Article 7: My Body, My Self
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Roman Catholic priest
takes some ashes that he has just blessed and puts some on the forehead
of each of the participants
with the words "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" or with
the more traditional words
"Remember that you are dust and to dust you will
It is on these latter words
that I want to concentrate here.
These words certainly remind us that we will die. For some of us, this is a rather
bleak reminder as we do not want to die. But this text says much more. It tells us that
we definitely are dust and that we certainly will return to dust.
Certainly it is fair to say that
our body is made of elements found in the earth, found in its dust; certainly it is
fair to say that our body will desintegrate in the earth and will return to it the
dust that made it. But the text goes further. It states that we are our body
and nothing else. Our very Self is to be found in and only in
this material organism that is our body. From this we can immediately infer
that our Self vanishes with our last breath. That we become, as the saying says,
I think it is fair to say that
this last statement is certainly not put forward by the Magisterium these days.
So I better look further to see if I can justify it by more than this excerpt from a
The text referred to in the Ceremony of the Ashes is the following, from
the Book of Genesis:
"And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul."2
It should be fairly clear by this text that man is a living body, a body
that has breath, a body that breathes, "a living soul".
When we die, we breathe our last breath. A body which does not breathe is a corpse.
A baby just delivered is a still-born if she does not start breathing. And we calculate
the age of a person from the moment she started breathing (her birth) to the moment she
stopped breathing (her death). In fact, legally, the person is considered such only from
her birth to her death because it is only
within this time-frame that she breathes, and thus that she is alive.
In the Septuagint and in the New Testament,
the Greek term "psychè" is translated sometimes by "soul", sometimes by "spirit" but its
first and foremost
meaning is "breath".
That my thesis is correct is made clear again in the Book of Ezechiel where we find
 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD,
and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold,
there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
 And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?
And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.
 Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones,
and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
 Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold,
I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you,
and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live;
and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
 So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied,
there was a noise, and behold a shaking,
and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
 And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them,
and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
 Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy,
son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD;
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
 So I prophesied as he commanded me,
and the breath came into them, and they lived,
and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
In this classic text, we have what could be called a two step revival;
the first step is a
"FAST REWIND": the dead bodies,
just dry bones by now, go quickly back in time to when they were freshly dead, when they
still had sinews, flesh and skin on their bones. These bodies might be looking very much
like live bodies, but they are still perfectly dead.
The second step has these bodies recapturing their breath, receiving
back the breath
of life. Then they rise to their feet, being truly living bodies once again. And it is
made abondantly clear in the text that this "breath" is just moving air, that it is just
wind. There is nothing immaterial in this term. It does certainly not refer to some
immaterial "soul" but to something that we can feel although we cannot see.
In this vision, we have what can be called a case of resurrection, of the dead rising
again, just like Lazarus who, in his case, having died four days before
and been buried, was raised, got
his body intact again and his breath of life back
Since the Jews believed that a living human was just her living body,
an afterlife was impossible without the re-living human becoming a re-living body. And
if this afterlife was to be eternal rather than transient like in the cases
just mentioned, this new body had to be
made in such a fashion that it would not be itself transient. That this was also the
opinion of Paul is clear, as I will now show.
Paul puts his main thesis about what the resurrection of the dead entails
in the following way in this succinct passage:
the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
 For this corruptible must put on incorruption,
and this mortal must put on immortality.
 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,
and this mortal shall have put on immortality,
then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
Death is swallowed up in victory.5
It is quite clear from this text that an individual's corruptible body,
weither it has been corrupted (as a dead body) or not
(as Paul takes into account the possibility
that not everyone will die before such an event),
will be transformed, recreated into an incorruptible
body so that what was initially a mortal body becomes an immortal one,
that what was initially a mortal individual, becomes
an immortal one. This is also
what is referred to in the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in ...
the resurrection of the body, and the life
So it would seem obvious from that text from Paul
that we are our body and that we die when our living body dies, disappear with death
to be recreated by God as an immortal body when we
are raised from the dead.
