Bury the Dead

“The body,” I was taught growing up, “is just the shoe box for the soul. What matters is the shoes, not the box. So when it’s time to go to heaven, just put the shoes on and throw the box away.”
This good solid dose of Gnostic thinking was drilled into me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Along with it came a certain aesthetic that tended to conceive of the human person as the ghost in the machine. Of course, I didn’t live as though I were a ghost in a machine. Nobody except perhaps some victims of extreme forms of mental illness does. Practically speaking, I lived as you do: in the instinctive awareness that I am a unity of body and soul. That’s why when Susie stuck out her tongue at me when I was four, I knew that her soul was expressing the thought that I was yucky in union with her body. And when I cried as a result, it was not the tear ducts of my bio-envelope that were sad. It was me — the union of body and soul — that felt rejected.

None of that changed when I was growing up. When I wrote my name all over my brother’s TV screen when I was nine, my older brother would not have been persuaded of my innocence had I exclaimed, “Mike! My hand is not revelatory of the inmost essence of my being. It is that which has marred your TV. My soul is pure and inviolate. Do not out your wrath on my bottom by spanking me in a fury, for the actions of the body are disconnected from the purity of the soul!” Nor, indeed, was my brother’s firm bottom-swatting something my soul quickly forgot.
Still and all, despite the constant reminder of experience, the moment people stop living their lives and start philosophizing about their lives, they often begin to talk nonsense. And one of the most perennially popular forms of nonsense they talk is Gnosticism. Gnostics tend to talk like Yoda: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” They start with the assumption that the way to figure out what constitutes a human being is to saw him in two by dividing him into his components of body and soul. And this notion has infected Western religious thought like a virus since the birth of the Church. It still wreaks havoc in all sorts of ways.
For instance, about 20 years ago, an Evangelical scientist named Dr. John Medina wrote a fascinating book about molecular biology called The Outer Limits of Life in which he attempted, in his last chapter, to get at the problem of the origins of personhood. The chapter was titled, “Did Jesus Die for DNA?” He concluded that the Christian tradition had basically nothing to tell us about when a human person comes into being, and therefore nothing whatever to tell molecular biologists about what is and is not morally acceptable in their work. Notably, the question upon which he based his entire inquiry was, “What is the difference between human life and human tissue?”
In doing so, he misreads Scripture in three critical ways.
False Assumption 1: Human Beings Have Value but Matter Does Not
Medina tell us that “Worth is infused into [human beings], but not [human tissues].”
Why? It’s somewhat fuzzy. As an Evangelical with what appears to be a somewhat wooly Calvinist hue to his theology, Medina sometimes connects the irrelevance of human bodies with something like total depravity, occasionally referring to the body as “decadent flesh” or as being in “rock-bottom carnality.” Mostly, though, Medina refers to tissue as “purely atoms” or “mere molecules.” It’s another way of calling it a shoe box.
False Assumption 2: “Value” and the Spiritual “Image of God” Are Synonymous
Assuming that the body has no value, Medina then explains what does constitute our value in God’s eyes:
[S]omething was transferred to us that was not transferred to other created things, such as rocks and butterflies. . . . God breathed something into us; God breathed His Image into us; God did something that transmitted value to us.
The Imago Dei exists, says Medina, when God “transmits value” to worthless matter.
False Assumption 3: Human Life Therefore Starts When God Injects Value into Matter
The logical consequence of Medina’s dichotomy is his theory of “value transfer,” which holds that a human being is “recognized” into existence when God “transfers worth” by breathing His spiritual image into a “substrate” of essentially valueless tissue. For Medina, the basic fact about persons and their bodies is their divisibility, not their relationship. So he writes: “I have attempted in this book to come to the edge of ideas separating human life and human tissue.”
