Wednesday, September 29, 2004

THE SPIRIT VERSUS THE FLESH: Choosing Between a Ghost & a Corpse

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Would it be ideal for a fish to fly? Or for a bird to live underwater?

Of course not. Each of these creatures has its own particular nature--a different physical makeup that functions in its own distinct way. It would be completely irrational to demand that a fish leave the water and take to the air, or that a bird cease flight and submerge itself in a lake. Only someone intent on perverting nature would insist in such a thing, since even the attempt would bring death to each of these creatures.

When trying to determine what is ideal for any living thing, the nature of that thing must be taken into consideration. For ideals to be valid, they must be achievable.

Before one can determine what is ideal for human beings, one must have some understanding of human nature. What is man? What is the essence of being human? In short, what is the soul of man?


For over two thousand years philosophers and theologians have taught that the soul of man is his spirit. This idea is so universal that today most people use the words spirit and soul interchangeably. Nearly all religions teach that the spirit is what is essential to being human, and their various systems of ideals and morals are based upon this concept.

But is the spirit really the soul of man? And if it is, what are the moral implications?

Before answering these questions, one must first understand what traditional religions and philosophies mean by the word spirit. Interestingly enough, the traditional doctrines regarding the spirit are derived not so much from the Bible as from the philosophies of the ancient Greeks.


The Greek philosopher Plato (c.427?-347 BC) taught that above and beyond the material world was a divine, completely immaterial realm of pure “ideas.” The universe was nothing more than “an imperfect reflection or image of the divine world.” Because the physical world was forever changing and because matter was subject to decay, Plato considered the universe and everything in it to be inherently corrupt. He and his followers devised endless arguments and theories to distance all things virtuous (including God) from the physical realm.

It was taught that man was imperfect because he had a dual nature; that he was made up to two conflicting parts: a physical body and a spirit (also referred to as the mind.) The spirit, being immaterial, was considered the superior of the two parts, but during life man’s corrupt body exerted a terrible influence on it. Only at death, when the spirit was finally released from its corrupt physical prison, was it free to ascend to the divine, immaterial realm. Only in this purely spiritual state could the human soul hope to find true enlightenment, peace and fulfillment.

With the conquests of Alexander the Great, such ideas spread throughout the known world. The Jews tried resist the new philosophy, but Greek culture proved overwhelming. Eventually there arose Jewish philosophers such as Philo Judaeus, who incorporated Plato’s philosophy into Jewish thought and began re-inventing the ancient Israelite concepts of creation, God and human nature. By the end of the second century AD, what would become traditional Jewish and Christian theologies were in essence nothing more that the latest incarnation of Greek philosophy.

So it was is that nearly two thousand years later, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states: “In Christian theology the word [spirit] denotes...the intelligent and immaterial part of man...” Christian theologians have disagreed on minor points regarding human nature, but “the point of agreement, however, is that man is not reducible to matter.”

How do theologians and philosophers know this? How can they know it? Where is the evidence that such a thing as “an immaterial part of man” even exists? The very phrase itself (“immaterial part”) is a contradiction. For something to actually be “a part” of man (or of anything else) it must have a material or chemical existence, even if it is not discernable by the physical senses.

Theologians dismiss such thinking as being “too literal” or “too narrow.” They say that one must be more “open-minded” and “expansive” when discussing the nature of things spiritual. They may refer to the spirit as “existing outside of existence,” in much the same way as they speak of God “existing outside of existence.” But a phrase such as “existing outside of existence” twists the very concept of “existence” until it has no comprehensible meaning.

Discussion Questions:
If man’s spirit is “not reducible to matter,” then how can one actually know anything about it?

Can you think of anything else (the existence of which is a proven fact) that does not have a material existence--that does not exist on a chemical, elemental or atomic level?
Have I accepted the idea that my spirit and body are in conflict with one another?
If so, what has been the result of such thinking as far as my personal happiness is concerned?
How has this affected my relationships with others?

How has it affected my relationship with God?


The first generation of Mormons broke completely with two thousands years of tradition concerning the nature of the spirit in relation to the material world. Two of Mormonism’s first apostles were brothers, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt. In the late 1830’s, they began writing extensively on this subject. In fact, Mormonism’s earliest missionary tracts (the literature that Mormon missionaries distributed to investigators and potential converts) did not deal with the stories of the gold plates and the First Vision, but with a radical new understanding of the body and the spirit, and how this new understanding could change society. The ideas of the Pratts--particularly those of Parley--may have influenced the thinking of Joseph Smith, more than visa versa.