As I said earlier, this is not what I understand
the Magisterium to teach these days. What at least I understand it to teach is found
nowhere in the New Testament,
indeed nowhere in the Bible. What I understand it to teach is that
an immortal soul lives with or within a mortal human body, that it
survives the body's death to be later united to a different
kind of body after the resurrection from the dead.
Assuming that my interpretation of the Magisterium's position
is correct, the question arises of why
such an idea was proposed in the first place and what it was supposed to explain
that Paul's idea did not.
I am not a specialist in theology, its history, philosophy or its history, so
my answer will certainly be incomplete. It seems to me that the concept of
"soul" started to be enlarged in theology
through the use of Greek Philosophy by the Fathers
From just what kept a body
alive (without breathing, we die, as the process of suffocation clearly shows), it
became what permits the human body to think, talk, make tools, grow and move about.
Slowly but surely it became where the "Self" was to be found as it could not be placed
in any particular organ or bone or muscle of the body.
With the advent of
René Descartes, of unhappy memory, the body became a kind of robot that the "soul"
controlled while it was alive and which the "soul" jettisoned at death. The last breath
was the soul saying good-bye to the body. And as that "soul" was definitely
immaterial by opposition to the body which was definitely material, there was no reason
for it not to be immortal. The body died, that was a fact. But did the "soul" die? How
could we tell? Of course the breath dies with the body, but the breath is material
contrary to this "soul".
Now why should there be any opposition to this idea? Although it might not be
biblical, it at least seems to make sense.
How? Well, how else can we explain all the knowledge
we have acquired through the years, our memories, our ways of doing things? How can we
explain the virtuosity and "soul" of the violinist
if not because she has developped an artistry
of such quality and such a talent
that these cannot be stored in her body? Our knowledge is contained in
libraries. How can we retain it within the confines of
our bodies? Is it not much too small for such a task?
For Descartes the answer was obvious. For scientists today, it is much less. We
are now producing very small information stocking devices; our computers are getting
smaller and more sophisticated through the production of programs that are more and more
flexible and complex. It is becoming possible to believe that our brains can stock all
the information we have accumulated, and the study of our brains in action is starting
to show how this is done.
Descartes' philosophy was based on the idea that man was an immaterial "soul" somehow
linked to a material body.
This is called dualism, as reality is posited to be at the same time
material and immaterial. Now this philosophy has taken a beating in the last half
century, and it seems to be definitely on the way out. So the idea of the immortal
"soul" linked to a mortal body, based on Descartes' dualism, could be considered soon
to be as obsolete as the philosophy that underpins it.
We know for a
fact that it is impossible for the Church to control knowledge. If she hangs on
to concepts which have been shown to be false, she will lose even more
credibility that she has lost already, just like when she refused to acknowledge
that the Creation depicted in the Book of Genesis was not
It is certainly not
good to see the Church always being dragged kicking and screaming into
an already old "Present". It would be much better if lively debates were
encouraged to acertain if a proposed change is more faithful
than the present understanding both to the truth
that we have received
and to the facts that have just been discovered.
There is another reason why this theory should be discarded, one that is much more
fundamental to Catholicism. And that is that it seems to make
the resurrection of the body an optional extra.
Indeed, if we already are an immortal "soul" connected to a mortal body, why would we need
a new body at all? Why should God raise it? Of course our body has taken part in
our good deeds and bad ones, but it is not us after all: we are our "soul". Furthermore,
this new body that the "soul" will be attached to is not even made of the same stuff as
the old one, so why bother at all?
To me, it seems that the very idea of an immortal "soul" linked to a mortal body
goes against the need to have a resurrection at all. It seems to me that it
basically puts in question an important tenet of our faith,
the resurrection of the dead. To me it assumes
that we are someone else that the Bible says we are. And that I find
So I will go back to Paul and his ideas on the body and its resurrection. I
hope to show that indeed he held that we are our bodies and so that they have to rise
from the dead for us to be alive again.
Paul speaks in detail about what is meant by the resurrection from the dead in a
passage that comes just before the one already quoted:
 But some man will say, How are the dead raised up?
and with what body do they come?...
