No, You Are Not A Soul That (Who?) Has A Body

So I keep seeing this “quote” of C.S. Lewis popping up: “You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”  Or some similar variation.  Problem is, Lewis never said it or wrote it.  It was Walter Miller in A Canticle for Leibowitz (which sounds interesting, but I’ve never read it).  Here’s the link to the quote.

Besides the fact that it’s in the mouth of a character in a novel not written by Lewis, and then attributed to Lewis as if he were making a theological statement about human nature, it’s simply false (if not blasphemous).  It is the pithy form of a heresy called gnosticism, and it’s been around a long, long time.  Gnosticism (very generally) is the idea that there is a secret knowledge (Gk: gnosis) available to the enlightened, and that this knowledge essentially equals salvation.  One of the things from which you must be saved, gnostics taught (and teach) is this evil, physical, material world.  Some gnostics thought that the physical was evil and so you should have nothing to do with it (and so became ascetics).  Others taught that it was evil and so you could do whatever you wanted with your flesh, because it was the soul that mattered (and became libertines).

This theology is everywhere and it seems impossible to eradicate, even among otherwise well-meaning Christians.  How often does Jesus become a teacher who came to give us some knowledge that we wouldn’t otherwise know, and now that we know Jesus, we can do what He wants us to?  That’s not Christianity, it’s gnosticism.  Jesus didn’t come primarily to teach us something that we didn’t already know, He came to do something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves.  And when we disparage the body in order to elevate the soul, we have entered not a Christian conception of human beings, but a gnostic one.  The simple question to identify a creeping gnosticism is this: did God create this?  Gnostics believe(d) that physical stuff is the result of demons, or sin, or lesser gods.  Christians believe that physical stuff is good, and is redeemed by Christ from its corruption by sin.  Gnostics believe(d) that when you die you get rid of this evil physical body and are “freed” to be “who you really are”: a soul.  You will never find such a conception in the Scriptures, and certainly not from Jesus.  You’ll recall that when Jesus is raised from the dead, He has a body that can be touched and that can eat.  He is not a soul freed from His body, but both body and soul.  That is, Jesus is a man; actually, the Man.  And we will be like Him.

John wrote, “…what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (3:2).

Read Romans 8:18-25.  Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning and waiting; of us groaning inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies.  Or read 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul says we groan in the tent of this body, but not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:4).  Or 1 Corinthians 15:42ff.  We will bear the image of the man of heaven, Jesus.

To suggest that we are something other than body and soul together; or to suggest that our soul is the important part, and this body is just a vehicle or a vessel or something other than integral to what makes a man or a woman; this is nothing less than a hatred of what God created or, worse, a hatred of what Christ redeemed in His body.  You are not a soul or a body; you are a person, body and soul.  That’s how God created you, and since Christ redeemed you (body and soul) in His body, you will be body and soul in the new creation as well.

So can we pretty please stop attributing the quote to C.S. Lewis?  He was wrong about some things, but he was not a gnostic.


10 thoughts on “No, You Are Not A Soul That (Who?) Has A Body

  1. Your attack on Walter Miller’s “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” seems to me very similar to the gnostic appeal to “secret knowledge”. The declaration “You are a body and soul” hides the polyglot translations and historical definitions of “soul” in the tradition of the Church Fathers. The conceptual understanding of “soul” is a difficult term to subjectively rationalize without Faith. For example, as someone unfamiliar with Koine Greek, Latin, German, etc.–only Modern English–how can you teach me the deeper meanings of this “life, spirit, mind, heart…”?

    These are not semantic games, but bisects for deep reflection and self-knowledge through the Christian path. They require more time to accept, than it would take in a “Summer Greek” course, Catechism, etc. It requires a life time in the relationships among laymen, pastors, teachers, theologians–the Church–in order to accept and never fully understand.

    I have a question, Teacher. Where is the threshold or what is the veil between material and soul? The created and uncreated?
    In the same manner, the difference between “who you really are” is a semantic confusion.

    In historical terms, Gnosticism was a heresy only because it posited a different knowledge–but both of them involved “secret knowledge”. In confessional terms, Gnosticism is still a heresy. In doctrinal terms, perhaps, it’s still semantics.

    • I don’t think there’s anything secret about Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians or Romans, or John’s words in 1 John. This is not about nuance, it’s about whether God’s creation is good or not.


  2. God’s creation is good, but fallen from perfection. It’s hard to see the spiritual in the material when things break and fail and go wrong. But we do need to resist the temptation to reject matter.

  3. If the phrase “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” simply represents the gnostic view on “secret knowledge” and “creation is bad” then I wouldn’t have commented. I agree completely–it neglects the deeper meanings of our “mode of being” described in the Creeds and expressed as “body and soul” in the Scriptures.

    But, I think declaring “body and soul” masks the “secret knowledge” that we don’t really know what the soul is…or how the soul and body are connected…or, maybe, how sanctification is experienced in body and soul, etc. I feel like this “declarative” approach to the gnostics overgeneralizes, of course, their heretical beliefs, but also the depths of our Christian Tradition.

    Since the early church, our own struggle with conceptualizing “body and soul” as described personally by the confessors or “scholasticly” demonstrates the inherent antagonism in our finite understanding. The Platonic, Aristotelian or whatever contextualized their conversations and speculations on creation (i.e. body and soul) within an orthodox view of creation as “good”. Undeniably, the gnostic view went too far in their speculations. Nonetheless, they were grappling with the same binary antagonism and hierarchical structure of knowledge (i.e. secret knowledge) that constrained access to lay education and spurred “fundamentalist” mysticism.

    The gnostics were wrong for connecting “secret knowledge” to salvation. But, the question “who you really are” I believe is potently self-reflexive and requires guidance. The answer to this, perhaps “dangerous” question, requires the path to a lifetime in sacramental worship, confession, and catechism within the Church.

    These may be nuances, but in my experience it takes a lot of “secret knowledge” to assure those struggling with the deceptions of gnosticism and atheism. For example, I suppose that the mainstream “New Age” better referred to as gnosticism is not extraction from the body, but divinization of the body by playing “pagan” with “levels of consciousness”, quantum physics, Big-Bang gaps in knowledge–these pagan “fundies” view creation good with various levels of “reality”. And, unfortunately, Eastern Orthodoxy seems to fall within this trap often.

    But, maybe you’re just addressing the “facebook” type audience that typically reads this shit and redefine themselves by a misquote…
    So, maybe now we agree?

  4. Pingback: Day 28: The Listening Life of Prayer | Finding God in 365 Days

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