Reclaiming the Body

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.


  1. I would suspect that we need bodies because there are things that we just can’t appreciate with our spirits. Just watch a newborn baby in the first year of life and the pure and simple delights that they find in movement, and discovering new things on a daily basis. I don’t think that is so much of spirit as it is of the human body and what it can do. How it can touch, and feel, and sense different things. By the same token the spirit is refined and perhaps can do things and understand things that a mortal body can not on its own. Perhaps we need them both to appreciate both facits. It is said that the body and spirit make the soul. We need to understand the pain of a body, and as you said the joy! To become like God we need to learn to control the joy of passion and our senses, so they don’t control us. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy those gifts to the fullest extent, just at the proper times and places. I think we are meant to love, and laugh, and dance.
    I bet after the resurrection we will even understand more fully how the body and the spirit are connected.

  2. The body and the spirit are connected intimately. In a sense we are “all spirit” in so much as it is God within whom we live and move and have our being

  3. Tigersue, I like your discussion of newborn babies. I wish we, as adults, could better retain a sense of that wonder at what our bodies can sense and feel.

    Foundation, I definitely agree about the intimate connection between body and spirit–we need both to be a whole, entire being. I’m not sure that I would say we are “all spirit”, but I do think our spirit is what connects us to God.

  4. I thought you guys quit blogging. I was quite sad about it.

    I’ll keep checking.

    I don’t care if I get my body back. I wish I never came in the first place. Bodies are over-rated. I want my spirit back. I have a headache 🙂

  5. Glad you found us again, annegb! We did quit, but we’ve come back from the dead to haunt the Bloggernacle. 🙂

    You ask a lot of good questions, S. I’ve also wondered about the dualism issue. (And to make things even more confusing, I once had a non-member friend who was trying to make sense of LDS theology ask me whether we weren’t just dualists, but had a tripartate understanding of the human, made up of uncreated “intelligence,” “spirit,” and “body.” My head kind of exploded.)

    I’m not crazy about the idea that my body is somehow less “me” than my spirit, which is sometimes the sense I get from talks on the subject. I think it’s worth remembering that every experience we have in this world, including those which we label “spiritual,” is an experience we have as an embodied being. We don’t somehow transcend our bodies to encounter God–rather, what we know of the divine is mediated through our physical experience. So the body isn’t some kind of obstacle to be overcome in increasing one’s spirituality, but rather an essential component of it.

    I like the scripture in Job which says, “yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:26)

  6. Lynnette, you definitely got to the heart of what I was getting at in my post. I couldn’t have said things better! (And I like the Job scripture too.)

    As for the whole “tripartate” thing–I hadn’t really considered it. I think we generally talk in dualistic terms, though the dualism shifts from context to context (mind and heart, spirit and body, etc). I’ll have to think about this a bit more.

  7. Abandonment of our peculiar dualism allows us to postulate that our bodies actually contribute to our development, and not merely because they provide us with social or learning opportunities. Our genes shape our minds and our desires. They are an important part of us, and until we have bodies which affect our behavior, our personalities are incomplete. Thus, as our church teaches, our souls are assembled when we gain bodies.

    This seems like a tidy solution to the conflict many Mormons see between genetic determinism and the idea of free will.

  8. If I may say, this blog is amazing. All the posts are interesting, lucid, and well-written. I also appreciate your largely positivist approach to the discussions. Its a breath of fresh air in the bloggernacle.

    This post is particularly interesting because this duality of spirit and body is in my opinion one of the “final frontiers” of biology. The connection between thought and biochemical pathways is still a total mystery from my stance. The best scientists have done is relate certain thoughts to regions of the brain, and to develop chemical inhibitors to neural signals.

    I guess this is leading off-topic, but I wonder how this dualism will be modified if (or when in my opinion) it turns out that mind is body. In other words, what happens if there is no duality? What if our thoughts are just a complicated biological function? I suppose this could go anywhere, but I couldn’t help adding my thoughts.

  9. Serenity Valley, I definitely agree with the first part of your comment, though I’m not sure how your latter comment is connected. How does this solve the determinism/free will dilemma?

    aws, I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I certainly enjoy the opportunity to post here! As for your comments, I agree that the exact connection between biological functions (esp. neurobiology) and human awareness is still a subject that is not very well understood. Philosophers and psychologists have been debating about it for centuries, and scientists are only now beginning to unlock the mysteries of the brain. Though I’m not a fan of dualism, I’m also a little wary of monism (theories forwarded by people like Spinoza who posit that the mind and body are one) because they can often end up being reductive. I’m not sure what the answer is, though. (I suppose I’m better at critiquing the models that others come up with than figuring out a better one.)


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