior—it is hardly the case that we have adopted utterly new ways of moving through the world. We’ve made some progress, to be sure, but we still tend to operate in the terms of these hierarchies, assuming that clear boundaries really exist between soul and body, mind and matter, male and female, etc. Because we operate this way, we easily fail to see that such boundaries are always fluid, shifting, impossible to nail down.
I believe that we tend to behave this way because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we long for sharp, identifiable boundaries. Why? Because they make reality more palatable/manageable for us as we struggle to secure our senses of who we are, what we’ve achieved, and—again, if we’re honest—who we can control.
As a Christian, I thus believe that our longing for and establishment of these distinct boundaries facilitates idolatry (that is, worshipping that which is finite, that which we think we know and can thus control) rather than authentic worship of the mysterious One who transcends yet undergirds our strange, exhilarating existence as subjects-in-process.
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Mahatma Gandhi says, “The soul must languish when we give all our thought to the body.” And who can argue with Gandhi when it comes to this statement? Perhaps this too is the gift that we can take from the passages in I Cor. 9 and Romans 8. Like Gandhi, they remind us that it is no better to give all of our attention to or indulge the “other” members of those binary pairings—instinct, matter, darkness, female, disorder, etc. That is certainly not my purpose here (or elsewhere, for those of you who worry that I’m close to becoming a feminist vigilante!). I merely want to say that, for the reasons outlined above, I believe that it is vital that we understand all of these entities, including body and soul, as deeply interwoven.
I agree with Lewis that we do not have a soul. But neither do we have a body. We are embodied souls, as I’ve often heard my professor Doug Meeks say.
I believe that this is a perspective we cannot take for granted, as "post"moderns, but must work for continuously and deliberately. To this end, let us attend to the presence of bodies, which take us out of our heads, make demands upon us. And at the heart of the Christian faith lies a crucified and resurrected human body: that of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, disrupting our schemes at self-securing in a fashion that addressed body and soul as one—he preached and laid hands on the leprous; he taught and fed hungry people with fish and bread; he prayed and washed dusty feet. He taught us that, in the coming kingdom, God is making all things new—and that includes humans as embodied souls.
As far as C. S. Lewis is concerned, I’m forever indebted to him for the ways that he has taught me to think and re-think that have enriched my life with, I believe, eternal ramifications. Looking at his work, when it comes to the question of bodies and souls I’d prefer to share the following passage from The Screwtape Letters. Herein the demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood regarding how best to distract his human “patient” when praying to God, “the Enemy.” Screwtape says:
One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.