Gnostic Liberalism

First Things, December, 2016


The idea that human beings are non-bodily persons inhabiting non-personal bodies never quite goes away. Although the mainstreams of Christianity and Judaism long ago rejected it, what is sometimes described as “body-self dualism” is back with a vengeance, and its followers are legion. Whether in the courts, on campus, or at boardroom tables, it underwrites and shapes the expressive individualism and social liberalism that are ascendant.

Christianity’s rejection of body-self dualism answered the challenge to orthodoxy posed by what was known as “Gnosticism.” Gnosticism comprised a variety of ideologies, some ascetical, others quite the opposite. What they held in common was an understanding of the human being—an anthropology—that sharply divides the material or bodily, on the one hand, and the spiritual or mental or affective, on the other. For Gnostics, it was the immaterial, the mental, the affective that ultimately matters. Applied to the human person, this means that the material or bodily is inferior—if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the “person,” understood as the spirit or mind or psyche. The self is a spiritual or mental substance; the body, its merely material vehicle. You and I, as persons, are identified entirely with the spirit or mind or psyche, and not at all (or in only the most highly attenuated sense) with the body that we occupy (or are somehow “associated with”) and use.

Against such dualism, the anti-Gnostic position asserts a view of the human person as a dynamic unity: a personal body, a bodily self. This rival vision is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian teaching. This is not to suggest that Christian teaching rules out the view that the individual is numerically identical with his or her immaterial soul. Contemporary Christian thinkers are divided on whether the separated soul is numerically distinct from the human person, or is just the person in radically mutilated form. They agree, however, on the essential point, namely, that the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person (or “self”), but is an integral part of the personal reality of the human being. Christ is resurrected bodily.

Aristotle, who broke with his teacher Plato on the point, defends one form of this “hylomorphism,” as it has come to be called. Without denying the existence of the soul, it affirms that the human person is a material being (though not only material). We do not occupy or inhabit our bodies. The living body, far from being our vehicle or external instrument, is part of our personal reality. So while it cannot exist apart from the soul, it is not inferior. It shares in our personal dignity; it is the whole of which our soul is the substantial form. The idea of the soul as the substantial form of the body is orthodox Christianity’s alternative to the heretical conception of the soul as a “ghost in a machine.” One can separate living body from soul in analysis but not in fact; we are body-soul composites.

So we are animals—rational animals, to be sure, but not pure minds or intellects. Our personal identity across time consists in the endurance of the animal organisms we are. From this follows a crucial proposition: The human person comes to be when the human organism does, and survives—as a person—at least until the organism ceases to be.

Yet we are not brute animals. We are animals with a rational nature—organized from the start for conceptual thought, and for practical deliberation, judgment, and choice. These intellectual powers are not reducible to the purely material. Creatures possessing them are able, with maturity and under favoring circumstances, to grasp intelligible (not just sensible) features of options for action, and to respond to those reasons with choices not determined by antecedent events. It is not that we act arbitrarily or randomly, but that we choose based on judgments of value that incline us toward different options without compelling us. There is no contradiction, on the hylomorphic view, between our animality and our rationality.

First Things