Grace, Spirit, and Embodiment
March 22, 2005

(This was originally something I'd written back in January of 2004. But since my blog was fairly primitive then, and because I didn't have each post on its own page, I'm reposting it)

Two interesting and somewhat related discussions have caught my interest. One was an interesting discussion about Merleau-Ponty and embodiment. That discussion quickly went down a tangent into a discussion of Mormon notions of embodiment. The same day that discussion was proceeding Jim Faulconer started a discussion at Times and Seasons about original sin. I suggested that the big difference between Protestants and Mormons wasn't so much on grace as the free gift of God but rather on what is involved in accepting that gift. Jim read a bit too much into my comments, thinking that I was speaking of Derrida's analysis of the gift. (Found in The Gift of Death among other places) I didn't intend that connection although it was interesting and probably relevant. The discussion quickly oriented towards the meaning of the fall - especially as distinguished in Mormonism and Protestantism. Since grace involves overcoming the fall, to understand grace one really ought to engage the issue of the fall.

The nature of the fall once again got us into the notion of embodiment. Specifically what kind of embodiment existed with Adam prior to the fall? What is the difference bewteen the embodiment of Adam in the garden and the embodiment in a fallen body? More specifically, in the context of both Paul and King Benjamin, what is the natural man?

At this stage the two discussions quickly became tied together in my mind. I recalled some recent comments I'd made concering the meaning of "self" when we speak of me choosing or acting. Clearly that entails a discussion of what it means to be embodied. I don't want to turn this into a full paper, so let me quickly tie these threads together.

What is interesting to me is whether Grace might be best viewed in terms of a notion of "embodiment" as a certain process of living. The debate between Mormons and Protestants is over how much we are part of receiving grace. In a sense, the debate is over the degree of passivity. To me the way it is typically discussed is intrinsically paradoxical. Indeed I'm not sure it can be discussed in terms of "works" without giving rise to paradoxes. This, to me, strongly suggests that we're not discussing the topic in the most fruitful way.

Now I don't know enough of Merleau-Ponty to speak to his sense of embodiment. But I have thought a lot about the Jewish notion of "nefesh." The Jewish notion of "nefesh" or soul is not a spirit in an ontological sense, as we find in Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz or other philosophers. It isn't a "thing" or kind of "substance." Rather it is a living soul with an emphasis on living. I think that this Jewish notion of nefesh parallels strongly the use of soul in the Book of Mormon. (Especially Alma 11). Allow me a few quotes from a discussion of Talmudic Judaism.

In the Bible a monistic view prevails. Man is not composed of two elements - body and soul, or flesh and spirit. In Genesis 2:7 it is stated 'and man became a living soul [nefesh], but the term nefesh is not to be understood in the sense of psyche, anima. The whole of man is a living soul. The creation of man constitutes a single act. The nefesh is in actuality the living man, and hence nefesh is also used in place of the word adam [man]. (Ephraim Urbach, The Sages, 214)

The concept of pre-existence as it appears in the teaching of the Amoraim in the third century and even in the form and formulation that it received at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century CE in the Slavonic Book of Enoch and in the Syriac Book of Baruch , remained fundamentally different from the Greek philosophical view; it does not stem from the conception of the basic antithesis between spirit and matter. The souls in Guf [body] are not actually lowered in status or change by their attachment tot eh body. In Rabbinic lore the concept of pre-existence is integrated with that of the all-embracing knowledge of God, which includes the whole of man, his body and his soul, in the sense of 'thine eyes did see mine unformed substance, and in Thy book they were all written' (Psalms 139:16) (ibid 241)

The point is that the full soul of man is his being in its entirety. The kind of dualism we tend to see in Hellenistic views isn't present in Hebrew thought per se. (Although obviously there is a Hellenistic influence in thinkers like Philo and that Hellenizing tendency becomes pronounced with time.)

