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Are You Your Soul?

While rereading C.S. Lewis recently, I realized something about an old belief of mine. You may know the quote “you don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” I had always thought it came from Lewis, and so had always felt safe accepting it. But as it turns out, I was wrong. The quote is actually by one Walter Miller, and it originally reads: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” Knowing this, I decided to reconsider how well the quote fit in with both Lewis and Christianity in general.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this is rather crude and unspiritual. God does not.” This claim is in stark opposition to the implications of Miller’s quote: that what you really are is a soul, that the body is an externality, that the soul is good while the body is bad, and that the soul would be better off disembodied. So I wondered: If this idea isn’t from Lewis, from where did it come?

I found the answer in Gnosticism. The Gnostics were early Christians who denounced earthly things as evil while praising spiritual things as good. This translated to the soul/body relationship, for which they concluded that bodies aren’t really people. That’s precisely what I had believed, so you can understand my shock in learning that the church fathers called this heresy – outside of and opposed to orthodox belief.

You might now ask, “What does orthodoxy say about the soul/body relationship?” The Christian Tradition gives a robust account, and unfortunately I can only briefly report one of the relevant claims here: Neither a soul nor a body is a human in full. Rather, a human is the comprehensive unity of the two.

We see this in the very beginning of Scripture. Genesis says that “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”; he gave us body (dust) and soul (breath of life), and only once the two were combined did man become “a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

Knowing this is of vital importance. Let me ask you: If you are not your body, should I care if you’re beaten, abused or sexually assaulted? It’s tough to answer “yes” if you’re a Gnostic, but not if you’re a Christian. Bodies are personal, and so we give special care and protection to those who are vulnerable to bodily suffering

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