Christian Anthropology: Hope in the Midst of Decline
Any one who has lived any time has bumped up hard against the consequences of the fall, among which is the tendency toward chaos, the winding down and wearing out of all things. Paul tells us it was not always so (Rom 8:19-21), and John promises it will not always be so (Rev 21:1-4). But, my experience, and I dare say yours as well, says it is so now.
As an Anglican priest, I provide such pastoral care as I can to those who labor under this burden. Often this means supporting parishioners who are caring for aging family members. Sometimes it means walking beside those who are experiencing their own physical or mental decline. The practical difficulties are many: providing or finding proper in-home care, locating a reputable and affordable facility when that time comes, managing troublesome symptoms and behaviors. I am no expert on these practical matters; others are often better able to assist.
But, in addition to these struggles, there is frequently the emotional and spiritual battle against hopelessness as the condition deteriorates day by day: the loss of autonomy, the sense of futility, the long goodbye. There is the issue of meaning: what significance does a life in decline — my own or that of a loved one — have? Is it worth living any longer? Where is God in the midst of this? These are theological questions, and the wisdom of the Church speaks to them, offering hope in decline.
To understand the Christian hope that is ours even in the midst of physical or mental decline, we must consider human nature itself. For centuries, Western thought has been influenced almost exclusively by — and some might say it is captive to — the Enlightenment project and one of its chief philosophical architects Rene Descartes. It was Descartes who gave us the famous dictum cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, setting the stage for the reinterpretation of man as the thinking being. The essence of humanity became reasoned thought — the mind.
In the post modern (post Enlightenment) era that we are currently muddling through, the emphasis has shifted somewhat from the mind to the body. In this confused worldview, the body is alternately elevated and debased; either way it takes center stage. Physical beauty is glorified and preserved at all costs, while what passes for beauty appears, in many cases, less natural than before, and more disfiguring. The body is pampered and indulged: a playground, not a temple. All the while, ironically, abortion destroys bodies to protect women’s rights to their own bodies, and euthanasia kills bodies under the guise of quality of life. No longer satisfied with the biology of bodies, our culture attempts to redefine, remake, and transcend gender norms and physical gender itself. Gender is no longer binary, but ranges across a spectrum. The body is conformed to and often deformed by self-image using whatever means necessary and available. The body defines the essence of humanity.
Both of these approaches are akin to the ancient gnostic heresy because they are dualistic (mind versus body) and not holistic (body and mind together). Neither recognizes man as person nor honors God in whose likeness the person is created. The faith of the Church offers a better way.
God identified himself to Moses as I Am (Ex 3:13 ff), the very essence of being and personhood. We, too, use the pronoun I to refer to our personhood. It is worth asking, though, in the human case: To what does this I actually refer?
The meaning of I depends very much on what follows it in any sentence. For example, “I need a shower,” means that my body is dirty and needs attention. “I am hungry,” means my belly is empty and needs filling. “I like running on the beach,” means that my body enjoys the act and the results of physical exercise, and that my bodily senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell — are pleasantly stimulated by the environment of the beach. In all these cases, and in many more that we could list, I refers primarily to the person as body, to the physical faculties of personhood. We might call this aspect of personhood body.
Body is that aspect of personhood that pertains to the physical nature.
But, I has other referents. “I think…” refers to the mind, to the rational part of the person. “I am very happy,” pertains to emotions. “I feel so guilty,” is an acknowledgment of the conscience. “I refuse,” is an act of the will. None of these uses of I pertains primarily to the body. Instead, we might call this aspect of personhood soul.
Soul is that aspect of personhood that pertains to reason, emotions, conscience, and will.
Though it is helpful to distinguish between body and soul, they are unified in the person. That is, the person is not a body with a soul, nor is the soul the “life force” imprisoned in a body. This is where dualism gets it wrong. The person is a unified body-soul. To treat a person as just a body — as does pornography, for example — is to debase the person. Likewise, to treat a person as just a soul is to ignore the essential incarnation of the person. We can easily see the unity of the person in such statements as “I love my wife (or husband).” A survey of the rite of Holy Matrimony — or a reflection on lived experienced — clearly shows that the body, the mind, the emotions, the conscience, and the will are all included in that statement. The love between spouses is a whole person to whole person relationship. When any aspect of personhood is missing in a marriage, there is a deficit in the relationship, sometimes such a serious deficit that divorce ensues.
So, have we now fully defined I — the person — as the unity of body and soul? No, not yet fully, not in the Christian understanding of personhood. Consider the statement “I know God.” To what does I refer here? Do we know God in and through the body? Certainly we do, for the body participates in worship. Do we know God in and through the mind? Yes; reason, emotions, conscience, and will are all fully engaged in the knowledge of God. But, there is more. There is one more faculty that is essential for the knowledge of God, a faculty without which no such knowledge is possible: the spirit. An extended passage from 1 Corinthians makes this clear:
9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:9-16, ESV throughout).