And so, Medina’s essential method of finding the beginning of personhood is to discover a sharply defined moment in Scripture when “valueless” matter is “recognized” by God and thereby granted the status of image-injected Person. In Medina’s words, “If a human being is established when . . . worth is transferred, when does God transfer it?”
The problem is, Medina’s method is looking at Scripture all wrong. There is no moment when God “values” a worthless substrate of chemicals into personhood. Rather, God calls all creation “good” (not valueless); and, as St. Thomas Aquinas observed, God’s grace (the grace that brings every baby into existence) perfects rather than destroys, supplants, or ignores nature. Grace creates a hierarchy of goodness in which each create thing remains itself yet becomes part of something greater than itself. Thus, in the creation of every human being God raises atoms to participate in molecular existence, yet atoms remain atoms. Likewise, molecules are raised to participate in organic chemistry, yet remain molecules. And so on with organic chemicals, DNA, single-celled and multi-cellular organisms. Each is, by the power of God, raised to participate in something higher, yet each thing remains what it is. And at the pinnacle of the hierarchy, one multicellular species is called by grace from the sacred creation to participate not merely in a new level of natural life, but in the supernatural life of God himself. Thus, humans are endowed with a rational soul and declared to be “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27, 2:7). Yet (for grace does not destroy nature but perfects it) we’re not thereby “spiritualized” out of our bodies and into the ether. Rather, we retain our hair, fangs, claws, and DNA. So we are, to be sure, dust. Yet this dust is — not merely “contains” — a person.
Yet this is not to say it’s impossible “to come to the edge of ideas separating human life and human tissue.” Indeed, such separation happens thousands of times every day. However, this is of little help to Medina’s quest for the beginning of human life, since the biblical term for such separation is “death.” And death is, biblically speaking, not the result of divine favor but the bitter fruit of the fall from which Christ saves us. Thus Medina’s sought-for “difference between human life and human tissues” can never show us the beginning of human personhood, because the separation of life and tissue leaves, as C. S. Lewis observes, only a corpse and a ghost. In a grim way, even sin and death show the essential unity of flesh and spirit by sawing in two what ought to be one.
“The essential unity of flesh and spirit?” A startling thought, but a very Christian one. For Christianity doesn’t tell us that human soul and body are related as milk to milk bottle. Rather, the gospel tells us soul and body are related as Mona Lisa to paint. Human beings are not Images poured into disposable “finely tuned bags of genetic chemicals.” We are, as Scripture says, an inseparable unity of body, soul and spirit (Gen 2:7; 1 Thes 5:23). And if you want to know when you can start treating biochemistry as a distinct human life, you might consider the model offered us by the New Testament. At what moment did the Son of God become the Son of Man, the paradigm of the human race, the Savior of “the least of these”? The answer, of course, is not far to seek — for Scripture, Tradition, and the unbroken testimony of 2,000 years of orthodox Christian witness agree. In the supreme instance of His identification with the human person — by the life-giving power that loved creation into being, blessed the hierarchy of goodness, and came to save the world from sin and death — God the Son of Man was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:35). And He, says the author of Hebrews, is “our brother” and “like us in every way” except sin (Heb 2:17; 4:15).
This sacramental approach to human life, which asks first, “What is the relationship, not the difference, between body, soul, and spirit?” is why the Christian tradition has always hallowed the body — not only in life, but even in death. For the body does not derive its holiness, significance, and worth simply from being associated with a soul. It derives it from God, who made the body as the temple not only of the human soul, but of the living God Himself. It is sacred in death, even as the ruins of the Temple were sacred. For, in the Risen Christ, it too shall be rebuilt.
