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Secret Keepers Week 5 – A Christian Book Study

Meet the bad guys

In the reading this week (Secret Keepers chapters 15-19), we met the Sleepers, the main villains of the story, who have attained (near) immortality by leaving their own bodies and possessing the bodies of others.

I did not invent the Sleepers because I think such a thing is possible. In fact, I’m fairly certain it is not.

However, creatures who learn to shed their physical bodies and live as “mental energy,” or creatures who live by possessing others, or creatures who gain immortality by transferring their consciousness into another body, are all time-honored sci-fi tropes. And so, as a sci-fi writer, realistic or not, I feel I can get away with them…

Also, science fiction isn’t really intended to address the question: “could it happen?” Science fiction is more concerned with the question: “if it did happen, then what…?”

If certain people could leave their physical bodies and gain (near) immortality by possessing the bodies of others, then what?

But why cares about the if?

If it’s not possible, why even both asking that question?

What does it mean to be human?

I ask the question because asking it allows me to explore the human condition in unique and (I believe) insightful ways.

In short, creating and writing about the sleepers helps me to explore the ever-important question: What does it mean to be human?

That question together with the theme of woundedness (and I think those two things are intimately related, by the way) form the entire point of this book.

Body, Spirit, Soul

One of the most misunderstood things in Christianity is what it is that Christianity actually teaches about death and afterlife.

In fact, Christianity does not promise an afterlife of any kind—and before you freak out about that statement, please keep listening, because Christian does promise eternal life—but that’s a different thing.

Afterlife is a continued existence immediately after death, usually as some kind of disembodied spirit. And while the bible and Christianity are open to the idea of that, it’s not what Christianity promises. Christianity promises that regardless of what happens immediately after death, at the end of time the universe will be recreated and there will be a physical, bodily resurrection of the dead. Our bodies will be different, but we will have bodies.

Most of us, not just in our churches but in the whole of western culture, take for granted the platonic notion that the spirit or the soul is superior to physical existence, and that, in death, we are freed from physical existence to enjoy a disembodied after life—but again, this is platonic, it’s Greek philosophy. And in its extremes, historically speaking, this thinking leads to abuse, either by physically harming or depriving the body because overcoming pain, or whatever, is supposed to help achieve some kind of mind over matter spiritual enlightenment, or abuse through overindulgence in various ways, because if we are really spirit beings waiting to be freed, than what we do with or to our bodies doesn’t actually matter…

In contrast, and exactly against these vary abuses, Christianity has always taught that the body does matter, that how we treat our bodies and the bodies of others does matter, that God created the physical world, intentionally, and that, however flawed, that physical world is a good thing. All of this culminating, again, in the recreation of the physical world and the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

Now all of this really comes down to how we answer the question of “what does it mean to be human?”

Because think about it, if our “humanity” is contained inside some kind of “spirit nature” and the body is just something additional to or even trapping our “real selves” then you’re going to get notions like a disembodied after life, or reincarnation—things like that.

But if body and soul, or spirit, or mental energy, or whatever you want to call it are both equally part of what it means to be human, well, then reincarnation is totally off the table, and a disembodied afterlife, while still possible, can’t be the ultimate goal.

So, What does it mean to be human?

Let me start by explaining that language is not our friend here—particularly when we have to deal with more than one language. And just to illustrate the difficulty, let me ask: do you yourself actually know exactly what you mean when you use a word like soul?

Could you give me an exact and perfect definition for that world, right now? And, moreover, are you 100% certain—are you even 90% certain – that the person sitting next to you would give me the same definition?

In fact, if I were to ask two different native English speakers to define the world soul right now, I would probably get two different definitions, and the situation gets even more tricky when I ask you to explain the difference between a soul and a spirit and a self, because truth is, no, we do not know what we mean, exactly, by these words.

And the same is true of ancient writers and speakers.

The writers of the bible do not use their Hebrew and Greek terms for soul, self, spirit, etc., any more consistently than we use our English terms today.

Even terms that seem like they should be more straightforward, like body and flesh—Paul, writer of a large portion of the New Testament, talks about “the flesh” a lot, and even contrasts “the flesh” with “the spirit,”—But “flesh” for Paul is really just a euphemism for innate or inherent “Badness,” or the part of human nature that separates us from God. It would be a mistake to take his references to “flesh” as literal references to “the human body” as opposed to the human soul. Because, for one thing, Paul also talks about there being a “spiritual body” and a “fleshly body”… And also the writers of the New Testament are insistent on the point that the physical body does matter, that it is to be cared for, and—overall—that Christian hope lies in a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead at the end of time.

