Monday 28 July 2014

Why is it better to have a body than to live as a disembodied spirit? What is the theological function of the human body?


Despite a constant 'gnostic' or 'Platonic' tendency among intellectuals to ignore or denigrate the body and emphasize and valorize the spirit or soul - the body is absolutely central and essential to Christianity; in the sense that one big innovation was resurrection: the promise of another life after death but not merely a soul-survival but another life in a body.


But why? What is the body for - in a Christian theological sense: what is the function of the body?

In a nutshell: why is it (for Christians) better to have a body, than not to have a body?


Because if it was better not to have a body, then we would not be resurrected - but only the mind/ spirit/ soul would survive death.

Indeed, more than this, there must be a very big advantage indeed to having a body - considering all the trouble it causes.

But what is that advantage?


The idea that I wish to suggest here is that the body protects the soul.

Specifically, the body protects the soul from direct spiritual interference and influence by evil spirits.

This means that evil spirits (I mean Satan and his minions) can only get-at the soul indirectly, via the body - e.g. via enticing or tormenting the body - because the soul is protected in the body.

This sets up a situation in mortal life whereby evil can only 'get in' by being invited or allowed in. The default situation is that evil cannot get in. Because the body is protecting us, we have to actively open the door and ask evil to enter - give evil access.


The contrasting situation could be seen during sleep if we suppose that dreams are happening 'in the spiritual realm', that our spirits become loosened from our bodies, and that in dreams we live as (almost, but not quite) 'naked souls' and experience (re-experience) living without our bodies.

But living as spirits this time not in Heaven and a good and loving environment but on earth and in mortal life, and among the fallen angels...

In dreams (specifically nightmares) there is perhaps a taste of what life would feel like if evil had a much more direct access to our souls; evil spirits attacking our selves, putting-in ideas and emotions, shaping the process and direction of our thinking etc.

Being awake and in a body we are protected from this.  


So, there is a sense in which the body enables us better to withstand and resist an evil environment - which is another way of talking about being more of a developed self, more responsible, more autonomous, more of a free agent.

In other words, getting a body and having a body is a forward step in theosis or spiritual progression.

The body is what enables us potentially to withstand the problems of mortal life, in this extremely difficult environment of mortal life; with its great opportunities for learning and development - but commensurately great spiritual hazards. 



Seijio Arakawa said...

Well... I think this argument honestly seems to me rather 'Platonic' in proposing a function for the body which... honestly seems rather besides-the-point.

If the _reason_ to have a body was protection from evil spirits, that could just as easily be accomplished by Origen's theory of perfectly spherical resurrection bodies.

Whereas without a body like we have, one could not (a) run and jump (b) sniff flowers (c) taste food (d) cuddle with other human beings (e) feel the wet of the rain, and the heat of the sun (f) play a musical instrument (g) wear clothes or costumes (h) train one's strength and compete in athletic competitions (i) dance (j) ... you get the idea.

A bodiless being can do none of these things, except vicariously by being invited into the mind of some other embodied being. So in order for any of these experiences to exist at all, there have to be embodied beings to have them; otherwise the universe is just that much impoverished.

This even seems to be far too many advantages to reduce to a single 'reason'; but some common points seem to be intensity of experience, as well as the issue of passions and impulses. There is unquestionably a difference between having an experience intellectually in one's mind, versus having an experience viscerally, with one's whole body. There is also some kind of advantage to having bodily passions; if properly ordered, these do indeed seem to predispose one to act towards the good; if disordered, then accumulating an impulse towards the wrong impulse and yet resisting it seems to be a valuable exercise towards choosing the Good.

Then again, there are the questions, e.g. why the resemblance to simians, than, say, birds or horses? Why (quite importantly) the particular differences of the sexes, with women apparently more sleek and lovely, and men rougher but capable of greater exertion? (I have questioned the validity of a spiritual gender-binary before, but it would be helpful to know what it entails beyond a division of labour in raising children.)

As for what seem to be common points of 'gnostic' horror with the body... part of it seems to be, as you point out, a preference for purely intellectual existence, framing the business of life as to think about something, and then the entire business of having a body is one huge distraction... the legitimate pleasures equally as much a distraction as the actual inconveniences.

Likewise disordered passions are a genuine challenge to deal with -- one could raise the question of how they could ever come to be ordered, and then the question of why one would even bother....

There is also a horror of being stuck with a particular body, of whatever shape or type; a fairly uncontroversial example of this is in the matter of age; children long to grow up, adults long for the resilience and intensity of their youth; the aged will wish for _any_ kind of body that does not suffer their present infirmities; no age seems entirely satisfying. Some kind of composite of multiple ages, likewise, is theoretical and difficult-to-imagine. So, that raises the question, which aspects of a particular person's body are fixed, and which are actually changeable?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Well, you have done a good job of recognizing that there is a problem and outlining the problem - but a hopeless job of providing what is actually needed: a simple, one sentence, one reason explanation!

