Body and Soul

I’ve recently been teaching a class on the relationship between the body and the soul at our church. The writings of C.S. Lewis have been invaluable for me because he anticipated much of our contemporary philosophical and scientific discourse on the mind-body problem. His wonderfully clear analogies have been faithful friends.

I knew that I generally found myself in agreement with Lewis’ ideas regarding the embodiment of our souls and the important distinction between mind and matter. I was therefore prepared to wrestle with a statement that he had written which I thought had an awkward lack of balance. The quote frequently shows up with this subject:

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

The statement seemed to place an almost Platonic emphasis upon the soul over against the body with regard to our personhood. Rather than seeing humans as body-soul composites, it implied that we are more soul than body. This is striking because it seemed to run against the grain of Lewis’ other writings about the body. For instance:

“Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those acetic Pagans who called it the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a ‘sack of dung’, food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass’. All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.” ~ from The Four Loves

I’m aware that the two quotes are not mutually exclusive. The longer quote above could be consistent with the kind of hierarchy implied in the shorter. However, when the longer passage is compared with Lewis’ other writings, a kind of balance appears which places the ‘you are a soul’ quote to the status of unrepresentative outlier.

Lewis’ other writings portray a keen awareness and attention to materiality, as well as a strenuous effort to help his readers see how the higher world is seen and experienced by means of the lower. Another great example is his allegory, The Great Divorce. In this story, heaven was not more ethereal and cloudy than our world below, but harder, crisp, more deeply felt. In this case heaven was a more real version of the world as we know it, giving a sense of dignity to the here and now.

Naturally, I wanted to find additional context for the ‘you are a soul’ quote. I searched the highways and hedges of the internet to discover that Lewis never wrote it. Here is a link to the source that helpfully explained this for me. The statement is most credibly attributed to a letter written by George MacDonald. I’m glad that I don’t have to discuss Lewis’ views on the mind-body with an awkward caveat about that single off-balance quote. Instead, I’ll provide a statement from Matthew Lee Anderson, one that would more likely cohere with Lewis’ thinking:

You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.

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