Wake, Now My Senses: The Embodiment of Spirituality
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
I went to two funerals last month. Both of the people that died were folks that I had known pretty well. But the ministers conducting the services must have picked up the wrong files because they weren’t sharing anything that I recognized about my friend and my aunt. I did hear a lot, though, about the salvation of their souls while we looked at the boxes holding their bodies. These two Baptist minister basically shared the same theology that has been passed down through the Christian church as well as some other religions. And that is that the body and soul are two separate entities.
This concept became more widespread with Christianity but it wasn’t created by Christianity. Although we may find hints of it in even older texts, the idea – known as dualism, got a powerful endorsement from the Greek philosopher Plato. Most of the folks before Plato’s time did not separate the spiritual from the physical. Indeed spirits or souls were thought to not only dwell in living things, but also in inanimate aspects of the world.
But Plato saw the soul as separate from both the body and the mind. For Plato, the soul is the directing force. Plato compares this with a charioteer – the soul tries to guide the mind and body together like two horses rather than allowing them to contradict and be pulled in opposite directions.
According to Plato, most people never achieve this direction from their souls and allow their lives to be dominated by physical needs and sense pleasures.
St. Paul of Taursus was an educated man and was heavily influenced by these ideas and struggled with his attempts to deny the body. Listen to this passage from Romans 7. Paul writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do – not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Some say that Paul’s view of the soul was dependent upon his audience. The letter to the Hebrews has a view of the soul more in line with the Jewish view. But then most scholars think that Paul didn’t write that letter anyway.
In any case, — what did the Jews of the time believe about body and soul?
The Jews were actually divided on the idea of an afterlife – with the Pharisees believing in the resurrection of the dead and the Sadduccees rejecting it. But those who did believe in life after death, envisioned a resurrection of the physical body – not a separate soul. And Christian texts also proclaim that the graves will be open and the bodies will rise.
I had a great aunt that did not want a slab over her grave because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to break through the concrete on resurrection day.
Christians today see the differing texts as a paradox because they accept Paul’s and Augustine’s defense of dualism, yet have to deal with these texts that connect the soul with the body. For example, listen to this description of the aftermath of the crucifixion from Matthew 27.
And, behold, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Plus there is the conflicting text regarding when the soul is raised to heaven. Most new testament writing seems to support “end of the world as we know it” time – while ministers seeking to assure family members that their loved ones are in heaven awaiting their arrival point to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – “Today thou will be with me in Paradise.”
The idea of a resurrection of the physical body lost more ground as folks began to have a better understanding of the scientific implications of the physical death. So the idea of a separate soul became even more prevalent.
Additionally, many viewed the body as a temple or house for the holy spirit and had biblical support from Paul for that view as well.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?”
This concept as body as temple or house is also used by other world religions.
For example, Hindu scriptures teach that an individual is essentially the spirit clothed in a physical body.
It was very difficult for me to get a clear view on many religions related to this – for like Christianity, there were varying interpretations and ideas. In any case – at least for a couple of millennia, the dualistic concept separating the body and soul has prevailed – at least in the so-called “civilized” world.
What I’m reading from many, though, is a turning to a more holistic view of body and soul. Indeed spirituality is becoming more embodied.
Even the Catholic Church renounced many of the beliefs of earlier theologians on this subject.
Pope John Paul II specifically rejected dualistic thought in his teachings during the 1970s. In fact, he termed dualistic anthropology as supporting a “culture of death.” His theology of the body supported the view that the body and soul were unified. Of course he went on to use this theology to support his views regarding such things as abortion, capital punishment, sexual abstinence, euthanasia, and many more topics. And, indeed, recognizing the body as inherently a person did provide more support to the traditional practices of Catholicism.
Well – enough of theological views. What do scientists and philosophers have to say about all of this?
Historically – these folks were also rather dualistic – but usually talked of mind and matter.
Michael McGee writes:
Science began seeing the body as a machine when the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes (day cart) declared, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes viewed nature as being divided into two separate and independent realms, that of the mind mind that of matter. This “Cartesian” division allowed theologians and scientists to perceive the material world as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine.
If Descartes would have said, “I breathe, therefore I am,” or “I make love, therefore I am” or “I chew gum, therefore I am,” we would have a much saner view of our bodies and the world. Instead, Western humanity equates our identity with the mind instead of with our whole organism, giving us the illusion that we are isolated egos existing “inside” our bodies.