The Mormon view of body and spirit is usually taken to be monistic. Spirit is simply matter. While we can talk about a separation between the material spirit and the material flesh, there also is a sense in which they are deeply integrated. The word often used in Judaism, nefresh, refers to our being in general and does not make a distinction between mater, form, mode or other types of distinction common in Hellenistic philosophy. Sometimes nefesh is, for instance translated as heart, as in Exodus 23:9 where we have, "for ye know the heart [nefesh] of a stranger."

The Jewish view of restoration tends to tie body with limitation (much as Mormons do)

. . .R. Ishamel uses the analogy of the lame man and the blind man in order to infer that the Holy One, blessed be He, 'restores the soul to the body and judges them together.' (ibid 241 // Alma 40)

Embodiment then is not best conceived of as a spirit substance entering into or controlling some material substance. That is not to say that we can't speak of spirit and body in such terms. However it seems that the more significant sense of embodiment is much more. It is our being in this world and not simply embodiment in the sense of having a body. More particularly it is the way in which our being in this particular world in this particular way orients us in our choices and the availability of choices.

To see this consider the following example. The way I encounter a computer knowing those things I do is quite different from how an aborigine would encounter it. (Assuming there are any true people left uncontaminated by modern civilization) It would follow that if our fall gives us this kind of innocent encountering - a new "horizon" or context - then it might seem reasonable to have that undone. I'd add that this isn't a logically necessary step. Reincarnation doesn't take it, for instance. But I think Mormonism does take this step, since our restoration is a restoration both of this earth's mortal living as well as our premortal experience.

It would seem, however, that we can never truly be brought back to our former state (the effects of the fall fully removed). After all the point of this life is to have some effect on us. Therefore our "after the restoration" can't be the same as a our "before the fall." Otherwise what would be the point? By the same token, I think we ought to be careful about seeing the atonement as simply undoing our choices. Our choices have an effect. The fact we remember them in any sense implies that they are never fully removed. At best we can say that the meaning is reformed or perhaps more accurately transformed. That is a subtle yet important difference.

I don't think that a "self" can be thought of separate from its embodiment. While the BoM speaks of our spirit, I don't think it ever considers the body as something fundamentally separate. I don't think we see anything akin to a Cartesian view of spirit or mind, for instance. We lose the body for sure. But it isn't a duality of thinking stuff and material stuff or form opposed to subtance. Rather it is the loss of a part of "me."

I think that the Heidegger view really does offer a lot more explanatory power than the Cartesian-like views. For instance the difference between the divine encounter of the world and the mortal encounter of the world is one of how things are "ready at hand." I'll avoid the "Heidegger speak" since not everyone reading may be familiar with his terminology.

Think about when you use a mouse with a keyboard. Normally you don't think about it. You think about what you are doing with the computer. The mouse is "invisible." Yet if the ball gets dirty or you reach the edge of the mouse pad the mouse becomes "present" to you. Suddenly you have to experience not only the task at hand but the mouse as an object that is no longer part of your working.

Now what I'd suggest is that for God everything in the world is like that "invisible" use of the mouse. The distinction between the mouse and "me" is effaced. Likewise the distinction between God and the world is effaced as God acts. Mortality introduces so many limitations that we always are encountering things as things independent of our use. I think that this way of encountering is important, but it also limits us. One of the big limits is in the fallen condition of our body. We work by the sweat of our brow. We get sick. We get old. We notice our body as almost something separate from us. The restoration is the restoration of our body, but our body as us. (I think D&C 93 makes this point) Further we become in and through all things when they become in a sense a part of us.

I think this resolves a lot of the problems of how God can be in and through all things. Further I think it explains a lot of what the BoM calls the "condescension of God." In Jewish tradition this is God withholding his light to make a clearing - this is then tied to how they deal with free will. This withholding of God's light is what enables freedom. While the parallels to Mormon thought aren't exact, they are rather interesting.

