In The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis wrote that there are two errors that we can fall into regarding the spiritual realm—one is to deny it altogether; the other is to obsess over it. The former produces materialists; the latter, magicians.
Throughout her history the Church has combatted heresies of both sorts. Some materialistic heresies have denied the existence of the soul; various gnostic and Manichean heresies have denied the importance of the body.
In The Screwtape Letters Lewis’s fictional fiend dreamed of someday creating a “Materialist Magician”, a person that simultaneously held that the soul did not exist and yet was obsessed with “spiritual” things. I thought this nonsensical when I first read it, but now believe that in some ways we are approximating that paradox.
On the one hand, a significant amount of people deny the existence of the soul. This is evidenced not only in their declared opinions, but in the way their live their lives—the way in which many solely seek bodily goods like wealth, power, prestige, pleasure, etc. and put zero premium on goods of the soul like wisdom, virtue, goodness, honesty, etc. Materialism is lived out in reducing sexual intercourse to a “hookup”—a simple act of physical gratification. This degrades human sex, an act of incalculable importance and gravity in that it leads to the (pro)creation of creatures that bear the image of God, by lowering it to a mere animal act. But this degradation follows necessarily from their metaphysics—if people are only bodies then they can expect no higher good than bodily goods.
And yet, as nonsensical as it may seem, modern materialists that deny the existence of a transcendent soul simultaneously say the body does not matter. I’ll give two brief examples. The first is the transhumanist movement. If you are unfamiliar with this movement, their goal is to upload human consciousness into the digital world in order to create a form of immortality. (A less intense version of this is something like the Metaverse, a virtual “world” where people can “live” and do everything they do in the physical world.) A second example of materialists denying the importance of the body is the transgender movement. While denying the reality of an immaterial soul, transgender activists claim that biology does not ultimately matter, but rather identity is found in one’s internal experience. That is why “preferred gender” can trump “gender assigned at birth.”
The truth is that we are neither souls with bodies nor bodies with souls—we are both bodies and souls. Both are important. That is why Christ assumed both a human soul and a human body.
The reality of the Incarnation has significant implications:
First, it has far-reaching abstract implications. In light of the Incarnation things like transhumanism and transgenderism are reduced to non-sense. One cannot find digital immorality because a human being without a body is not human! Likewise, one cannot choose one’s own gender because the soul does exist and it is in unity with the body. (Note: I recognize that some individuals do not experience this unity; how to relate to them is something I don’t have time to address in this message.)
Second, this has implications for literally everything in our lives. We aren’t souls with bodies; we are bodies and souls. What we do with our bodies matters. How we sleep, how we work, how we rest, what we eat—everything matters. We can’t expect to neglect our bodies and have our souls flourish. Do you want to grow in patience? Go to bed earlier and examine what you eat. Do you want to grow in productivity at work or self-control in how you spend your money? Limit screen time.
This is very important for our children. Think of the movie The Karate Kid. Habits of the body (wax on!, wax off!) built discipline into the body of the protagonist that gave him the ability to face bullies. In the same way habits of rest and exercise can help us to better attend to God’s word; the habit of making beds and keeping a clean room can help our children to be prepared to deal with details in future jobs.
We have souls. And our bodies matter. Christ assumed both and died for both and we will have both for all eternity. Grasping this affects how we live our lives now.