Parley P. Pratt understood how the orthodox Christian idea of an immaterial God was the foundation upon which rested traditional religion’s negative view of human nature, the human body and the material world:

“An opinion prevails that the material worlds, were formed from nothing; they serve a momentary purpose, connected only with our present state of existence, and are then annihilated,--that the life to come is a life purely spiritual, having no connection with or dependence on any thing material.
Hence the idea of a ‘God without body or part‘--men without flesh and bones--and a heaven beyond the bounds of time and space….Indeed, a world without food, clothing or any other substance, or property of which the mind can possible conceive. And hence too, the idea, that all materialists must necessarily be infidels.
…these are errors of the grossest kind--mere relics of mysticism and superstition, riveted upon the mind by ignorance and tradition…” (Parley P. Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body” 1840)

Orson Pratt dismissed all talk of an immaterial spirit as irrational nonsense. He proclaimed that the spirit, the mind and everything else related to man‘s being must have some relationship to matter and physical reality:

“That the spirit or mind has a relation to space, is evident from the fact of its location in the body. The body itself exists in space, therefore every particle of substance which it contains must exists in space. No point can be assumed in the body but what had a relation to the surrounding space or extension. Therefore spirit must have a relation to extension or it cannot exist in the body....what can be more unphilosophical, contradictory?….Grasp it if you can in your imaginations. Think of it existing where there is no space...Do not your judgments and every power of your minds revolt at the absolute absurdities and palpable contradictions? By this time, perhaps, you are ready to inquire can it be possible that any man in all the world could believe in such impossibilities? Yes, it is possible. These very absurdities now stand in bold relief, not only in the most approved philosophical works of modern times, but incorporated in the very ‘Articles of Religion’ which millions have received as their rule of faith.”


Over one hundred and fifty years after Orson Pratt made his observations, these “absurdities” continue to influence not only the thinking of those who are “religious” or “philosophical,” but of people in general.

Most people would feel insulted if someone referred to them as “materialistic.” After all, it is assumed people who are “materialistic” are overly concerned with money, houses, food, clothes, their appearance, their health and their love life--and that such these concerns are essentially unimportant.
On the other hand, most people would consider it a great compliment if they were called “spiritual,” because this would imply that they are sensitive; that they are selfless; that they are in touch with their inner-self and with the feelings of others; that they are somehow visionary, able to see beyond the surface of things, beyond the material realm.
But in practical terms what does any of this really mean?
Discussion Questions:
What are the consequences--morally speaking--of divorcing one’s self from “materialistic” concerns?

If that which makes us human really is an immaterial spirit, then what type of behavior should be expected of us? What ideals should we embrace?


Human life and happiness is dependent upon understanding and accepting the material world. Food, drink, shelter from the elements, and care for the body in times of sickness--these are essential to human survival. Sexuality is the means by which the human race continues, and sexual intimacy is an essential and profound aspect of many of our most meaningful relationships. Far from endangering us, being fully engaged in this material existence enlarges us. In fact, to reject the material and physical as fallen, corrupt, sinful or unclean undermines not only our well-being and happiness but our very survival.

To teach that it is ideal for mankind to attempt to overcome physical existence in order to ascend to an immaterial purely spiritual state is the same as teaching that it is ideal for a fish to live out of water. Such a teaching is an attack on human nature and on mankind’s means of survival. The end result is death.

Traditional religion teaches that we are composed of two competing natures--the physical and the spiritual; that the body and the spirit are locked in battle with one another. Morality consists in gravitating toward the spiritual and the immaterial (so it is taught), in “overcoming” material concerns and in denying physical appetites and desires.

But the spirit and the physical body are both essential to life. The result of separating the two is always death.

Thus, traditional religion gives us a choice between a ghost and a corpse.


This belief system has had an amusing result on popular concepts of morality.
Notice that the phrase “being a good boy,” when applied to an adult, usually brings to mind a dull, lifeless, repressed, passive, uninteresting “white bread type.

On the other hand, the title of “bad boy” is usually given to a charismatic, daring individual who is full of life, aggressive, exciting and fun. The stereotypical “bad boy” is often admired as one who “lives life to the fullest” while the stereotypical “good boy” is seen as the one whom life is passing by.

The phrase “only the good die young” is nothing more than a rational response to a belief system that pits the spirit against the flesh, which damns life on earth and extols life in another incomprehensible realm of pure spirit. By insisting that morality consists in choosing the spirit over the body, blind faith over reason, pain over pleasure, sadness in this world over happiness, self-abasement over self-interest, traditional theology has effectively made “goodness” seem like a bad idea.


Joseph Smith rejected all immaterialism outright. He taught:

“All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it, but when are bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8)
Parley P. Pratt wrote:
“...some of the elements are tangible, or visible, and others invisible. Those which are tangible to our senses, we call physical; those which are more subtle and refined, we call spiritual.”

