Mind, Body, and Spirit, and the Christian Message

This essay tries to point out some of the different thought patterns that make it easy for us to misconstrue some of the teachings of Jesus and St Paul. In the process, I hope to encourage the reader to reconsider some of the ways we are all taught to think nowadays about what is physical, what is mental, and what is spiritual, because along the way I came across some surprises that I would like to share.

To Fear, or not to Fear?

Jesus teaches "Consider the lilies how they grow ... If then God so clothe the grass ... how much more will he clothe you?" (Luke Ch. 12). Jesus' message is very clear throughout this chapter, and it is one of his most consistent messages: Do not be afraid. God loves us, it is his pleasure to give us the Kingdom of God (the "Eternal Life" of John's Gospel), and this being granted, we should feel as free as the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Now, contrast this directly with the introduction to the first epistle of Peter. "And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear ... For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away." (1 Peter Ch. 1).

There are a couple of caveats I should give in quoting this passage. Firstly, it is debated whether Peter himself wrote these letters. The very nature of individual authorship as opposed to group authorship is another source of modern Western confusion: when we say "Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians" and "Virgil wrote the Aeneid" we probably mean two very different writing processes (for more thorough discussion see, Kit's research). Secondly, the author is partly quoting the prophet Isaiah, so it is the choice of quote that is significant: I make no claim that the author was introducing this material for the first time. Thirdly (and perhaps most significantly), the author is writing to the early Roman church during a period of persecution: he perceives people falling away from the faith as a great danger, and writes in terms that Romans and Greeks will understand.

For the sake of immediacy I have contrasted just these two passages, though there are that many other examples of the tension I have described. (I may take advantage of the electronic and continuously editable nature of this medium to supplement this part if it appears that this would be useful.) Thoughout the rest of its history, much of the teaching of the church has been devoted to rationalizing this inherently contradictory message, "God loves you: live in fear." We should not be surprised at this: the main goal of any large organization or institution becomes self-perpetuating, and the continued existence of the organization is the evidence and the effect of this strategy. The main need of the Church has been to adapt Jesus' teachings to the preservation of its society: perhaps the clearest manifestation of this change in focus is that the Church needs to be a steadfast upholder of family values and filial obedience, values which Jesus so clearly flouted in his teachings and his actions. Nor is the story altogether one-sided: for example, in the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movements (whose purpose is still much to be realized), we see stalwarts of a fearful status quo, upheld by a bounty of Biblical law, eventually overturned by visionaries whose liberating and revolutionary hope is motivated by a direct experience of Jesus' message. It is a simple statement that asks all of our faith, and a simple command that asks all of our will. "God loves you: live without fear."

Mind, Body, and Spirit — Time to Reconsider

It would be easy to leave this story as a tussle between the fearless individual and the fearful organization. But there is a much richer tussle of thought here, which I'd like to try and explore further, because some of the ways modern Westerners are taught to speak and think make it all too easy for us to get Jesus' teachings, and the mystery of Jesus himself, exactly the wrong way round.

When we talk about spirit in modern English, we are used to meaning something that is much more akin to mind than body. The spirit is something that we can't see or touch in the way we can see and touch a rock or a stick: when we feel high-spirited, we are using the word "feel" in a quite different, less tangible sense than when we talk about feeling a rock or a stick in our hands. We talk about the spirit living on after the body has died, we think of the spirit as being something like the soul: an essence of our conscious (and sometimes unconscious) existence that is somehow distinct from our material substance. I believe that *all* modern Westerners are predisposed to think in this general fashion: those who deny the immortality of the spirit, or deny that there is any such thing as spirit at all, are denying something whose substance is thought to be non-material.