This sanctity of the body is something that has been known since the very dawn of humanity. What marks off Homo sapiens (and even that mysterious creature Homo neanderthalensis) is his awareness that something special must be done to honor the dead body of his companion. With the dawn of man on earth, we see the very first occurrence of something that does not occur in all the 3 billion years of life on earth before him: the grave. Man, alone out of all God’s creation, begins to bury his dead. We begin to find not merely carcasses of animals, but the bodies of persons laid with reverence in the ground, buried with flowers, entombed with tokens of things they loved in life, decked with art that speaks of some groping hope that this is not the end for them, surrounded with the love or respect or awe that their fellows had for them.
The ambiguity of our position as fallen creatures is on full display in how we treat the dead. In the Old Testament, burying the dead is as much pious work of mercy as it is in the Christian tradition. But, as in the Christian tradition, it is also something nobody is especially eager to do. Under the Old Covenant, it renders you ritually unclean, for instance, ; just as today it can gross you out, traumatize you, make you sick, or give you the creeps. There’s a reason every civilization and culture in the world has ghost stories and feels the dead to be uncanny. We feel in our bones that the division of body and soul is wrong. We feel the absence of the one who should be there. And we are none too eager to look on the face — or, in death by violence, perhaps the missing face, or head, or limbs, or torso — of the dead.
And yet, it remains a work of mercy. For Christians, the archetype of this work is seen in the Deposition from the Cross and in the women who came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Indeed, so significant is the work of burying the dead and respect for the body of the dead that one woman in particular is remembered for this act down to the end of time:
And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mk 14:3-9)
This utilitarian approach to the dead and those doomed to die is still very much with us — and is growing as the euthanasia movement grows, urging the dying to die and get out of the way for those who cost less and can get back to work contributing to society. Sometimes, in chemical purity, it can reveal itself with a white-hot hatred almost as revolting as Judas’ willingness to hand Jesus over to crucifixion for thirty pieces of silver.
Exhibit A: A nun founds a home in Calcutta specifically ordered toward honoring those who cannot be saved from death. In doing so, she blasphemes against one of the central tenets of post-Christian faith in onward and upward Progress: the faith that we shall sooner or later conquer death itself. She reminds us, by her home for the dying, that we are all going to end up there sooner or later and that sometimes what is necessary is to reverence the dying by giving them their true human dignity. This is, in fact, a million miles away from what our Culture of Death calls “death with dignity,” for Mother Teresa does not hurry the dying off with lectures on how they should clear out and make room for the Productive, or administer potions that supposedly “ease suffering” but instead murder them in cold blood. Instead, she simply honors the dying, cares for their bodily needs, and prays for them as they leave this world.
The response of a man like Christopher Hitchens: “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” The embrace of our holy sister, the death of the body, enrages the children of this world.
Death is the last impregnable fortress against our pride — the last reminder that sin cannot win, that our power is not eternal, that God is not mocked. It is also, by the grace of that same God, no longer a hole, but a door. Our salvation has been won precisely through the death of the body that Mary of Bethany anointed. It was that dead body, and no other, that was raised from death in glory, and which is now the means by which God mediates his eternal life to us in the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood.
The body of our beloved dead is, therefore, like Jesus’ body, both a memorial and a pledge of future salvation. It is the last relic we have of our beloved — and the seed of their resurrection on That Day. So we honor it even in death. As Paul says:
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:36-55)

