My daily newspaper produces a supplement on Saturdays and Tuesdays which it calls 'Body and Soul'. The Body section last Tuesday contained articles on Living with Cancer and Eating in a Healthy Way. The Soul section was concerned with the Arts – the ten worst album covers ever, Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame creating an opera house out of an old garage in Botswana and a review by Libby Purves of an all male, very camp, production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’,
Is that what you would expect from the title ‘Body and Soul’? The items under Body seemed acceptable but under the title ‘Soul’ they were bizarre and limited. There was not a single mention of anything religious or spiritual – perhaps a reflection of the secular age in which we find ourselves.
Ella Fitzgerald sang a song called Body and Soul. The first verse goes “My heart is sad and lonely/ for you I sigh, for you dear only/ Why haven’t you seen it/ I’m all for you, body and soul.”
Body and soul then means all of me, the whole of me.
But if we insist on dividing ourselves up into parts and analysing ourselves ‘body’ can be defined as that part of me which exists in time and space and ‘soul’ as that part of me which exists in time but not space.
We don’t have any doubts about the existence of our bodies – they can be seen, touched, heard and smelt. Not so with our souls. The existence of the soul and the self has been one of the most important problems of philosophy and is obviously essential for any view of a future life.
And we use other terms for souls. We talk of mind and spirit. The mind of a person is the spirit, the personality of a person, the animating life-force that mysteriously leaves us at our death.
Now I mention all this because St Paul in today’s epistle divides us human beings into two and describes us having a lower nature and a higher nature. “Those who live on the level of our lower nature have their outlook formed by it and that spells death; but those who live on the level of the spirit have the spiritual outlook and that is life and peace”.
On the face of it and for many Christians in the past our lower nature refers to our bodily desires and appetites which are bad and our higher nature to anything spiritual which is good. Flesh and spirit.
Is this too simple?
Certainly the history of Christianity is crowded with figures who beat their bodies up in order to find spirituality. From Simeon Stylites in the 4th century in Syria spending 37 years living on a tiny platform on top of a pillar to solitary hermits who fasted, lived in caves and trees, to monks and nuns following austere regimes in order to become closer to God. It has been a strong tradition.
Yet it is difficult to see how this developed out of our Lord’s example. True, he spent forty days fasting in the desert and being tempted as he prepared for his life’s work – as we are recalling during this period of Lent – but there is no indication that he went to the extremes or advocated the extremes that his followers later developed. As far as we know, his life was simple and self-disciplined, but he was also sociable, friendly, enjoying meals and the company of others.
Some Christians would indeed say that God has given us our bodies and to denigrate our physical needs and appetites is blasphemous. Who are we to hate and despise that which is God-given? To deny them is to deny ourselves a full human life. A delicious meal, a good glass of wine and a comfortable chair are part of God’s created order and so is our enjoyment of them.
We can agree that men and women have evil, selfish tendencies and this may be what Paul meant by ‘lower nature’. These tendencies may be tied more to the body than the soul. So it is important that we develop our higher nature. Our higher nature, our spiritual nature is what opens us up to the grace of God. Our spirit joins with God’s Spirit so that we become truly children of God.
And then another thought – does this spiritual life include our love of music and art and our wonder at a glorious bank of primroses or a mackerel sky – is this where God is to be found as well as in prayer and worship? Surely, yes.
In St John’s Gospel Jesus says something really important to all this. He says, “I have come that men may have life and may have it in all its fullness”, or as the King James version has it: “I am come that men may have life and that they may have it more abundantly”
Perhaps we are each like a jigsaw puzzle made up of lots of parts – body, soul, heart, mind, spirit – but it is the whole of us that needs to engage with God, not a bit of us. Our Lord promised us a full life, eternal life which begins here and now, rather than one full of denial.
So the right response has to be that we throw ourselves into life and we should do so using three virtues described by St Paul – faith, hope and love.
We have faith in God as well as ourselves. We have hope and we are natural optimists that goodness will prevail over evil. And we have love. We can never have life in all its fullness if we are not loved and show love.
It is all of us, the body and soul, the whole of you, the whole of me that is engaged and then at the end of today’s service we can fully offer ourselves, our souls and bodies.