I Ain’t Got No Body: Embodiment (or not)

Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God.  Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another.  Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.

First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall.  To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment.  That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls.  Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment.  Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection.  Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak.  The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good.  It is also important to point out that in this  model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form.  Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).

C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:

I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it.  And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that.  And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by.  And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master.  And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world.  And the silver table is Time.  And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.

Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.

In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God).  Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation.  Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos.  In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present.  Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.

Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak.  We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.

The third view of the fall is the Evagrian model, which is about halfway between the orthodox and Gnostic perspectives.  Evagrius posits that all the intelligences–angels, humans, and demons–were originally pure minds which at some point fell away from pure contemplation of God.  The material world is then made by Him as a sort of Plan B.  The intelligences are embodied in various more or less material forms in the cosmos.  In this state, they are, in effect, to work out their salvation, moving back toward God through the events that happen and the choices they make in the material world, until ultimately mind, body, and soul are reintegrated, and God’s beings return to Him.  Thus, the material world and embodiment were not God’s original intention, as in the orthodox perspective, but rather, as in the Gnostic view, embodiment happens after the Fall.

The relationship of soul to body is also intermediate between the orthodox and Gnostic views.  They are not a holistic union, as in orthodoxy, nor are they totally opposed to each other, as in Gnosticism.  Rather, the body is a vehicle in which the soul can learn and gradually develop spiritually, so that it may ultimately return to God.  At this point, in Evagrius’s system, the body is incorporated back into the mind and the soul:

[A time will come when the] human body, soul, and mind cease to be separate, with their own names and plurality, because the body and the soul will be raised to the rank of mind….

Thus, we aren’t exactly a soul that “has” a body, nor a mixture of matter and spirit forming one entity.  Rather, we are a soul joined to a body which will eventually transcend its material nature and merge with the mind.

So, having looked at the orthodox, Gnostic, and Evagrian views of the relationship of the soul to the body, we must ask, how does all of this relate to the creation of embodied intelligences and the fall of intelligences, both embodied and unembodied, from God?

One clear thing about embodied minds is that they are affected by the body.  Contra what Descartes thought–that the mind can think in a totally pure way unencumbered by the body–our minds are affected by our bodies all the time.  Sleep and intoxication are just two of the most dramatic and obvious examples of this.  More subtly, the state of our physical bodies affects our mood, our behavior, even our judgement.  How many times have we snapped at a friend because we had a headache?  How often have we been genial in our interactions with others because we happened to feel physically well at the time?  As a diabetic, I know that my blood sugar can affect how I feel and thus, many times, how I act.  We can all think of similar examples.

The most dramatic examples of the mind/body interaction are conversions (to a religion or to a different mode of thinking).  Conversion is not purely psychological, but is bound up in one’s experiences, particularly those of the body–depression (which is partly physiological), reversals of fortune, illness, the death of loved ones, and so on.  Most of us know of someone who was vastly changed by suffering cancer or some such illness, or who was transformed by various (often negative) things that had happened to him or her.  The thing I want to note is that these are things that can happen only to embodied minds.

An angel (or demon) cannot experience sickness or physical suffering.  It cannot die.  Its mind is not interfered with by a body.  Even the evil mind of a demon has a clarity lacking in the most intelligent human, whose mind is limited by its connection with the body.  Thus, while it’s hard for us even to imagine a purely, completely disembodied intellect, we can say that it must operate along very different lines from ours.  What I’m pointing out here is that such an intelligence cannot be subject to the shocks that can often rouse our minds out of their entrenched habits and bring about conversions.

The traditional orthodox Christian teaching is that humans do not remain disembodied after death, but are reunited with their bodies–albeit spiritual, incorruptible bodies–at the Last Day.  Even the disembodied human souls before then still function as beings shaped by having had bodies–visions of the dead always involve them in the appearance of having a body.  This is a contrast to angels and demons, who lack bodies altogether.

As a universalist, my belief is that not only does God desire the salvation of all, but He will actually bring it about in the ultimate end of things.  By “all”, I include not only humans, but the fallen angels, i.e. demons, even the Devil himself.  I’ve discussed how I think this happens with humans (see here and here).  I have to say I’m less sure of the mechanics of this with the bodiless spirits.  One can imagine Purgatory for human souls much in the model of rehab, as I’ve suggested in the aforementioned posts.  This, however, is based on a model of sickness and recovery.  Pure spirits, such as angels or demons, don’t get sick in the first place.  How would a sickness-and-recovery model work for such beings?  I don’t know.

Friend and sometime commenter Hector pointed this out some time ago in discussing my universalism.  He noted that whereas a human mind can be shocked out of old habits or just get plain tired of the way its life is going, there’s essentially nothing in a spirit that can inhibit it.  No illnesses, no reversals, no shocks; in effect, there’s nothing to block it from increasing in goodness–or in evil–no matter how long one goes.  That is a valid point, and one that has occasioned much thought on my part.  I think we can consider that God “rehabs” the souls of sinful humans–no matter how sinful they may be–in a manner at least analogous to what we think of as rehab in this world.  For recalcitrant spirits that never had bodies, though, what does He–what can He do?

I want to look at that question in posts to come.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Religious Miscellany.



Posted on 02/01/2017, in Buddhism, Christianity, Gnosticism, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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