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • R.S.Newark

    More to the point; …”the death of the body enrages (the Hitchens’)the children of this world” frustration is perhaps a better word for their feelings.

  • R.C.

    Mr. Shea:

    I accept all the major premises of your piece, and have no quibble at all with the basic premise: Matter is good; we are intrinsically physical and spiritual beings; those who abhor the flesh altogether rather than (after the model of St. Francis) treating the body as a lovable but sometimes stubborn “Brother Ass” are simply wrong. I believe in the resurrection of the body and the everlasting life.

    All the same, I have one quibble. Or perhaps it is a question? At any rate, something doesn’t add up, and I can’t determine whether it is myself who is confused, or the folk whose description of “Gnosticism” I am reading.

    It is held that “Gnosticism” equals the view that the body and the soul are distinct from one another, with the soul riding in the body as a passenger in a chariot, steering it after the fashion of a man operating one of those giant robots so popular in Japanese anime cartoons.

    Likewise, you describe the Gnostic view as…

    a certain aesthetic that tended to conceive of the human person as the ghost in the machine.

    Having established this definition, you (and others) go on to describe various absurd behaviors which are supposed to be necessary logical conclusions of this “ghost in the machine” view.

    It seems to me that there are two problems with this approach:

    Problem 1: The various absurd behaviors which are supposed to derive from the “ghost in the machine” view don’t necessarily follow from it unless other “sidecar” propositions are added to it, such as the view that matter is bad, or that there is no bodily resurrection.

    Problem 2: I don’t know what real alternative there is to this “ghost in the machine” view, which is described as Gnostic. The alternative view, offered as the orthodox Christian view, either (a.) is not distinguishable from the “ghost in the machine” view simpliciter (that is, it is not distinguishable from the “ghost in the machine” view by itself, without any additional “sidecar” propositions tacked on); or, (b.) logically leads to conclusions which contradict either itself or other Christian doctrines.

    Some Additional Detail on Problem 1

    As an example of the absurd behaviors said to be required if one acts in accord with the “ghost in the machine” view, you give:

    Of course, I didn’t live as though I were a ghost in a machine….Practically speaking, I lived as you do: in the instinctive awareness that I am a unity of body and soul. That’s why when Susie stuck out her tongue at me when I was four, I knew that her soul was expressing the thought that I was yucky in union with her body. And when I cried as a result, it was not the tear ducts of my bio-envelope that were sad. It was me — the union of body and soul — that felt rejected.

    Yet in this very passage, you speak of the soul as distinguishable from the body (“her soul was expressing the thought that I was yucky” leads to “Susie stuck out her tongue at me”). The thought is in the soul, the extended tongue is only an expression, and one which does not necessarily follow. A person with a paralyzed tongue, or whose culture preferred showing the backs of two raised fingers in a V for expressing the same thought, could still have had the same thought. The ghost thinks; the machine surges into action at its conscious direction…but it needn’t. How, then, does this example illustrate that body and soul are the same thing?


  • R.C.


    In response to that question, you may say, “I never said body and soul were the same thing; I said they were in union.” Very well, but what do you mean by “in union?” If you mean by it that what the soul thinks can and usually does have expression in the outward behaviors of the body, then everyone agrees — including every last Gnostic. This, I am sure, is nothing that the Gnostics would ever have denied. So how is your view different from theirs?

    If by “in union” you mean “indistinguishable” then you contradict that by distinguishing between them.

    If by “in union” you mean “inseparable” then you contradict Christian doctrine which says that the soul and body are separated at death (not to mention that it would probably imply that when the body is destroyed, so is the soul).

    If by “in union” you mean that it is a bad, sad thing when the soul and body are separated, then of course I agree.

    But so could someone who took the “ghost in the machine” view. A person who envisioned the soul-body relationship as a ghost-machine relationship could hold that the machine was good, was created by God, and that our souls, while also good, are incomplete without it, and that God intends our souls to be reunited to a machine at the resurrection; albeit a new-and-improved “Mark II” version of the machine.

    Now if a person holding the “ghost in the machine” view also took the view that matter is bad and that it is therefore good for the soul to be separated from matter, then they could not simultaneously hold that the separation of body and soul is a bad, sad thing. But that is one of the “sidecar” views; it is not logically required by the “ghost in the machine” view.

    And this, so far as I can see, is the case with all the absurd behaviors supposedly attributable to those holding the “ghost in the machine” view. The absurd behavior comes not from holding that the soul and the body are different, separable things with different properties. The absurd behavior comes from holding additional propositions such as: “…and it doesn’t matter what my body does, since it doesn’t affect my soul”; or “…and matter, including the body, is bad”; or, “…and the soul is destroyed when the body is destroyed”; or some other “sidecar” proposition.

    If it is these “sidecar” propositions that are truly “Gnostic,” then why not leave the “ghost in the machine” view alone as being neither here nor there, and focus on disputing the sidecar propositions which are in fact where the problem arises?

    Some Additional Detail on Problem 2

    It seems to me that the Christian position on these matters starts from the “ghost in the machine” view, but then adds additional “sidecar” propositions such as “…and matter is good, and our soul is incomplete without a body, so God intends to complete us at the resurrection by giving us a renewed and perfected body which will never die.”

