The dualism of Descartes still heavily influences contemporary understandings of the mind-body problem. It also heavily influences the church’s own form of dualism: spirit-body.
According to Cartesian dualism, each individual is made up of a mind and a body. The two are linked, but the mind has precedence over the body (who can forget Descartes famous “I think, therefore, I am”?). The source of initiative, rationality, and all other good things, is the mind, while the body is dangerous, transgressive, emotional, etc. (An interesting side-note: many feminist scholars have published on how the mind-body division was imposed onto the man-woman division, where men become assocated with the elevated, rational mind and women with the transgressive, emotional body.) In today’s society, we still have not escaped this dualism. People still trust rationality (a quality of the mind) over emotionality (a quality of the body). Bodies and bodily desires, especially those of women, are still generally considered dangerous and transgressive.
In the church, we have a similar dichotomy, though here the elevated category is that of “spirit” rather than “mind.” In church classes, we are encouraged to submit our natural desires to the dictates of the spirit. In his October 1985 conference address on “Self-Mastery,” Russell M. Nelson argues, “Before you can master yourself, my precious one, you need to know who you are. You consist of two parts–your physical body, and your spirit which lives within your body. You may have heard the expression ‘mind over matter.’ That’s what I would like to talk about–but phrase it a little differently: ‘spirit over body.’ That is self-mastery.” He continues, “Your spirit acquired a body at birth and became a soul to live in mortality through periods of trial and testing. Part of each test is to determine if your body can become mastered by the spirit that dwells within it.”
Nelson’s talk is a clear, representative example of the church’s discourse on the body and spirit division. While we do believe that “[t]he spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15), our discourse often indicates that the spirit is of a higher element than the body, and we need to subsume our bodies to our spirits.
Yet underneath this elevation of spirit over body, the church has a truly amazing (and I would argue, unique) emphasis on the body. Many religions consider us strange for thinking that God is embodied and looks like us. The notion that God has a body of flesh and bone is a significant doctrine, as is our belief that one of the central (if not the central) purposes of mortality is for us to get a body. We learn that Satan and his followers are passionately jealous of our bodies, and that in the spirit world, we’ll be limited in the progress we can make because we will not be in possession of our bodies at that time.
In contemporary philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, there has been a re-examination and reclaiming of the body (see Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies or George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philsophy in the Flesh), and I would like to see us do the same in the church. And not solely in the way we currently see the body celebrated–as a holy temple that we should protect and keep sacred through practices of modesty and chastity (for example, see Susan Tanner’s conference address from last October on “The Sanctity of the Body”). While chastity and modesty are important precepts and teachings, I want more celebration of the joyous nature of our bodies. While our bodies are the object of much of life’s pains and trials, they are also the seat of joy and pleasure and our interface with the many wonders around us.
I also want a more substantial consideration of what it means that our body is an equally important part of “the soul of man.” Why is God embodied? Why do we have bodies? How are they an important part of our eternal nature? Perhaps some of the answers to these questions are beyond our mortal comprehension, but I would propose one preliminary answer: God’s plan is a plan of happiness, and we can only receive a fullness of joy through our body.
Let’s rethink the spirit-body dichotomy and discuss the multifold purposes of our bodies. While controlling our desires is an important lesson of mortality, our bodies are so much more than something to be mastered by our spirits. They are part of our eternal nature, and they play an integral role in our divinity and our capacity for empathy, love, and joy.