Spiritual Flourishing and Embodied Life

What does it mean for a person to flourish spiritually?1 Would it be different from other forms of flourishing—physical, social, economic, or emotional? Answers to these questions seem, at first, to be rather straightforward. We each have some notion of what it means to flourish spiritually—to be in a state of spiritual blessing. Many believe that spiritual flourishing is (or at least should be) relatively independent of physical health, the quality of relationships, economic distress, and the presence of happiness or depression.

However, when thought about more deeply and beyond the boundaries of our habitual categories, the answers to these questions begin to push on our presuppositions about the nature of persons, as well as what constitutes “spirituality.” Consideration of human spiritual flourishing presumes some view of human nature. When we begin with different ideas about the nature of persons, we end up at different places with respect to spiritual flourishing.

From the time of the Greek philosophers, throughout two millennia of Christian theology, and up to present discussions of the relationship between religion and human neuroscience, two major views have vied for predominance: body-soul (or body-mind) dualism and monism. These are not the only possibilities, and, in themselves, represent major categories of views, each encompassing a variety of versions and nuances. But for the sake of this discussion of flourishing, we will highlight the major tenets of these two primary categories and explore their implications for Christian life and flourishing.

The questions we wish to tackle in this short article are, What differences in the understanding of spiritual flourishing would result from these two different views of human nature? and What difference might these views make for the life of Christians and Christian communities?

Body-Soul Dualism

In current evangelical Christian culture, body-soul dualism is presumed by most. It is the default position. This view holds that human beings are composed of two basic parts, one material, the body, and the other non-material, the soul. The soul connects us to the spiritual world and is the source of spiritual life. In some variants, the “self” (or mind) is substituted for soul, signaling the critical role of an inner part in constituting personal identity. Since the soul is located inside each individual person, it is out of sight and separated from other individuals. The life of the soul is only partially reflected in behavior and understood to remain largely disconnected from the health of the body and the quality of relationships with others.

Within the worldview of dualism, spiritual flourishing is a matter of the state of one’s soul. While in some circumstances the results of flourishing may be indirectly evident to others, the important question is about something going on inside, hidden from view. Spiritual flourishing is an inward journey deep into the center of the soul or self where one can independently and privately relate to the Spirit of God. Thus, spiritual flourishing is inner, individual, private, disembodied, mystical, and essentially disconnected from community.

The appropriate evidence of this sort of spiritual flourishing is a subjective (emotional) state. To flourish spiritually seems to require one to close one’s eyes, shut one’s self off from others, and sing with conviction, “It is well with my soul.” While spiritual flourishing might be helped or hindered somewhat by one’s social context (such as a worship service), this is neither necessary nor sufficient because spirituality resides in a different realm—the realm of the soul. Because the center of attention for this type of flourishing is inward and individual, it is easy for it to become disconnected from the physical. The measure of spiritual flourishing is not related to a person’s physical, social, or economic context. In the words of the old spiritual, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” Within this view of human nature, it is coherent to say, as many do these days, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”

Even within dualism, traditional Christianity has held the important notion of the “fruits of the Spirit.” These are behavioral and relational markers, or secondary manifestations, of a more primary state within the person. These fruits are not the spiritual thing itself, but what might (should) emerge from it in one’s behavior. And even these fruits may come to be understood as somewhat Platonic abstractions, only partially realized in the events of one’s behavior.

Monism, Holism, Physicalism

But what if we are simply bodies that dwell in a physical world created and inhabited by the Spirit of God? What if there is not a distinct hidden inner part that is the “real me”? What if I am my body, I am what I do, I am my history, and I am my human relationships? What then does spiritual flourishing look like?

Monism (or holism or physicalism) believes that humans are thoroughly one thing—a physical body. We are embodied persons, but not just any sort of body. We are bodies characterized by sufficient capacity and complexity to be (within varying limits) intelligent, genuinely relational, and self-governing moral agents, as well as persons capable of knowing and responding to God. A defense of how this might be the case is beyond the scope of this article, but we point to our colleague Nancey Murphy’s recent book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Murphy and Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Fuller Faculty on Body and Soul

faculty-on-body&soul-Brown,Murphy,GreenThree Fuller faculty members explore the relationship between body and soul in recent books: (left to right) Director of the Lee Edward Travis Research Institute Warren Brown, with Malcom Jeeves, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature; Professor of Christian Philosophy Nancy Murphy, with Warren Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?; and Professor of New Testament Interpretation Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible.

