Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Some days I find myself in euphoric rapture about the miracle of my physical being and in profound gratitude that I hail from a theological tradition that affirms the body as an essential component of human selfhood, and then I’ll see C. S. Lewis quoted, “You don’t have a soul; you are a soul. You have a body.”
Don’t throw your pipes away just yet, 20-something Christian guys. Mr. Lewis never actually said this. It was in fact his predecessor in the realm of theological fiction, George MacDonald who penned the slogan. Though attributed to the wrong man, the statement holds true as a typical attitude about the soul and body within modern Christianity.
Let’s back up. All the way up.
The author of Genesis 2:7 tells the story of the creation of the human person, writing, “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Within ancient Hebrew writings there is no definite distinction between the body and soul—only “living beings.” The Hebrew word for "living being" is nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ). Nephesh is also translated as “soul,” “life,” “self” “person,” “desire,” appetite,” “emotion,” or “passion.” According to Jewish tradition, the nephesh is the totality of the human being. It is not the spiritual essence or the "truer" expression of the human person; it is the entirety of the person—physical and spiritual. We see this in the creation narrative as the human person does not simply receive a nephesh, but becomes a nephesh.
So what does this mean for the theologian? This understanding of the human person calls her to a complete embrace of the body as the created realization of the self. This means that they can worship and enjoy God with the entirety of their beings–their lungs, arms, teeth, feet, skin, ovaries, bellybuttons, and rectums. They can relish in God’s creation as they dance, eat, have sex, run, sleep, breathe, and build. Within their spirituality they must not simply occasionally acknowledge the body or seek to worship in spite of the body, but they may instead uphold the body as the integral substance of their spiritual personhood. With all due respect, Mr. MacDonald, I am a body.
1. W. H. F. A. “Be Not Entangled Again in a Yoke of Bondage.” The British Friend 1, no. 1 (January 1, 1892): 157.
2. Francis Brown, D.D., D.Litt., Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 659.
3. Thomas Ryan, Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 82.
April 23, 2018 | Denver, Colorado