    Thus the “ghost in the machine view” is not heresy; it just isn’t the whole story. The Gnostics and the Christians start from the same picture; they just add different and mutually incompatible “sidecar” propositions on to it: And the Gnostic sidecars are wrong and heretical.

    Maybe I’m wrong about this? I’m writing this more as a question than a quibble, because I’m entirely open to correction on this point.

    But I don’t see that there’s any alternative to this “ghost in the machine” starting point (sans sidecar propositions) because the alternatives seem worse.

    One alternative is to say that the soul and body are the same thing. Okay: In that case, when the body is destroyed, so is the soul. That can’t be right; that’s just materialism using “soul” as a synonym for “whatever my neurons happen to be doing.”

    Another alternative is to say that the soul is so unified to the body that without the body, it has no true existence, though it will resume true existence at the resurrection. This, it seems to me, is the “soul sleep” view held, I believe, by some separated Christian or quasi-Christian sects…but not by orthodox and ancient Christianity.

    And after that? I’m not sure there are any other alternatives. It seems to me that the “ghost in the machine” view describes perfectly adequately what is left:

    – That the soul is the self more than the body is the self;
    – That the loss of a limb is not the same as the loss of part of one’s self;
    – That God designed the soul to be “in” a body, and that a self is incomplete without it, but nevertheless remains aware in the period after death but before the resurrection;
    – That what the soul “tells” the body to do can corrupt the soul, but what is taken into the body does not do so;
    – That the spiritual wickedness of a soul is often expressed outwardly through the body, but not always, so that man is confined to look with some uncertainty at the outside, whereas God alone “looketh at the heart.”

    Where’s the problem with that view? And if there is no problem with that view, then how is that view distinct from a “ghost in the machine” view, since there presumably is a problem with that view, so named?

    Perhaps the whole issue is that what I am thinking about, when I imagine a soul riding in a (biological, fearfully and wonderfully made) machine, is entirely orthodox, but what someone else thinks about when using the same terms is something different, and heretical?

    But in that case, I still think it is the “sidecar” propositions which are the problem, and not the “ghost in the machine” starting-point.

    I eagerly await correction, or clarification.

  • Mark P. Shea

    …cuz I’ve got a bunch of stuff to do today.

    1) I think you are right to take issue with my use of the word “indistinguishable”. I think I ought to have said “inseparable”. And by that, I mean, of course that they are not *supposed* be separated, not that it is impossible to separate them.

    2) For better informed discussions of the relationship of body and soul than I can give (I’m not a philosopher), I suggest going here: http://tiny.cc/jiy1i

    Sorry this is so brief!

  • Austin

    Our bodies die and decay, but our souls are immortal, but…
    Can we really totally separate them? Our souls and bodies are intertwined for the duration of our lives, and we come to identify with our faces, hands, etc. Can we really totally separate them? Our bodies serve a purpose, and hopefully do so for perhaps 80 or so years, when we die, the soul moves on, but does it really totally separate from the body?

    You remember your parents, years after they have died, they are to a degree, always with you. Could it not be somewhat similar with the soul and body?

  • Ryan Haber


    Really awesome objections and concerns. Have you studied ontology/metaphysics at all? I ask only because if you haven’t, you sure have a brain for it!

    I will try to write more tomorrow if it’s not too busy at work. For now, I want to propose something very briefly.

    It is difficult for us to conceive immaterial things since we conceive based on our perceptions, and all our perceptions are material. Philosopher-theologians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis make this point, and it always bears restating. In this way, prepositions also get in the way: we speak of a soul “in” a body; how could that not tilt us toward gnosticism?