This inner fragmentation causes people to feel separate from each other, our environment, and even ourselves, making it far too easy to rationalize the exploitation of whoever or whatever may get in our way.
Now today’s scientists are leaning a lot more toward many refer to as the identity theory of the mind. The identity theory of mind holds that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. Now the words mind and brain are not used interchangeably – but they are bound together. I became a witness to this as I slowly lost my dad over the last few years. He had Alzheimer’s disease and as his brain cells quit working properly – my dad – the person that I had known as J.G. Altman – went away. Before he breathed his last breath, he was basically all gone. It was sort of like an hour glass running out. And in the end – when only a little of the sand was left – when only a little of his brain was functioning – the parts that contained the personality – were gone. Now I still loved him and I still sat beside him and held his hand – but it was sort of like looking at your pictures or your videos of vacations – you’re experiencing a likeness that reminds you of your vacation – but you’re not inParis anymore – but maybe – Paris is in you.
I’m trying to take some of these ideas and see them through a more spiritual lens. Our own Dee Liston has made contributions to this in her research. Dee has been making attempts for many years in her research to help folks “get over” Cartesian ways of thinking about the mind and brain – or the mind/brain as she has called it. She suggests that we use the metaphors provided by Quantum physics to help us move away from this prison of duality and linear thought. I know very little about Quantum physics. But I’ve read enough of Dee’s work to kind of “catch” her drift about this. However, I don’t have enough of the understanding to share that with you today and suggested to her that we might just need to have her do a program about this some time. In the meantime, she suggested that Rumi’s poetry may open a door for many of us into the spirituality that supports this non-dualistic way of perceiving ourselves and the world. So here’s one about opening a door.
One went to the door of the Beloved and
knocked. A voice asked, ‘Who is there?’
He answered, ‘It is I.’
The voice said, ‘There is no room for Me and Thee.’
The door was shut.
After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned and knocked.
A voice from within asked, ‘Who is there?’
The man said, ‘It is Thee.’
The door was opened for him.
So my readings of philosophy, theology, and science as well as my experiences with my dad and others have supported my own desire to reject or ignore dualistic thought and embrace a more holistic view of spirituality.
Well – that’s my ministerial explanation.
The Real truth is this: My supreme spiritual experiences are ones in which I truly open my total body to awareness – awareness of whatever. When I listen intently to the singing of the fellowship singers during our offertory, when I move in the ocean water and feel the waves around me and smell the salt air, when I embrace those that I love and those that I need to love, when I quench my thirst with cool water or a glorious wine, when I dance to the beat of womenspirit drumming, when I feel my eyes well up with tears at the end of an old movie, and when I open my senses to awaken to pain I may be having and pay attention to it and when I open my senses to all the joy of life itself – Oh God!
Unitarian poet Walt Whitman also had a real appreciation for the body. I invite you to listen to this excerpt from his poem “I Sing the Body Electric.”
O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you;
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul;)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems—and that they are poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems; Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Whitman’s poem continues with poetic identification of every nook and cranny inside and out of the body – both the male and female body. And as the reader explores the wonderful body with the poet, you know it.
He ends with these lines –
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul!
How we envision the body is vital. The writer, Eduardo Galeano gives us these choices:
“The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.”
A fiesta is a celebration! And many world religions are now celebrating the body as holy and sacred.
As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat point out in their book, Spiritual Literacy, “Jews regard the body and soul as being inextricably linked, and Christians emphasize the incarnation of the sacred in human flesh. Hindus celebrate the body as a vessel for salvation, while both Buddhists and Taoists practice healing arts which attend to the breath and energy lines in the body. Native Americans and some primal religions consider the body’s movement in dance to be a form of prayer.”
And so let us as Unitarian Universalists find joy and comfort in our bodies and celebrate the spirit embodied within us. Sometimes when we’ve been taught to hate our own bodies or think of them as only vehicles for our true selves, it’s hard to open up to the full awareness of our body and soul enjoined together. For some, it might be a little awkward or scary to try things like healing touch. But I encourage you to be patient with yourselves while encouraging yourself to be open to fully experiences life with the bodies that are so much a part of our souls. And your soul will unfurl its wings. I know this rose will open.
Our fellowship singers will share a song of encouragement with us as we pass our offering baskets this morning. We invite you to give your gifts in support of our shared ministry here at the UnitarianUniversalist Fellowship of Statesboro. And may your soul be blessed.