“I am of flesh”
– Paul, Romans 7:14
In these following paragraphs, I want to simply consider the nature of the human body in light of its relationship to the soul. In part 1 we considered the behavior of creatures lacking an eternal soul, finding at least in some degree a similarity toward many of our own behaviors and even feelings.
I am neither a scientist nor a doctor, as you will no doubt easily discern. But I am an observer and to some degree an interpreter of the data these worthy professions have unearthed, and I set observation of their data forth for our consideration.
When Paul says “I am of flesh,” what exactly does that mean? Flesh is obviously related to wicked behavior in the pages of the New Testament, but why use the term “flesh”? If we are flesh and non-flesh, or body and spirit, or material and immaterial, what is the connection between the material and the spiritual, or perhaps more appropriately, what are the boundaries of each of them, if we can even use such a term?
Or more to the point, when a person is converted and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, what exactly changes in that person? There is, so far as I can tell, no physical changes whatsoever as a direct result of conversion. There is a spiritual awakening, or quickening, and the Reformed tradition has always held on the authority of the Word of God that behavior at least begins to change upon conversion, but it is also held on the same authority that behavior is not perfected on this side of the grave. So I wonder, what it is about the death of this body that is so closely connected with the final escape of all sinful behavior?
Ponder with me these things in regards to the incredible nature of the human body:
Substances which modify behavior.
Under this heading we could include the influence of alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, or drugs such as anti-depressants. Interestingly, alcohol is sometimes referred to as “spirits,” because the effect it may have on a person seems to indicate that the one under the influence of alcohol is in fact under the influence of another spirit.
Yet alcohol is a strictly material substance, as we know. In fact, we can now understand to a large degree why alcohol has such a profound influence on behavior as it modifies various activities in the brain. If alcohol is a material substance, I propose that a person’s spirit remains unaffected by it. That is, a spirit cannot get drunk. Therefore, whatever behavior modification alcohol creates, it creates by means of strictly material means, apart from the input of the soul.
It has been proposed that alcohol simply releases a person to act out ones true, raw sinful nature – that is, a man who gets drunk and beats his wife is really a wife beater at heart, but is that a part of the soulishness of a person? To ask it another way, if a dog gets drunk and bites his owner, is the dog genuinely an owner-biter at heart? Dogs, we proposed, have no soul, hence any mood alterations by chemicals are strictly material things acting or reacting with other material things.
Or consider this: the Bible indicates that wine makes the heart glad. Was the heart already glad deep down, and just needed some wine to release the gladness, or is there something about the actual consumption of the wine that has a physical effect, making that person happier? Or, supposing a person gets high on methamphetamines and runs naked through his neighborhood. Is this person deep down in his soul a streaker, waiting for the inhibitions to be removed, or is there something in his material makeup that is so altered by the power of that drug that so long as it is present in his body he displays the vilest longings of his soul? Is the soul tainted by the drug?
Or consider the nature of antidepressants. Without defending or attacking the usage of them, the simple reality is this: they alter a person’s mood. They may ease anxiety or lighten depressed feelings. They have at least some ability to cause a person to have a brighter, cheerier countenance. There is no spiritual dimension to Prozac, in that you can boil it down to a concoction of chemicals and trace their effects on the physical body. And that tells me that there really is some material cause that creates a person’s mood or even their outlook on life. And why shouldn’t there be? If medical science has shown us anything in the past 100 years, it is that our bodies are incredibly complex. Why should not the complexity of our bodies rise to such a degree that there are material causes involved in our deepest feelings? That is to say, our bodies do not appear to be a relatively innocuous blob of tissue which houses the soul in which lies the true nature of a person, rather they are in fact inseparable from who we truly are.
Consider also the nature of addiction. It appears to me that Christians often see addiction as a failure of the soul to “just say no.” That is, all a person must do is make a spirtual decision unaffected by any material influence to avoid its usage or to stop it once it has started. But consider the phenomenon in our day known as “crack babies.” Here are human beings, with no ability to choose to take in those drugs, physically addicted to a substance, and having to go through the process of detoxification and withdrawal, which takes a long time and is incredibly painful. It seems a disconnect to recognize the material cause and effect in the body of a baby and not see the same cause and effect in the body of its mother. In other words, it is easy to condemn an addict as one who makes a decision to return to his addiction because his soul is so bent toward evil rather than facing a legitimate material longing to escape the pain and trauma of removing a substance his body has become accustomed to, and indeed dependent on.
Recently, several articles have been published by scientists who have discovered the addicting power of pornography. Here is one of them:
Viewing pornography actually changes the pathways of neurons in the human brain, and releases certain chemicals which leave the brain longing for more. In a sense, the one addicted to pornography is a lover of wickedness. But in a sense he is also one ensnared by the power of a complex system of electrical signals and chemical processes taking place in his own mind. This is not to excuse immorality, but it is to say that there is more going on than simply a Pelagian style completely free-will choice. There is a physical, material, non-spiritual inclination to pursue certain behavior that has moral dimensions to it.