    Aristotle’s De Anima gives a good start for a working understanding of a what a soul is. Every living thing has a soul according to its kind. Animals have animal souls, plants have plant souls, dogs have animal souls specified as dog souls, and so on. Humans have rational souls. A soul is simply that which makes the thing alive, in his view, because he noted that physical traumas killed some things, whereas other things died without any obvious physical trauma; now, we might add, even with the apparent medical reversal of the physical trauma. In Aristotle’s ontology, the soul is the form of the body – that which shapes the raw stuff into what it is: a living, breathing being of whatever sort. A soul is more like the shape of a puzzle piece than anything put into it.

    Now, Aristotle isn’t dogma, but it’s a good start for understanding the nature of a soul, and it’s where St. Thomas Aquinas starts. It’s a good start because, among other reasons, it avoids speaking of the soul in material terms as something that can be “poured” or “breathed” “into” something else that is material.

    Does this all make sense? Have you already read something like this elsewhere? If I am boring you, stop me. For now, a break. Time for bed. I’ll email myself the link so I can try to write more tomorrow.

  • Ryan Haber

    Another excellent post, Mark!

  • Brandy Miller

    To explain how the soul and the body are inseparable yet distinct, I hope this little thought of mine helps

    A soul can be likened to the electricity that powers a computer. The body can be likened to the various parts that must be assembled in order for a computer to be a computer (motherboard, cpu, memory chips, graphics card, sound card, power supply, fan, keyboard, monitor, mouse, etc.).

    The electricity by itself is not a computer. The parts by themselves are not really a computer. Apart from one another, they serve none of the functions of a computer. It isn’t until the two are joined together that they become the computer we use to solve problems, write blog entries, share ideas, and play games.

  • georgie-ann

    …out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks:

    1. Matthew 12:34 “Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

    2. Luke 6:45 “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

  • georgie-ann

    it seems that the long-standing mental effort to separate the goodness and identity and intentions and obligations of God from one’s biological flesh, is mainly to serve the purpose of allowing the flesh to do whatever it is inclined to do (as “natural” or as “scientifically possible”)–without the nuisance of having to limit or curtail one’s exploratory curiosity into the sense-observable realms, out of deference to some invisible nuisance “called God” by those with “child-like, deluded and fervently over-active imaginations,”…

    rather,…God’s wisdom and order IS scripted into our cells from the get-go,…however, too much bombardment with the mind/conscience-numbing garbage of MSM, etc. forces, and too much “experimenting” and practice of proscribed activities, without repentance, causes a condition of “hardness of heart” to set in, that is no longer able to sense God’s presence or recognizes his (inner) voice,…and in this way, satan will have “messed up” the original set-up,…

    the conviction of a separation between these realms is a device of evil, resulting in (heart)-detached mechanistic practices of evil,…even calling evil “good,”…

    science has finally learned about the dangers of consuming “Franken-fats” (trans-fats),…you’d think they could make the jump from there to Franken-philosophies and Franken-moralities, but alas, they aren’t even THAT smart,…

    i love the idea that this rationalizing, prideful, devolved (depraved) “mind” also has to find a way to divorce itself from the significance (instinctive fear) of the inevitable mortality of its “body-machine,”…”denial” is SO powerful, and so full of convoluted “reasonings,” and so full of holes,…

  • Ryan Haber

    Now, a little excursus into matter and form to help us understand the Aristotelian-Thomist conception of body and soul.

    A temptation arises to think of philosophical ‘matter’ as being material. It is not. At least, not necessarily. For purely material things, the philosophical ‘matter’ is material. Lolol. Like a table: its matter is wood. Material. Simple enough. Its form, what makes it not just wood, but a table, is table-ishness, you might say – the necessary properties (flat surface, legs, etc.) of a table plus its own particular unnecessary properties (such-and-such height, color, kind of wood, intended use, etc).

    In a moral act, the matter is the thing that actually happens (note, this matter is not material, although it often happens in the material world). The form is the proximal intent of the actor – what he is trying to do (not his ultimate purpose for doing so).

    A good thing to remember is that the Platonics referred to “form” as an “idea” and while they were not exactly the same thing, they were close enough for our purposes.

    The important thing is to banish from our minds the conception of the soul as a “thing” in the way we normally think of things. That is because it is a purely immaterial thing in and of itself. Along with the un-embodied spirits

  • R.C.