I strongly feel that this is what is needed - in theology as elsewhere; and that complex, multi-reason, 'nuanced' answers are in practice interpreted as either "He doesn't know the answer", or "There isn't an answer", or else "He is trying to cover-up something".

Therefore we need quick clear and simple answers - while accepting that they (obviously) do not (and cannot) cover all the complexities - and if people want to know more, they should ask questions.

This applies to science just as much as theology.

People should NEVER be allowed to suppose that asserting 'but it's not as simple as that' is a contribution to human knowledge, because it is always true of every utterance - for all the good of it, you might as well have a loop tape of "but it's not as simple as that" playing as background for the whole of your life; UNLESS a better simplification can be proposed.

SO - here is the challenge - to provide an equally clear and brief and simple explanation of what the body is for, but better.

I would not be *at all* surprised if there are better explanations for why we have a body - I just haven't heard one yet.

JP said...

This means that evil spirits (I mean Satan and his minions) can only get-at the soul indirectly, via the body - e.g. via enticing or tormenting the body - because the soul is protected in the body.

But the body is subject to all sorts of urges and weaknesses that make it more easily tempted than a being of pure spirit presumably would be. If we didn't have guts and glands, how would Satan tempt us to gluttony and lust?

Adam G. said...

I like your answer, Bruce C., but I also like Arakawa's answer that bodies are for running and jumping. In other words, that the material world is basically good and the ability to experience it is therefore also good. Some of the same rationales that are applied to the Incarnation, but applied to each of us.

Here is another possibility: you can't make a whole lot of meaningful choices as a spirit, because you aren't limited in time and space:

Maybe this is the same thing, but I would say that being part of the material world is necessary to act and to be acted upon.

Your own recent post on the Valar is illuminating. There you suggest that having a body makes you more powerful.

You might enjoy this essay:

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - But we are here to be tempted - Christ was tempted - it is the human condition and part of the plan and necessity.

But we are supposed to resist temptations; or, if we do not resist, then to recognize and repent the fact.

But being tempted is one thing, being infiltrated and controlled is another and worse thing.


@Adam - I don't think that it works to associate bodies with agency so strongly; because Christ and ourselves chose as premortal spirits to become incarnated. Clearly, a lot can be done even without incarnation - presumably some (not all) of the angels are of this nature: never incarnated spirits, yet with agency and power.

ajb said...

I think to understand the point of bodies, it helps to understand the point of glorified bodies.

If matter is essentially good, then the question is why wouldn't we have bodies?

I think the problems we have with short-termist behaviours, death, and so on, are just part of the process of bringing about glorified bodies.

Inextricably tied to the notion of having a body is also stewardship (of our own body to start, which should be made into a temple, of our family, of our community, of the planet, and so on, ultimately the whole universe).

So, a better question is why don't we instantly have glorified bodies and a physical Kingdom of God through and through?

The answer has to be that there's a process, and this stage is part of it - involving learning, growing, and so on - which is tied to the purpose of being glorified physical beings as stewards of the universe.

Adam g. said...

Bruce C.,
clearly not every instance of agency requires a body, given the standard accounts. But having a body enhances agency. There are limitations to being in time and space that open up a number of possible choices, and there are extra levels of interaction that physical existence makes possible: sex, for example, has a huge number of meaningful choices associated with it.

Another possibility that you'll probably reject but that I suspect has a great deal of truth in it is the notion that spirit and eternity/timelessness and embodiment and time/change/progress are fairly correlated, which shows some obvious benefits of embodiment.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I think this is probably correct - but for non-Mormon Christians there is the problem that God the Father is supposed to be disembodied - without body, parts or passions (as the Westminster Confession has it).

My own feelings on this are that there is no obvious scriptural reason to assume that God the Father must be disembodied (indeed, quite the opposite) especially given that we are explicitly made in His image - but that He *does* in fact have a body comes from various revelations (e.g. by Joseph Smith) which may or may not be believed.

ajb said...

"but for non-Mormon Christians there is the problem that God the Father is supposed to be disembodied"

I think this is what leads many Christians to mistakenly believe the Kingdom of Heaven will be a non-physical place where one is disembodied.

This also leads to a kind of Gnosticism about this life - we're just waiting it out, until we go to a Platonic Heaven.

Seijio Arakawa said...


Personally, the naive impression I got from reading the Catechism of Trent and the works of Thomas Aquinas, as well as Dante (sort of a middle way of theology given the broad influence of Catholicism) was that (according to this view of things) humans in Heaven would be embodied into these sorts of indestructible, unalterable animated statue-type things milling about living a purely contemplative experience. Aquinas, for instance, wrangles in the Summa Theologica about whether the resurrected saints are going to be able to smell or taste anything, and decides that they are going to smell things since Church hymns specify as much, but that the sense of taste may or may not be in operation.

All of that seems anticlimactic and undesirable to me for a number of reasons.