About a year and a half ago, Mere Orthodoxy published a piece by Hannah Peckham on the oft-quoted expression: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” It’s frequently attributed online (and in print) to C.S. Lewis, but he never actually said it. In fact, as Mere Orthodoxy makes clear, the expression comes much earlier than Lewis. Their post traces it back to an 1892 Quaker periodical, in which it is attributed (second-hand and unsourced) to George MacDonald. [UPDATE: Thanks to Jeremy Rios who in the comments identifies MacDonald’s Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood as the source of this reference.] The author at Mere Orthodoxy suggests this reference to MacDonald might be the reason Lewis has been associated with the phrase, given the latter’s open admiration for the former. But as the post also makes clear, Lewis himself never wrote anything even close to these words.
This 1892 reference is not, of course, the expression’s first occurrence; we find similar phrases throughout the late 19th century. But perhaps one of the most significant early instances of its useat least for understanding what the phrase originally meantcomes just over a decade earlier. In early October 1881, Rev. Dr. R. Thornton presented a paper at the Church of England’s Church Congress in New Castle, during which he said: “We should have taught more carefully than we have done, not that men are bodies and have souls, but that they are souls and have bodies.” His lecture was apparently printed in The Guardian shortly thereafter, from which it was reproduced in other publications over the next few weeks: in Light: A Journal Devoted to the Highest Interests of Humanity, both Here and Hereafter, in The Medium and Daybreak, and (partially) in Morning Light.1
While Thornton is not the first to use language of this sort,2 his paper nevertheless helps explain why Christians today should be wary of it: namely, because the terminology arises out of a Spiritualist, not Christian, framework. Thornton may have been addressing members of the Church of England, but his paper was actually a discussion of Spiritualisma faith which had a hold on the popular imagination at the time. In fact, the three publications which reproduced the lecture in the weeks following the Church Congress are all Spiritualist publications (Morning Light was a Swedenborgian periodical, while Light and The Medium were more generally Spiritualist).
In his paper, Thornton is concerned to demonstrate points of similarity between Spiritualism and Christianity. While he notes that much of Spiritualist doctrine runs counter to the Church’s teaching, Thornton nevertheless suggests “there is much of the Spiritualist teaching with which the Christian can most cordially agree.” In particular, Thornton argues, Christians should take seriously how Spiritualists address the body/soul question. “We [ie, Christian ministers] habitually remind those whom we teach that they have an immortal soul,” Thornton writes. “We too seldom convert the phrase, and tell them that they are really spirits, and have a body which contains an immortal part, to be prepared for immortality.”
Thornton is attempting to address one errora materialism in which the body is the person and the soul merely something possessed. Regrettably, he does so by creating anothera gnosticism in which the soul is the person and the body mere clothing. “Those who have learned with Socrates that the soul, or more properly speaking, spirit, is the essence of the man,” he writes, “could never suppose that the existence of the reality depended upon the existence of its instrument.” To be sure, Thornton rejects that “element in the highest Spiritualist teaching” which suggests the body is “a foul obstructive” to the spirit; he acknowledges that the body is useful as an “instrument for the acquisition of knowledge” and is indeed a “work of God.” But for Thornton, the body is merely an instrument for the soul’s work; it isn’t essential. It is “the truth,” he writes, “that to the spiritual only can the epithet ‘real’ be justly applied even here below.”
Thornton strays into error here. For Christians, the body is (and must be respected as) an integral part of what it means to be human. When God created Adam, after all, he formed him to be both a physical and spiritual being. He took physical elements (the dust) and spiritual elements (God’s own breath), and made one creature of them. And this dual-nature doesn’t cease when we leave this world, even if death may cause a temporary dissolution between body and soul. Ultimately, what has been divided will be reunited. That’s why we confess in the creeds that we believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Christianity isn’t just a spiritual thing; it isn’t just about accepting certain doctrines and rejecting others. That’s part of it, of course, but it’s not the whole picture. God knows that we are physical beings as much as we are spiritual, and so he comes us to in both ways. He gives us the Scriptures, real words which vibrate the air and fall on our ears. He gives us baptism, real water we can touch and feel pouring over our skin. He gives us the Lord’s Supper, real bread and wine which we eat and drink. And as we engage in these physical acts, God is moving spiritually as well: the words of Scripture call us to faith, baptism grants us the Holy Spirit, and communion offers the very real body and blood of Christ which bring the forgiveness they purchased for us at the cross.
For Christians, it should never become a question of either/or when it comes to the soul and the body; it’s both/and. Matthew Lee Anderson puts it well: “You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.”
1 The article in The Medium and Daybreak references the text as having coming “from the ‘Guardian’”.
2 The Mere Orthodoxy post previously mentioned finds a related expression in an 1876 book for children by Rev. Walsham How. How would later become the first Bishop of Wakefield. He is remembered today for his hymns, including “For all the saints.”