Foundations: An Embodied Soul or an Ensouled Body

This is part two of my four part series on bioethics.  Please see Part 1 for an introduction.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:5-8

Much has been said by secular bioethicist about the many and often disparate areas of the biomedical enterprise.  However, all questions of bioethics come back to a single question of the body and its subsequent corollaries: “Is the body something we are or something we have?” which is followed by “What is a body?” “When does a body become a person?” “When does a body stop being a person?” etc.  This question is essential to answering the question “What is human?” as so much of human life is dictated and accomplished through our bodies.

The answer to the prime question, I will argue, is both.  We are, after all, defined by our bodies in ways that are both duality and unity.  An easy example is “When I think about moving my arm, my arm moves.  But if I were quadriplegic, my arm would not move, no matter how hard I thought about it.”  There is no doubt that in illness and injury that we are reminded just how bipartite our existence can be, while when in perfect working order, our body and anima (animating principle or force, ie soul) seem as one.

Biblically, there seems to be this same ambivalence.  In Genesis, God creates man out of dust and breathes life into his body.  Literally the form of man existed before life and becomes ensouled through the breath of life.  In the New Testament, Jesus heals the crippled by proclaiming “Your sins are forgiven” recognizing that we are more than body, that our bodies and souls are interdependent and that forgiveness is a form of healing as important as curing disease.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that “what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the [Holy] Spirit, spirit” (John 3:6)  Jesus himself dies on the cross, his body buried, but three days later we wake up to the reality of an empty tomb and the resurrection of the embodied Christ.

Science offers us another perspective.  Metabolism is the intake of raw biological materials in the form of nutrients (food) which are then converted into a form usable by the body to replenish and repair other biological systems.  Metabolism is significant in that it continually replaces the building block molecules that make up our body.  That is to say, that if you were to take a snapshot of our bodies from one moment to the next, no snapshot would have exactly the same molecular composition and if you looked at a sufficiently later snapshot compared to the first snapshot, not one molecule would be the same.  Despite this, the person would still be the same person and the total body would still look much the same.  And yet, without this constant change of material, the person wouldn’t exist either, because when metabolism stops, the organism is dead.  It is clear, even scientifically, that our bodies described as collections of biological systems is not sufficient to describe personhood, and yet without these core systems we would not be able to live.

What then are we?  Some secular ethicists would reduce us to mere agents of choice.  Some neurobiologist would reduce us to biocomputers, collections of interacting neurons and cells that encode the entirety of our beings.  Some theological bioethicists would seek to reduce us to our embodied spiritual selves, an embodied soul.  (A note: Theological bioethicist Paul Ramsey would hold that an embodied soul and ensouled body are the same, that they are two ways of looking at the “whole spiritual self.”  I prefer to use them separately.   An embodied soul implies that the soul is clad in a body and that they are one.  An ensouled body implies that the body existed without the soul and later becomes inhabited by the soul.)

Is it possible for us to be both embodied souls and ensouled bodies at the same time?  The answer is yes and furthermore that this embodied duet is important to our story as Christians.  Reductionist answers refuse to confront the complexity of our relationship with our bodies.  A “bottom up” view would state that we are on one hand physical beings, biologically defined, on the other hand, spiritual beings who in our own self awareness recognize a certain transcendence beyond and through our biology, and somewhere in between is a gamish of interdependent body and spirit.

Perhaps useful to this discussion is the Calvinist idea of total depravity, that all things human are subject to corruption by and through sin.  This would include the relationship between our bodies and souls.  While ideally our bodies and souls are one, as in the resurrected Christ, because of the corruption we experience our bodies and anima don’t always fit perfectly.  However, even when we experience duality we must remember that our life, our embodiment, and therefore our bodies are gifts from God.  This is the “top down” view which places us and our humanity in relationship to God.

I would like to take a moment and distinguish between duality, the experience of two different states, and dualism, the total separation between body and soul.  Dualism at its core, argues that what makes a person is the anima and that the same anima in any body is the same person.   This leads to all sorts of dangerous possibilities, from downloading human personalities into computers, to creating “humans” de novo through “programming” of “uninhabited” bodies.  It does not acknowledge the importance of our relationship with our bodies except as vessels for our “person.”  Duality allows for a total embodied relationship with other embodied beings as well as God while at the same time recognizing our existence in a broken world.

The Christian narrative demands that regardless of our state of embodiment, we use our bodies to enact the not-yet-but-now story of the resurrection of Christ and the New Kingdom that has come and is not yet come.  Our bodies have glimpses of the embodied resurrection when the relationship between our souls and bodies seems harmonious, but we live in the not yet, when our bodies and souls seem to be at opposition.  We must, then, accept the dual nature of our bodies.  We are at once defined as/by our bodies and our bodies are something which we have.  Our bodies come to symbolize the anima within and so are “who” we are, the gift of life, and yet our bodies are in their own right gifts.  Why is this duality important?  How then do we live this narrative?

One answer is in Matthew 25.  The second parable in this chapter has the most bearing on the present issue and is that of three slaves who are given money.  Two of them invest their money and double it.  The master is pleased with them and gives them great authority in his affairs.  The third buries the money, earning no interest, displeasing the master.  Important to this parable is the idea of stewardship, that we are to maximize the investment of what we have.  This includes our bodies, which I have already shown to be a gift of God.  Stewardship of our bodies require us to utilize them in ways which are consistent with the not-yet-but-now nature of the Kingdom.  We must keep ourselves healthy to the best of our abilities consistent with our embodied nature and a state of good health allows us to maximize our capacity to be embodied and therefore Christ-like.  Medical interventions and therapies which keep us healthy are thus justified.

A second aspect of stewardship that is consistent with our dualistic experience is also implied.   The use of our body for the benefit other people is a “return on investment” of our gift of body.  Since our bodies are God’s (as well and ours/us), it is expected that we use our bodies in the service of God to their full extent just as we might use any other gift of talent we might have.  This might entail giving or receiving blood and organ donations and even somatic stem cells and biopsies for research.  Again, this requires that we live healthy lives so that our bodies, when it comes to donate organs or other tissue, can best benefit those who receive them.

The body is important to our story as humans.  It is part of the way we relate to God and to each other.  Our relationship with it can be complex, sometimes harmonious, sometimes full of conflict.  We are reminded that our bodies, regardless of whether we feel like embodied souls or ensouled bodies, are gifts, to be used to the benefit of ourselves and others, to be good stewards.

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