    I have no Philosophical training at all except one (lame, dull, unhelpful) survey course in college.

    But I read a lot of C.S.Lewis’s adult works from age 13 onward. Such exposure I have to clear philosophical thinking comes to me indirectly through him, and through a predisposition to think in a structured and linear way.

    If it helps, I’m a musician who likes complicated elegance in music; I often eat M&Ms one color at a time; apologetics arguments actually boost my faith when it’s feeling challenged; and I program server-side website-to-database integration software for a living. My Compact Disc collection has roughly two hundred fifty discs in it, arranged in alphabetical order by artist, and within each artist, by release date. And my wife, thank God, is a very patient and gracious woman.


    I find that when I try to read Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, having as I do no introduction by which I could render it all more accessible nor even a guidebook to help me know where to start, I quickly get bogged down, not knowing how to classify and categorize what I am reading. I have yet to develop a structured model to help the subject matter to gel.

    So, please, keep writing. Keep filling in the blanks for me. I just don’t get it, but I recognize that I could get it with an adequate primer. For lack of that, I have been nibbling around the edges of the topic reading this and that. Ed Feser is often over my head, but I try to read his posts anyway in hopes something will sink in.

  • R.C.


    You’ve written two posts to me; I’m at the moment replying to the first of them.

    First, you mention:

    prepositions also get in the way: we speak of a soul “in” a body; how could that not tilt us toward gnosticism?

    Well, through caution in understanding that “in,” in this context, is intended to convey strong and proper association with the body, just as one’s heart is strongly and properly associated with (the rest of) one’s body. But “in” is not intended to convey location for something non-localizable, any more than “at the right hand of the Father” is intended to convey location for Jesus’ resurrected body which, while still extant and alive, is nevertheless (excluding its presence in the tabernacles of the world) outside our space-time.

    I admit my notion of something (God, or the soul) being “outside” our space-time is derived from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. When I envision Jesus at the right hand of the Father, I still conceive of Him as solid but being in some higher space, inconceivable to me as three-dimensional space was inconceivable to Mr. A. Square. And so too I think of the soul as existing in that higher space, where presumably All Times Are Now, and thus all things are immortal and not subject to linear time.

    I freely confess that this picture is probably wrong, mind you: I am not convinced of its correctness and I suspect there may be ways it could be misleading, even while it is helpful in other ways. For example, by conceiving of eternity as something more fully-dimensioned and thus more “solid” than our temporal existence, I avoid the error of thinking of God as ephemeral and us as concrete, when the reality is the opposite.

    On the other hand, this picture could possibly lead someone to think that one could, by technology, move out of this “plane” of existence (that’s Mr. Square talking again) and into the other: That one could send robotic probes into Heaven or hell, or perhaps try to kill God if one could only figure out how to fire missiles “at right angles to reality.”

    So in that sense it’s not a helpful picture! But I think of it as a picture, alone, just as it is a picture to think of electrons as being little pebbles of stuff, or light waves as being “waves.” In high-school chemistry I was told that they are both (“wave-particle duality”) only to learn later that they are actually neither, but that these are useful pictures which enable us in some contexts to make accurate predictions about what an electron or photon will do, but in some cases the “particle” picture is more helpful and the “wave” picture misleading; whereas in other cases the “wave” picture produces the right predictions and the “particle” picture is misleading.

    I give you all this background, not strictly in reply to your statement, in order that you reply to the following objection:

    How is it better to conceive of the soul as a “shape” (“form”) of something or an “idea” of something, rather than as a separate thing which exists outside our space-time with a degree of solidity beyond anything in our temporal existence, a “thickness” which our bodies do not have?

    I mean, when I try to use that Aristotelian picture, I get the sense of an empty outline (of a coin, or of a table) which can be filled in (with silver, or with wood). This gives me the sense of something which is less real. While there is no logical requirement, there is for me, at least, an emotional tendency to associate anything pictured in this way with ephemerality rather than permanence.

