The idea that we are not our bodies, but the most important part of us is our souls, more or less loose from material things has a long history. Today it’s catching on again. That we are basically spiritual seems entirely too religious an idea for an age that’s gradually abandoning religion. On the other hand, it’s really a Gnostic, not a Christian idea. At least it’s not biblical. Still, Christians talk much about souls, and manage to confuse the issue. I found how easily children pick up on the dualism of bodies and souls the other day in a religion class.
I was helping with a Montessori-based religion program for second graders when the topic of souls came up. Actually, the question presented was, What does it mean to be made in the image of God? It was a particularly bright child who came up with, “It means we have a soul.”
Later in that same class the discussion was about the seed falling to the ground, dying and bearing much fruit. Somehow that came to mean that Jesus takes our souls to heaven. The precocious mind-body dualist then declared that the soul has to leave immediately after death, otherwise it will be trapped in the body. Of course, we agreed that, yes, the soul does leave immediately, but, no, there’s no worry that it will be trapped in the body.
Karma or forgiveness
Is the soul the real person? That is Plato’s idea, and that potentially independent soul or something like it is the assumption behind transmigration of souls. The real person is not the body but something that inhabits the body for a while and in another life will inhabit another body. This soul’s job is to “get it right” eventually. You get rewarded with an improved life form in the next life if you’ve made positive steps in this one. Karma insures that you get the opposite consequence when you mess up.
Imagining such a distance between oneself and one’s body goes well with a distaste for bodies as such and a highly moralistic outlook. Oddly, I find that imagination in people who appear to love bodies, whether their own (they’re health nuts and “foodies”), someone else’s (of one sex or another or still another), or the earth (which certainly counts as a body). Perhaps it’s the strict moralism of karma that appeals to them. I prefer a healthy dose of forgiveness such as Christianity offers. I also love bodies and this material life on earth, but that doesn’t mean more bodies and more lives are better.
The wrong body?
Then there’s gender theory and the transgender person who feels trapped in the wrong body. That’s another Gnostic, or spiritualist, idea. There’s the thing I am and the body that I happen to have. (I prefer Gabriel Marcel’s idea: The body is not something I have but my way of being in the world.)Gender and sex are different things, and feminism has helped us understand the difference. But can gender as we experience it tell us that the body we were born in is the wrong sex? How would a person ever know?
First off, we’d have to eliminate sexual preference as an indicator. In this age, homosexuality is a well-established phenomenon. A gay person is still a man, and a lesbian is still a woman. There’s no “trans” there. What else could tell a person he or she is in a wrong-sexed body. Boys can play with dolls and girls with trucks. Boys can have great people skills, and girls can excel in the STEM subjects. Feminism has done a great job of helping us appreciate the variety within each sex. No amount of “feminine” qualities makes a man less a man. A woman candidate for president shouldn’t have to be particularly lady-like.
An ideological style of parenting encourages children to think “outside the box” regarding their sexuality. If the box is their bodies, then outside the box there is nothing to think with. Children do identify as transgender, and studies show that often they have friends who identify as transgender. That tells me that their “trans” status belongs to peer group more than to personal discernment. Lately all of us are being hit with gender ideology through iconic, though not necessarily typical, figures of our largest peer group, society as a whole.
Back to the second-grade classroom
Gender theory says we can ignore what our body says and go with some vague internal intuition concerning our sex. I wonder if that theory could have started without Plato and the way Christians have latched onto his ideas about bodies and souls.
A second grader thinks being made in God’s image means having a soul. He didn’t get that from the Genesis 1:26. That verse says we are made in God’s image but doesn’t explain in what way we image God. The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Old Testament says the Hebrew language has no word for soul. Here’s that commentary’s explanation of God’s image:
In the ancient world, “image” was used to refer to a statue of the king that was sent to the distant corners of the kingdom where the king could not be present in person. This “image” was to be the representative of the king in that area. If we apply this to Genesis, to be created in the image of God is to be God’s representative on earth. (p. 40)
Christianity’s way of imagining self, others, and world, like that of the Jews’, is body-centered. Thomas Aquinas, who talked about souls, didn’t separate them from bodies. Neither the spiritual nor the material in us is an actual thing without the other. We are who we are as bodies ensouled, not souls which could be in one body or another or could look at the body and decide it’s the wrong one or float free without a body.
The state of the person after death and before the resurrection of the body is a mystery. I don’t know if second graders can handle the concept of soul without endangering a Christian appreciation for bodies, the material world, and the one blessed life we receive from God.
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