One of Christianity’s enduring legacies is a suspicion about being bodily.
It flows from what is called dualism, an understanding of life that attributes temptation and corruption to the material and bodily, and glory to the spiritual and soulful.
The church has often proclaimed that the reward for living a good life was your soul would go to heaven. (The church defined a ‘good life’ as one in which temptations ‘of the flesh’ were resisted.)
This view assumes that bodily existence is best left behind, and that the soul is separable from the body. It also presupposes that the body is mortal while the soul is immortal.
In promoting this view, the church has declared multiple prohibitions on what people can and can’t do; most recently heard from conservative Christians during the debate on gay marriage. (All credit to the Uniting Church which allows for the celebration of gay and lesbian marriages.)
This approach has planted fear and shame in the consciousness of many people. A colleague of mine said recently that ‘the church is much better known for saying no than yes.’
There are some passages in the scriptures that seem to lend support to such dualism.
However, we do read these texts in the light of developments that were unknown to Jesus. (Judaism tends to a more holistic view of life than Christianity.)
When the early Jesus movement expanded into the Gentile world and came into contact with Greek philosophy, it began to adopt more dualistic notions of body and spirit.
We moderns also inherit the thinking of Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, who famously asserted ‘I think; therefore I am.’ and theorized that mind and body were separate.
Other scriptural passages speak against dualism, not least the creation story in which God sees all that he has created and declares it ‘good.’ (Gen. 1: 31).
The focus of Jesus’ ministry, the kingdom of God, was evidently about things that were happening on earth.
Dualistic thinking possibly derives from the unanswerable but pressing question of what happens after we die.
When a person dies, we witness a lifeless body. Many explain this by asserting that the essence of the person, their spirit, has ‘departed.’
A standard Christian view, mentioned above, builds on this view, positing that the person’s spirit has gone to heaven.
Again, the scriptures contain different perspectives about this. Paul was clear that followers of Jesus should look forward to the ‘resurrection of the body’, not the immortality of the spirit. Paul believed that body and spirit died at death, but at the end of time, both would be reconstituted as a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44).
In recent decades, research on the human brain has called dualism into question. Scientifically, it is difficult to hold to the view that the human body and mind/spirit are separate.
Many researchers speak of the mind as an ‘activity of the brain.’ Thinking and a sense of identity result from neurochemical processes in the brain.
Initially, this may appear to diminish our humanity. However, upon further reflection, it is better received as a deepening recognition of the wonders of creation and of being bodily.