Contrast this to the more Cartesian view of either God or man. The "self" is essentially separate from the world. I'm not sure that view can easily be lined up with the various Jewish elements in the Book of Mormon. (Although I may be wrong)

I should add the caveat that I think a Cartesian-like view is common in Mormonism. I once held it myself. In it we take Roberts tripartite view of God. We make Intelligence roughly a Cartesian ego. Then the spirit is a kind of body. The more Heideggarian view simply sees the mortal view as "more parts" which are initially invisible to me but which I become more and more aware of as I move through this mortal sojourn. The point of mortality is to see the nature of embodiment. To encounter ourselves not as an invisible self, but to be forced to encounter ourselves in such a limiting way that we see ourselves as we couldn't before. The spirit, in this view, is encountered purely in an invisible way. It is like the mouse during normal use. This explains why the fall is so important. The Cartesian view, to me, makes the lessons of mortality more problematic.


Posted By: Michael Dorfman | March 22, 2005 10:55 AM

Great essay, Clark. Thanks for posting it again, for those of us who missed it the first time.

I agree with you completely on the difference between the Cartesian and the more phenomenologically influenced view of mind/body, and why the latter has superior explanatory power.

I also agree with you (I think) regarding the difference between the Old Testament view of the "soul" and the Hellenic. Or rather, I agree that the OT view is not reducible to the various Greek oppositions (matter/form, substance/idea, soul/body, etc.) I don't, however, pretend to really understand what the tripartite division of the OT "soul" (nefesh/ruach/neshema) is really getting at-- the traditional Rabbinical explanation (that neshema is the breath of God leaving his lips, the ruach is the wind in transit, and the nefesh is the breath at rest) seems to me to be pseudo-etymological backtracking. Nefesh shares the same root as the word used to describe God's rest on the Sabbath, but I don't think it is necessarily wise to draw theological implications from what merely be a pun.

That being said: what confuses me is the relationship between the points above (Heidegger vs Descartes, and Nefesh vs Anima) and the connected notions of Grace/Original Sin. It seems to me that the doctrine of Original Sin posits OS as a necessary property of a soul (regardless of whether said soul is conceived of as embodied or not) and the Grace is a contingent property of the same. What am I missing here?

Posted By: Clark | March 22, 2005 12:55 PM

WIth regards to Talmudic thoughts on their tripartite division (or the later five fold division in the late medieval era) I'm not sure it really has a stable meaning. Which, when you consider the number of thinkers using the term, is to be expected. One thing I like about the Jewish tradition is that they don't really have theology as such. Oh sure there are things that come close, especially in the philosophical tradition. But fundamentally I don't think that is what they are getting at.

I do think that daesin and related notions do parallel in interesting ways Jewish thought.

Regarding Original Sin, Mormons don't really believe in it. At least not in any fashion akin to how Catholics and Protestants believe in it. Probably the closest Mormons come is in the view that we chose to fall and come to mortal bodies. Mortal bodies inherently are flawed and desire bad things. It's just inherent in our brains. But that's a rather materialistic streak to the view that doesn't have a whole lot in common with Original Sin. Further there is a trend of strong free will in Mormon thought that sometimes says all of us could always choose the right, but we simply don't. Only Jesus did. (And even that is often given a materialistic basis - although frequently in a more more controversial way)

The point with nefesh is that we take on the life like God, which is a very Mormon way of thinking about it. Especially how we view the image of God. Through grace we come to accept the way of living that is God's way of living. That in turn can be seen as involving all sorts of ready-at-hand sort of relationships with the world around us that are predicated on embodiment.

Regarding Original Sin and the soul. I'll admit I'm not up on the details of that - but I believe that Adam and Eve were considered to be without it in the garden and that it entered in afterwards. It was, I thought, conceived of in terms of a contamination of our desires with desires being conceived of as "other-worldly" in a Thomist or Cartesian fashion of soul. (Correct me if I'm wrong) Thus it really isn't related to our way of living. That's way it has to be purely passive.

For the Mormon, by conceiving of such matters in terms of life and living, it only makes sense to talk about a change in living. Thus what seems so difficult and confusing for the Protestant looking in at Mormonism. It appears to them that we are "working" our way to heaven. Whereas to a Mormon we are making use of grace. (Which isn't to deny a certain Pelegian aspect to Mormon theology)

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