God makes himself known to us spiritually: his Holy Spirit giving life and revelation and understanding to the human spirit. Our cognitive understanding of God is the mind’s effort to construct a mental summary of spiritual revelation and experience. Our bodily impressions of God is the body’s response to spiritual revelation and experience.
The spirit is that faculty of the person which can know, experience, and contemplate God directly, unmediated by the body and mind.
The Christian understanding of I — of personhood — must include the holistic union of body, soul, and spirit.
While the whole person participates in the experience and knowledge of God, only the spirit does so independently of the other faculties. In fact, it is the spirit that rightly mediates the experience and knowledge of God to the mind and the body. If the human spirit has not been made regenerate (born again) by the Holy Spirit, then the mind cannot rightly understand God nor can the body rightly experience and worship God (cf John 14:15-17; 16:12-15).
An Example from Scripture
We can see the holistic nature of personhood — body, soul, and spirit — in Luke’s account of the Visitation.
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:39-45).
The baby in Elizabeth’s womb is John, who will be known as the Baptist, and who, even from before birth, heralds the Lord. Notice that even in the womb — before cognitive thought has developed, before language, before a full range of emotions — John recognizes Jesus and responds with a leap (body) and with joy (emotions/soul). How is this possible? It is the action of the Holy Spirit revealing truth to both John’s and Elizabeth’s spirits. Especially in John’s case, this is an example of spiritual knowledge (revelation) unmediated by body or soul — given directly from the Holy Spirit to the human spirit. And this provides a sound theological basis for Christian hope in decline.
Anthropology and Christian Hope
We may think of the body and soul as that part of the person which allows one to communicate with, express oneself to, and engage with the outside world. It is typically what we know and see of another person and what we reveal of ourselves. It is an integral part of personhood. But, so is the spirit. The spirit is that part of the person which allows one to communicate directly with, express oneself to, and engage with God through the Holy Spirit. It is unseen and unknown to others except indirectly as it guides the body and soul in the way of righteousness. God often relates to the spirit in hidden ways, ways that transcend the body and soul and are not dependent upon them.
What does this mean for one in decline, or for those who care for loved ones in decline? It means that we have every reason to hope and to believe that even in the midst of increasing bodily frailty and cognitive loss, God is still present and at work with the person’s spirit. We may — rightly — mourn the decline of body and soul, but we need not and should not doubt that the spirit is being nourished by God and transformed into the likeness of Christ. What we see with our eyes is only the outer part of the person, the part which may be in decline. But the inner part of the person, the spirit, may be moving from one degree of glory to another. Reflecting on his own physical suffering and mental anguish for the Church, Paul writes:
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).
This is our Christian hope in the midst of bodily and mental decline: precisely that the inner self, the spirit, is being renewed day by day though the transient body and mind are fading away for the moment. At the resurrection there will be a new body and soul, imperishable and immortal, enlivened by the spirit transformed by God’s grace into the likeness of Christ.
Personal Note: Preparing for the Harvest
(This was written some time ago. The dear saint I mention is now with the Lord. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace and rise in glory.)
As a priest, I visit memory care facilities to provide pastoral care to parishioners experiencing the advancing symptoms of dementia. I recently took Holy Communion to such a dear saint. Before the Eucharist we simply visited for awhile talking about anything and nothing at all. Sometimes my sister was lucid, and sometimes she was not. During our talk she was in many different places and times. As much as I enjoyed our visit, I mourned that the part of her that I could know and relate to — body and soul — is declining. But I rejoiced that God is at work in her spirit, that she communes directly with her Creator and Redeemer, unhindered by failing body and mind, that her life still has eternal meaning and purpose even in the midst of outward decline.
When I prepared the hospital tray table as altar and began to celebrate Holy Eucharist, my dear sister became fully present in body, soul, and spirit. She boldly said the Lord’s Prayer. She held out her hands to receive the Body of Christ and eagerly drank from the small chalice containing his Blood of the new covenant. She made the sign of the cross. She could do these things because she had done them for years, for the whole of her long life.
I have seen this in other circumstances, when a group from our parish holds a service in a local residential care facility, for example. Residents in advanced stages of dementia and largely non-verbal nevertheless sing the old hymns with us and say the familiar Scriptures with us (e.g. John 3:16, Psalm 23) or at least recognize them and acknowledge them with a smile or a nod.
These saints are reaping in their old age what they sowed in their youth. They are harvesting in the midst of decline what they planted in their strength.
The Preacher, the son of David, instructs us (Eccles 12:1-8):
1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Eccles 12:1).
Some degree of diminishment of body and mind will come to us all, if we live long enough. How may we prepare for it, so that we receive it, too, as God’s grace? By spending a life remembering our Creator: engaging with such spiritual disciplines as worship, prayer, study and reflection upon Scripture will yield an abundant inner harvest even in the midst of outer decline.
8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 6:8).
This is Christian faith and practice. It is our hope in the midst of decline.