    Whereas, to picture souls and angels as three-dimensionally “thick” compared to the two-dimensionality of material existence seems to me to go hand-in-hand with their permanence. (And perhaps to picture God as having infinite dimensionality so that He is the only entity “thick” enough to say, on every possible level of being, “I AM” …?)

    Now, your objection to perceiving the soul as a separate “thing” seems to be from the fear of, like the Gnostics, thinking of matter as bad. Fair enough; history seems univocal on that point. But seems to me that many true doctrines are those which are most easily misunderstood. Do not Protestants accuse Catholics of, however unintentionally, divinizing Mary? Do not they say that even if the phrase “Mother of God” is technically true, it’s catechetically unhelpful because it leads to the confusion of thinking her mother of the Trinity, rather than of only the Second Person of God? I am comfortable with the notion of true doctrines which are easily misunderstood, but which must nevertheless be accepted.

    So my question is: Are you arguing for the Aristotelian-Thomistic view because you think it’s a more helpful picture (which seems debatable to me), or because you think it’s not merely a picture, but the actual, core, fundamental, true truth?

    If it’s the latter, then (a.) I don’t know how you could know that; (b.) I’m willing to let you explain to me how that could be known; and (c.) I’m willing to adopt it, once it has been proven to me, as my own view, despite the risk of it being misunderstood.

  • R.C.


    In your second post to me, you said:

    A temptation arises to think of philosophical ‘matter’ as being material. It is not. … In a moral act, the matter is the thing that actually happens…the proximal intent of the actor – what he is trying to do. … A good thing to remember is that the Platonics referred to “form” as an “idea” and while they were not exactly the same thing, they were close enough for our purposes.

    Again, is this a picture, an analogy, a way of thinking of it? Or are we saying that this is what it actually is?

    My vague thoughts of “table-ness” in which I try to abstract the “idea” of what a table is away from the particulars of a given table, seems very vague and ephemeral to me. It seems to me that if I stop thinking about this topic, the “idea” goes away. Is the “form” of a table only as immortal as the duration of someone’s thinking about it? If so, I assume that we can claim that “God is always thinking about everything” to allow the form “table” to go on existing even after the last table is destroyed and forgotten by the last human being who remembered it. But that strikes me as a cheesy escape-hatch.

    You also say:

    The important thing is to banish from our minds the conception of the soul as a “thing” in the way we normally think of things. That is because it is a purely immaterial thing in and of itself.

    Why is that important? To what misunderstanding might that thought-picture lead us?

    Isn’t it more helpful — provided we are warned to avoid the Gnostic contempt for or disregard of the flesh — to think that our souls are more thing-ish than our bodies, since the soul is immortal but the (fallen, not resurrected) body is not? Isn’t it better — in the sense of avoiding misunderstanding — to call our souls, not “immaterial,” but “not physical” and our bodies, not “material” but “temporal?”

    Again, all of this is quibbling over the catechetical usefulness of particular terms and pictures…if we assume they’re all merely pictures which are true only by analogy.

    If one of them is instead actually true, why then, it must be embraced even if it’s potentially misleading, and we must try to counteract the potential for misunderstanding by hedging our exposition of it with all the necessary caveats.

    But I have yet to see any solid reason why the “form” notion either provides a more helpful picture, or any reason why I should accept it as true truth.

    So you see my quandary….

    Finally, you make the point that some sins are physical and spiritual, whereas others (e.g. Self-Conceited Pride) are only spiritual, but no less evil for being merely spiritual. Does that not accord more fully with my “picture” than with the Aristotelian-Thomistic one? If the spirit can sin in the human will even before the body responds by acting…and if the sin remains even if the body never acts, and if the spirit can sin without the body’s involvement but the body cannot sin without the spirit’s involvement, then how can a picture which depicts the soul as a mere outline and the matter as the thing with real solidity be more helpful than a picture which depicts the soul as having solidity and the body as being more like a shadow on the plane of a wall?