 So also is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory:
it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul;
the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural;
and afterward that which is spiritual.
 The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.
 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy:
and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.
 And as we have borne the image of the earthy,
we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God;
neither doth corruption inherit
It is quite clear that he sees a very qualitative difference between the human body
before and the human body after the resurrection. He states that our present bodies,
our present Selves, are like
Adam's, while our new ones will be like Our Risen Lord's.
Paul sees our human body undergoing a process that goes
from corruption to incorruption; from dishonor to glory; from weakness to power;
from "natural body" to "spiritual body", the first being like
Adam's, the second being like our Risen Lord's, Whom, as he points out,
is "from heaven" rather than from the earth.
We see that he goes back to the Genesis text I already mentionned. Adam's body is
such that when he died, his Self vanished. He was no more. When raised, he is a
very different body, like Jesus' risen body, while being still himself.
Just like when Jesus died, He also was no more a man; it is when He rose that
He became a man again, Himself as man again.
One of the points Paul makes is that the risen body is indeed made
of absolutely different stuff than the old one. And this to him is essential as bodies
like ours cannot inherit the kingdom of God, cannot enter Heaven: they just
are not made of
the right stuff to do so.
This implies that we do not have to think in terms of atoms, molecules, etc, as found
in this Universe. These in a way do not constitute our individuality, our Self. What
constitutes our Self is more something like their pattern. And patterns can be
transposed, recreated, just like "memories" can be transposed, recreated.
Let us look at an example from this earth. On the 29th of July, 1951, at the reopening
of the Bayreuth Festpielhaus, Whilhelm Furtwängler conducted the choir and orchestra
of the Festpielhaus in an absolutely stunning rendition of Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 in
D minor, a rendition that has been considered by many (me included) as the best ever.
For those present, this performance was forever in their memory. For me, it became
available as a set of two Long Playing records. In the grooves of
these two records were engraved patterns that permitted the stylus, linked to an amplifier
and to loud speakers, to recreate at least a rather good version of that fabulous
performance. And through that "memory" I was able to listen to
that performance over and over again.
That performance had
not been "memorized" that way originally as the original recording was made on tape.
So we have three ways the "memory" of this event was recorded by 1955: in the brains of
those who listened to the actual performance as well as in the brains of those who have
listened to it on Long Playing records as they remind themselves of it; on a tape when
it is played by an adequate tape player; on LPs as long as they are played on an
adequate LP player.
Nowadays this same performance is available as a serie of zeros and ones found either
on a Compact Disc or in the memory of a computer, in so far as one has the proper
equipment to transform that information into the music. So there is again a new format
by which that memory can be kept.
Just as there are many formats by which our memories can be kept, there are many formats
by which our ways of doing, our ways of thinking can be kept, and so many types of
bodies by which we can be ourselves.
But one could one object, how can the information be kept if the dead are perfectly dead
and if their resurrection takes place only eons later? This can be answered
by a simple
analogy. Google constantly memorizes what is found in all the world's
websites. So the website can die, disappear, but the information it contained is still
found on Google's computers. God is like Google: He records all we do,
think, memorize, etc. We can die, but He keeps our records forever, and thus has all
He needs to recreate us when He so wishes.
All this being said, there is one
thing for sure: nowhere in Paul's text do we find a mention of a "soul" surviving
a body. His whole thesis is that for us to be alive after death, we have to undergo
the resurrection he describes,
just like the man Jesus could not be alive after death without rising from the dead
on Easter day.
Annunciation, March 25th, 2009
1 From the Proper of Ash Wednesday's Mass
as translated in the Sunday Missal
approved for use in Canada (Novalis)
2 Genesis 2:7; all Biblical quotes are from the King James
3 Ezechiel 37:1-10
4 John 11:1-44
5 1 Corinthians15:52b-54
6 From the Apostles' Creed as translated in the Sunday Missal
approved for use in Canada (Novalis)
7 A view she has since repudiated, but only after many were
excommunicated for holding what she now accepts
8 1 Corinthians15:35; 42-50
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