The point of these considerations is simply this: If certain material substances are introduced into the human body, they may drastically alter a person’s behavior or create a dependence upon a substance which can only be broken through much grief. The material nature of those substances does not touch the immaterial soul however, as a spirit cannot consume and therefore be affected by material substances. Therefore, the behavior created is rooted in a person’s physical nature, which at least to some degree indicates that even “normal” behavior is rooted in one’s material nature.
Intelligence and reason:
The concept of intelligence and reason is also an interesting exercise in thought. I was taught in my college theology courses that one of the primary differences between man and animal is his ability to reason. However, just because a man’s ability to reason is far higher than that of any creature, does that mean that all reason resides in the soul, or is there some material cause for reason?
Consider the phenomenon of memory. When I was a boy I read once about a man who flipped through the Chicago phone book, went out to dinner, learned the name of his waitress, and told her what her phone number was. Photographic memories like this are rare, but they exist, and they are incredibly powerful. Some have a similar ability with their hearing; what a person hears he doesn’t forget. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s erodes the ability to remember things, eventually and ultimately even forgetting a person’s own family. My great-grandmother had dementia before she went on to glory, and I remember her one Sunday afternoon scolding the football players on the television for hitting each other.
Was her soul being eroded by dementia? Was her inability to discern between people on a screen hundreds of miles away from people standing in her living room the result of a diseased soul? I would propose that her soul was entirely free from any disease and in perfectly fine condition. Souls are unaffected by disease; they cannot die. If then her reason was taken away because of a physical malady, does that not indicate that reason itself or the ability to remember things and make some sense of them a function of the material self?
Consider the person with Down’s Syndrome. These dear people are rightly the object of our affection and compassion. Have they an eternal soul? Is their soul not the same as yours or mine? That is, though their bodies are clearly impacted because of a genetic deformity, are we to suspect that their souls are also deformed? Is their limited cognition because of a material cause or a spiritual one? And if material, might it not also be true that “normal” cognition is also a material function?
I remember attending church years ago with a family who had a daughter who could neither see, hear, nor speak. She was so deformed that she could only lie down, she could not sit up. She drooled constantly, and only her parents could ever discern any sort of emotion on her face. She died before she became a teenager. Was the condition of her body a reflection of the condition of her soul? Or was her soul as entirely “normal” as that of anyone else, and completely unaffected by the physical condition of this little lady? Could we even speak of a deformed, underdeveloped soul?
The gospel itself requires some level of cognition to understand. It is not magic words, the gospel is truth which must be understood, and at some level, interpreted by the human mind. It is simple enough that a child can understand it. But it is not so simple that an infant can understand it. Indeed, theologians far more intelligent than I have debated the eternal state of infants or the mentally incapacitated who die without the ability to cogently understand the gospel. Underneath this debate is an assumption: The soul of an infant or a mentally incapacitated person is eternal and capable of either eternal bliss or eternal punishment. The question remains what does God do with those souls connected to a material body which is physically incapable of processing the ideas and therefore embracing or rejecting the gospel?
I found these two things fascinating. The first is an article concerning the effects of genetic engineering. Now that we are able to modify the human body on a genetic level, we now have to wrestle with the side-effects of that ability. This article considers the connection between those of extraordinary gifts and abilities and being deficient in other areas:
The second is an example of that. Derek is a pianist of incredible talent. But he doesn’t remember how old he is or how long he’s been playing the piano, or understand how to hold up three fingers on command. It’s amazing:
And so we ask the question: what is the connection between extraordinary giftedness and physical causes? And it appears that there is at least some connection between the two. That is, whatever influence a person’s soul may have on their ability to think, create music, or remember things, at the least we have to admit that the material makeup of a person (his “flesh”) contributes these things to a huge degree.
One more thing to consider, and this is where it gets admittedly a bit dicey. Christians have long known the joy which accompanies worship, or the excitement which accompanies a sense of God’s presence. Indeed, one of the reasons some believe in God is because of the reality of these sensations. But I’ve often wondered, even before this particular article came out, what about those who, according to the doctrines of orthodoxy, are not converted, do not have the indwelling Spirit, and therefore their religious experience, whatever that is, is not genuine? In other words, what about people who say they’re experiencing a spiritual, non-material phenomenon, but if the Bible is correct, unless it is a “different spirit,” it certainly cannot be the Holy Spirit?
I ran across this article, and found it most fascinating, as it reveals the wonderful complexity God has programmed into the human mind, and helps me understand the concept of religious feelings. I think our charismatic friends who have a tendency to attribute all unexplained feelings to the non-material realm need to be aware of this as well. Take a look, and if you like you can trace from this article which is written on the popular level to the source article, which is far more detailed and more scientific:
Combining these scientists’ research into our material makeup with proper theology, it becomes perhaps more clear than ever the need to be ready to discount experience in favor of what we know to be true because it comes from the realm of the spiritual, and that is the Word of God.
In the next article, we will begin making some applications and considerations of these observations to Paul’s statement, “I am of flesh,” and what that means for our battle against the “body of sin.”
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