Given the long dominance of body-soul dualism in Christian thought, why would one believe monism/physicalism to be true? While, again, adequate discussion of this point escapes the scope of this article, we nevertheless point to two important reasons. First, within modern psychology and neuroscience, dualism is increasingly an incoherent position. Mental, emotional, behavioral, and religious/spiritual life is increasingly found to be aspects of what our bodies do. The mind is clearly not even exclusively a product of the brain, but is rooted in the activities of the entire body as it interacts with the physical and social world. (Here we refer the reader to Jeeves and Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion, Templeton Press, 2009). Second, many theologians and Biblical scholars since the middle of the last century (if not before) have moved toward the view that a monist (embodied) understanding of human nature is more compatible with biblical teaching and less contaminated by Platonic philosophical categories. (Here see Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life, Baker Academic, 2008).

If we are indeed physical beings, then what does this mean for spiritual flourishing? If we do not have an inner self or soul to cultivate, what does it mean to be spiritual? In the context of a holistic and physical understanding of humankind, spirituality becomes relational, involving outward relations with God and with our neighbor. “Love the Lord with all your heart . . . and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37–39). “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Much of the literature on spirituality presumes that we must begin inside where the soul meets God. To love God is to be in an inner state of relationship marked by a subjective feeling of closeness to God. But if what is inside is complex supportive physiology, then the God whom we are to meet in prayer and meditation is not to be found within us but outside us and between us. This is not to deny the mystery that God who is spirit communicates with his material creation, but rather to suggest that we must look out (rather than in) to find where God is working and where his presence and activity can be most clearly discerned. Then, to flourish spiritually we must find (through prayer, meditation, reading, and Bible study within a discerning community) how we can relate to and become involved with the means and manners of God’s redemptive work. The evidence of flourishing is not an inward feeling state, but participation with God in sustaining his creation, working for a just society, and caring for his people. Spiritual flourishing is not inward, individualistic, and subjective, but outward, communal, and objective—it is marked by a Kingdom life!

This brings us to the next part of the great commandment—love of others. If we are bodies (not soul-bodies), spiritual flourishing has to do with the nature of social and physical relationships. Spiritual flourishing is the thriving of the whole-person-in-context, including the thriving of the immediate community. Thus, attention is turned outward toward how others are doing within the context of their whole lives (physical, economic, mental, and relational), and how they are (or are not) enmeshed in a community reflective of the Kingdom of God.

This embodied spiritual flourishing can only occur in communities of persons, most particularly the church. Therefore, we must recognize our responsibility for one another, and we must be open to let others be responsible for us! However, because of our usual bent toward individuality, it is too easy for us to let the church become only a means of individual spiritual nourishment that is nice if you can make it, but not critical to spiritual life. When spirituality becomes disconnected from a community, the church, it ends up being a form of heroic quest in which each individual travels alone in his or her own inner spiritual world. This may help explain the drop in nationwide church attendance. But understood as embodied, spiritual flourishing would necessarily have to develop within the context of a spiritually flourishing community—that is, within a community characterized by deep and meaningful relationships with one another and with God.

Persons with disability provide an important case-in-point. Persons who are disabled (physically, cognitively, and/or emotionally) by definition have some form and degree of difficulty flourishing on their own outside of a community that has an imagination for ways to help them thrive. However, if we believe that the primary concern of the church is the inner life of each individual Christian, it is easy to disregard the role of the church community in the flourishing of those who are disabled. We may smile at a person who is depressed or open the door for the person in a wheelchair, but more consistent, long-term, and deep involvement is too often not seen as having a claim on us as spiritual persons or as church communities.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre turns the issue of disability back on each of us. He suggests that there is no such thing as discrete categories of the disabled and the non-disabled. As he says it, “There is a scale of disability on which we all find ourselves. Disability is a matter of more or less, both with respect to degree of disability and in respect to the time periods in which we are disabled.”2 It is not simply that this person or that person has some disabling condition and the rest of us do not; we are all disabled in varying ways and to different degrees in the past, now, and in the future. So an embodied sense of spiritual flourishing requires all of us to acknowledge our dependence and need for the scaffolding of our lives by communities of other persons in order to thrive and flourish.

The concept of embodied and relational spiritual flourishing, both of individuals and communities, contextualizes the biblical command to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). That is, we begin to see the difference between seeing to the survival and well-being of our own inner self or soul, and participating in the loving work of the God who pervades the world we inhabit and the people with whom we share God’s world.

Rather than singing “It is well with my soul!” to express our inner and individual state of being, perhaps we should be singing with Bill Withers:

Lean on me when you’re not strong.
I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

1. This essay is based on a book in preparation by the authors tentatively entitled Human Bodies—Church Bodies to be published by Cambridge University Press.
2. Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 73.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2010, “Human Flourishing: Reflecting the Abundance of Creation.”