The notion that the spirit or the soul is something non-material is appealing. It's easy to see that the body stops working and dies, it's therefore easy to think that the bit that keeps going is something else. Or, conversely but in a sense equally, it's easy to claim that the body stops working and there's nothing more than that: the non-body spirit idea was a silly mistake, a comforting invention because the notion that we really really die for good is just too harsh to bear. We could argue "if we were just flesh, we would cease to be when we die" --- or alternatively "since we are just flesh, we cease to be when we die". The author of Peter's epistle, nearly all modern Christians, and nearly all modern atheists, take one of these positions.

I have belaboured this point because it was not until recently that I became aware of a particularly striking alternative. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, verse 44, the author writes:
Greek σπειρεται σωμα ψυχικον εγειρεται σωμα πνευματικον. Εστι σωμα ψυχικον και εστι σωμα πνευματικον.
Greek in transliteration speiretai soma psuchikon egeiretai soma pneumatikon. Esti soma psuchikon kai esti soma pneumatikon.
Latin Vulgate seminatur corpus animale surgit corpus spiritale si est corpus animale est et spiritale sic et scriptum est
English King James It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.

We have a natural body and a spiritual body. And the Greek words are ψυχικον ("psuchikon") and πνευματικον ("pneumatikon") — "psuche" as in the modern "psychic", "psychological", "pneumatikon" as in "pneumatic". So we have a psychic body and a breathing body: one natural (animale in the Latin), one spiritual (spiritale in the Latin). Of course, the "natural" body is the breathing body and the "spiritual" body is the psychic body, right? Wrong! It's exactly the other way round. And lest this seem an accident, the "pneuma" is the "spirit" (including the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God) throughout the letter.

What on earth can be going on here? I'm not an expert in Hellenistic and Judaic thought of the period, but I think I can piece some of this together. Aristotle's treatise "On the Soul" is "De Psyche", and Aristotle regards this as part of natural science, deliberately making the discussion include other animals as well as humans. So in this light, St Jerome's Latin translation of "soma psuchikon" as "corpus animale" makes some sense, though the contrast of "spiritual" with "animal" can only add to the likely confusion of the modern reader of English. In Hellenistic thought (heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle), this natural psyche is the part of us that is Godly: and I think this is precisely the assumption that the writer of Paul's letter is challenging. What makes us part of God's Spirit is that we too are breathing things, not just psychic instantiations of the laws of natural science. It is the same Spirit of God (πνευμα Θεο&upsilon, "pneuma theou" in the Greek Septuagint, I regret I have no understanding of the Hebrew) that moves over the face of the waters in Genesis, the same Spirit whereby God breathes life into Adam. And this is not lost in modern English, it is just hidden — the spirit that is the root of inspiration is the root of respiration, the part of us that breathes.

This Life: Veil of Tears or Simple Joy?

Having come this far, I can't help but offer a conclusion of sorts.

For Paul, our spiritual existence is not something out-of-body: to be Godly is to be living and breathing as God lives and breathes. The story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is not a crutch to help us through the misery of knowing that we are doomed to die a physical death, helped only by the hope that our spirits can be freed from this painful earthly time and live uncoupled in their own psychic realm. To the Corinthians, cosmopolitan thinkers and seekers in the Hellenistic world to whom Paul is writing, natural science already tells them that there is an eternal psychic body. If they are Platonists and Pythagoreans, the eternal reincarnation of the psychic soul is a given: if they are Aristotelians, it is clear that the impersonal, rational part of the soul is part of an eternal, unchanging, impersonal God.

Not for Paul, who is motivated by his encounter with God as the Jesus who died but who rose and whose Spirit breathes life into us. The mystery is not "How can something obviously perishable escape and become eternal?". It is "How can something obviously eternal become part of this breathing world, with such real experiences, passions, feelings, loves?" The mystery of Christian faith, the incarnation ("meatiness") of God as Jesus challenges this absurdity with an absurdity still harder to believe: we can experience the full pain, and the full joy, of this breathing existence, because the Spirit of God experiences it with us.


Dominic Widdows, May 2009. With appreciation to Maryl Widdows and Tom Lokovic for commenting on drafts.