Joseph Smith elaborated on these concepts:

“... the spirit, by many, is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ, and state that the spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be moldering in the dust…"

Mormon philosophy presents human nature are a unified whole. Mormon scripture states:

“And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:15)

There is no dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. Both have a material existence, and both are essential to human life. Separate one from the other and one no longer has a human being; one has a corpse or a ghost. Human existence and human happiness are possible only when the spirit and flesh are united as one.
"The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, received a fullness of joy. And when separated, man cannot receive a fullness of joy." (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33-34)
Contrary to traditional theology’s notion that the body was corrupt, within Mormonism the body is as much then soul as the spirit. In fact, Joseph Smith taught that only “in the flesh” could one experience life and happiness to their fullest extent:

“We came to this earth that we might have a body...The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.”

Discussion Questions:

How might the concept that the spirit and the body are the soul change my concepts of right and wrong, of what is moral and immoral?

How might this concept change my understanding of God and of my relationship with the Divine?

How might this concept change my understanding of other people and of current social issues?


Reform Mormonism builds upon the above concepts. The classical Mormon view of human nature was extremely positive. While this positive approach to human nature and to the material world has been compromised by other denominations within Mormonism (in favor of a more Orthodox Christian view), it is fully and enthusiastically embraced by Reform Mormons. For this reason Reform Mormonism advocates a more rational and tolerant approach to such issues as human sexuality. The materialism of early Mormon theology and the use of reason in early Mormon literature and missionary tracts validates the positive view Reform Mormons have towards reason, rational thought and science.


There is no such thing as immaterial matter. The body and the spirit are the soul of man. Spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy; when separated, one cannot receive a fullness of joy.
From Jennifer: I read your latest gospel doctrine lesson. It sparked a thought from somewhere, I'm not sure where but hereare my thoughts on it:
"Would it be ideal for a fish to fly? Or for a bird to live underwater?"
This reminds me of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants. Don't laugh. Well, OK go ahead and laugh, but just go with it. The cartoon takes place in a town called"Bikini Bottom" located at the bottom of the ocean. The funny thing is though, one of the characters, Sandy, is a squirrel! In order for her to live in Bikini Bottom she has to wear a scuba helmet, that looks more like something cartoonists portray Aliens wearing. Her house is this big dome that she some how was able to get all the water out, so when she is out in her yard she doesn't need the helmet, but her visitors have to wear a helmet filled with water to breath. It's crazy, I know! Purely fictional because a Squirrel could never live in the ocean.
"It would be completely irrational to demand that a fish leave the water and take to the air, or that a bird cease flight and submerge itself in a lake. Only someone intent on perverting nature would insist insuch a thing, since even the attempt would bring deathto each of these creatures."
I think this can apply to things other than just birds and fish (and squirrels). I think the very same thing could be applied to homosexuality. Some churches ( I won't mention any names, just note there are more than one) think that homosexuals can get married to the opposite sex and live happy lives. Wouldn't that be like forcing a bird to live in the water? Or a fish to live on land? Some say that, "Well, if they can't change and get married, then they should remain celibate." Therefore, denying themselves of life in a sense.
They can't live and be who they truly are because of this self denial. (I don't mean denial as in not admitting they're gay, but denying themselves the blessings of love and the happiness it brings.) There are some who claim they have changed; they are not gay and they do marry the opposite sex. That's great! It's like Sandy the Squirrel figuring out a way to live in the ocean. But more often than not, squirrels have to leave the ocean, and homosexuals have to stop denying who they really are. So to ask these people to live in water when they where meant to fly is basically telling them to stopliving, and stop being who you really are.
Would Joseph Smith ever want that for anyone? Probably not.
From R. Frederick Lauer: Jennifer, your remarks drove home a point. The traditional belief in the West is that human beings are essentially immaterial spirits trapped in fallen, sinful material (physical) bodies...therefore, it is virtuous to resist the appetites of the body and the demands and needs of lives on earth in favor of things that are "spiritual"--meaning, immaterial. The result is that self-denial becomes a virtue in and of itself.
Of course, self-denial is usually unpleasant. Therefore, according to many traditional religions and schools of spirituality, discomfort and pain become badges of honor. The more one suffers, the more righteous or "spiritual" one must be.
According to this way of believing, homosexuality becomes "the cross" that one must bear in order to please God. But what kind of God takes pleasure in burdening his children with symbolic impliments of torture? A living thing can only survive, prosper and experience joy by living according to its nature--by "fulfilling the measure of its creation" as it says in the LDS Endowment ceremony. To demand that any living thing deny its nature is to demand that it slowly committ suicide. The end result is that death becomes a value to be sought after, while life becomes an object of sacrifice



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Related to this week’s lesson

Photo & biographical information on Parley P. Pratt
Photo & biographical information on Orson Pratt
“The Essential Parley P. Pratt”
“The Essential Orson Pratt”
“The Essential Joseph Smith”
“Rational Theology” by John Widstoe