All that to say, this is a complicated discussion in large part because none of the terms in any language are consistently used. So be aware that the terms I choose to use here are exactly that, choices I have made because those choices have to be made, not because some universally agreed-upon definition for these words actually exists.

But we do have to discuss it. And so, all of that being said, what does it mean to be human? Or what are the parts of human existence? Or what goes into the makeup of a human being?

When you strip away all the varieties in wordage that exist, between religion and philosophy and theology, etc., I think we do find something rather consistent. The words are inconsistent, but when you get past that, the thinking behind the inconsistent words, I think, is consistent.

What we find, behind all the varieties in word choice, is that most philosophy and most religion ultimately comes to understand human existence as having at least two parts: A physical part and a spiritual part. And it is that word “spiritual” that changes depending on who’s speaking and absolutely no agreement whatsoever exists about what that “part” actually is… But religion and philosophy generally agree, whatever it is, it’s there. And often times, a third part to human existence is also at least hinted at.

Now, again, because choices have to be made here, I choose to speak of human existence having three parts, and I choose to label those parts “body,” “spirit,” and “soul.”

And I think whatever terminology you choose to use, what’s important is the three-part division.

Why?

Because of this old idea about humans being made in the image of God.

Christianity is founded on two unique propositions about God. First that God literally became, was born, lived, aged, and died as a human being in order to show solidarity with and bring salvation to the human race. And second, the notion that God is a Trinity.

Now, I do not have time to go into the crazy tangle of yarn that is the Christian concept of the Trinity. I mean, we are talking about the essence of the Being that created all being that has ever or will ever be—so, yeah, defining a Being like that is going to be complicated, and confusing, and messy, and even downright contradictory from our human perspective.

Anyone who tries to tell you differently, or tries to tell you that the Trinity “makes sense” or even that the Trinity can’t be true because it doesn’t make sense is, I think, not doing justice to the fact that we’re talking about a reality that created reality. That is not a simple or straightforward thing to talk about, and getting into it is beyond the scope of this lesson.

For right now, I do believe that humans are made in the image of God, and I believe a part of that means a three-fold answer to the question of what it means to be human.

So, body, spirit, soul. I believe, as I see expressed in the bible, that all three play a part in what it means to be an individual human, that is in our self-awareness, in our consciousness, and in our identities. Because all three form a part of what it means to be human, none if the the three parts can be removed without making a person less than human, neither now nor after death.

What is the Body?

As our physical connection to the world around us, I believe our bodies are the physical expression of emotion and our connection to the emotions of other people. Through our bodies, we touch, see, and experience a world outside our own heads. Without bodies, we would lose this connection.

But the body is also our closest connection to the physical world and to our hereditary, animal nature. The body is connected to emotion, but also ruled by it. FOr this reason, “flesh” and “body” become metaphors for what is evil (primal or instinctual) in human nature, the part of the human person that is at war with God’s Spirit of reason and mercy.

But the body is not all evil. Instinct and primal urges are tied to emotion, but empathy is as well. And we know form the bible that, however “earthly” and corrupt the body may be, it is to be redeemed at the Resurrection at the end of time.

What is the Spirit?

Genesis 2 tells us that God breathed the breath of life into Adam. Spirit is usually understood to be an animating force, the thing that makes both humans and animals “animate” creatures as opposed to “inanimate” objects like stone and metal. The Latin word for “spirit” – animus – is in fact where we get the word “animate” (and the word “animal” too).

For humans, made in the “image of God” this life force includes higher reasoning, the ability to think beyond instinct and survival, the ability to temper justice with mercy, humility, and love.

Other words for “spirit” might be “mind,” “thought,” etc.

What is the Soul?

The soul is what we might call the “self” (the Hebrew word nephesh refers to a self-contained life or existence, and is often translated “soul”).

Again in Genesis 2, Adam becomes a “living nephesh (soul)” only after God breathes spirit into him.

I think of the soul or self as the place where body and spirit, or body and mind, meet.

 . . .

The point for right now is that all three parts are necessary to the human person. If you remove or attempt to remove, one (by, say, leaving your body behind and living one by possessing the bodies of others) you make yourself less human.

Sin, violence, and unforgiveness are all “wrong” for the same reason because in these acts we make ourselves less human while also dehumanizing other people.

The Sleepers are creatures who have allowed their quest for revenge to turn them into something that is less than human – spirits without bodies. Far from being freed by their bodiless existence, they are trapped inside an existence that is now less than what it could have or should have been.

This is the same trap we find ourselves in when we refuse to forgive. Unforgiveness roots us forever in one place, in the past moment of pain and the desire for revenge that pain creates within us.

The Sleepers are, essentially, the ultimate expression of the toxicity of an unforgiving heart.

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