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04 - The Human Being: Body and Soul

“I praise you, for I am wondrously made. Wonderful are your works!”

(Psalm 139:14)

In our last three blogposts we looked at creation, the Holy Trinity and faith. Now we turn to focus our attention on a particular part of creation: the human being. As the human being is a very complex topic, we are just going to look at some aspects of it in this post. 

Think about the Psalm verse above. What does it tell us about the human being? Firstly, it highlights that we are ‘made’. We are creatures – beings created by a Divine Being, God.

What is a human being?

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘human being’, but what do we mean by this? What is a being? And what can we say about a particular type of being called a ‘human being’? We are going to need to draw on both theology and ontology to answer these questions. Theology is the study of God and ontology is the study of being, of all that is, all that exists (and we are going to bring both of these together in Christian anthropology – the Christian understanding of human existence). This sounds like a lot of ‘ologies!’, but as we saw in our last blogpost, faith and reason work hand in hand. Revelation gives one kind of basis for understanding human beings, Philosophy, or human reasoning, gives another important basis.

Human Nature

What is being? Essence and existence are the two primary principles of being. Essence is what something is. Existence is that something is. Nothing can exist without essence as well as existence. The term ‘human’ added to the word ‘being’, tells you the essence of the type of being. Essence is what all things of a particular type have in common. The essence ‘cat’ is what all cats have in common. The essence helps us to recognise what is and is not a cat. 

The essence of a being gives something its essential characteristics. It sets the limitations of the being and orientates the change or growth of that being. The existence of a being is that something exists, e.g. there is a human being called Lorraine, who shares human nature with the rest of humanity, but who is an individual.

Nature is what we call the essence of living beings. Think about human nature. What is the essence of what it means to be human? 

List the essential characteristics that can be said to be true, to be equally applicable to every single human being. 

What are the limitations of human beings, e.g. can we grow wings and fly?


How does this orientate our change or growth, e.g. can a human embryo grow into a dinosaur?

Have a look at your list. Does it include just the bodily parts and capacities, e.g. eating, sleeping and growing etc.? Or does it also include thinking, loving and choosing?

Immaterial and Material

It is easy to see that human beings are material. We need food and water to exist and grow. If we are cut, we bleed. We need shelter and warmth. So, what makes us different to animals? Think of a mermaid or a unicorn. Can you imagine it? Can you picture it mentally or at least understand what I mean by a mermaid or unicorn?

In thinking about a mermaid or unicorn, did you turn into one? That seems like a really silly question, but the human mind can contain the idea of the nature of a thing without actually becoming that thing itself. Nothing completely material can think of abstract ideas such as mermaids or unicorns. Human beings can. 

Human beings also have the capacity to love and to choose between good and evil. These are also immaterial capacities.

Now have a look at the following diagram:

We have God (Divine Being – The Holy Trinity is simultaneously One and Three), then we have the pure spiritual beings (the angels – which are creatures, but do not have any material element to them), then we have human beings and finally we have purely material beings, such as animals, plants and inanimate beings (rocks etc.).

So how would you describe the human being? Is it spiritual like God and the angels, or material like the animals, plants and rocks? Or something utterly different? Or is it both spiritual and material?

Some see human beings as fundamentally different from both spiritual beings and from material beings. They emphasise the uniqueness of the human being seeing it not just as a mix of the material and spiritual but a specifically different part of creation. 

Others see human beings only as material beings – as another animal species. 

Still others see the human being as a composite, a mix of the spiritual and material.

Christian anthropology considers the human being to be made up of distinct (not a merged mixture of spiritual and material), but not separate or separable, elements and to be utterly unique in the physical world.

The Human Being is Made in the Image and Likeness of God

In our first blogpost on creation, we spent some time reflecting on how we are made in the image and likeness of God.

Have a look again at Genesis 1:26-27:

Genesis 1:26-27 God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.’ God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.

Made ‘in the image and likeness of God’ is one of the most fundamental ways of looking at the human being. Again, in our first blogpost we saw that the most important way in which we are made in the image and likeness of God is ‘our ability to know and to love.’ We are God’s image because we know and love, and so does God.

The Human Being: A Unity of Body and Soul

Now look at Genesis:

Genesis 2:7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses Genesis 2:7 to explain that God created us to be both material and immaterial or corporeal (bodily) and spiritual:

CCC 362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.

What is the spiritual aspect of the human being?

We can look at some useful definitions to help us:

Essence is the ‘what-ness’ of all beings.

Nature is the ‘what-ness’ of living beings.

Form is the ‘what-ness’ of material beings.

Soul is the ‘what-ness’ of material and living beings.

The philosopher Aristotle used the term soul for all material living beings, so plants and animals would have souls according to Aristotle, because they are both material and living. Aristotle tended to use this term to mean the life principle of living things. St. Thomas Aquinas, who studied Aristotle’s teachings very carefully, only used the term soul for human beings.

The Catechism teaches us that:

CCC 363 In Sacred Scripture the term ‘soul’ often refers to human life or the entire human person. But ‘soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man.

CCC 366 Every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not ‘produced’ by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

Your soul is immortal! To quote Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator:

Can we disregard the body then? Is the body just the tainted material aspect of us that we must shed to go to heaven? Is the material body evil in some way? This is what some of the earliest heresies taught and this dualism which places the body and the soul in conflict with one another is still around today. Let’s go back to the creation account in Genesis:

Genesis 1:31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

Everything that God creates is good. The material world is not something evil. It is not only the creation account that tells us this. The eternal Son of God, became a human being, a man (without loss of his divinity) to save us body and soul. As the YouCat says:

YOUCAT 153 God does not regard human flesh as something inferior. God does not redeem man’s spirit only; he redeems him entirely, body and soul.

The soul does not need to escape from the body, because:

CCC 364 The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit: Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honour since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

The resurrection of the body is one of the core beliefs of our faith. It is so important that it appears in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But why do we need the body when our soul is in heaven? The human being is incomplete without a body. Let’s look at what the Catechism teaches about the relationship between the body and soul:

CCC 365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

We have seen that ‘form’ is the ‘what-ness’ of material things, so the soul is the what-ness of the human being. As the paragraph above says, the soul makes the matter of the body become a living, human being. When the soul leaves the body at death, we call the body the remains. The dead body is no longer a human being. Neither is the soul a human being. It is the unity of the body and the soul that makes us truly human:

CCC 1016 By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection, God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives for ever, so all of us will rise at the last day.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what we will be like then. As St. Paul says: 

1 Corinthians 2:9 What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.

But we do know that the human being will still be a profound unity of body and soul in heaven.

Summary Questions

  1. What is a human being?

  2. How can we argue that the human being is both material and immaterial?

  3. What is the relationship between the soul and the body?

  4. Why is the resurrection of the body important?

Going Deeper

  1. Read Psalm 139:13-16 and Psalm 8:3-6. Write your own Psalm of praise to God for creating you.

  2. Spend some time thinking about the unity of body and soul in the catechism passages above. Now think about the ways in which body and soul are portrayed in advertising, social media etc. Do you think that body and soul are given the dignity which they deserve in our culture?

  3. Look up the accounts of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:36-43, John 20:11-18, John 20:19-29, John 21:1-15. What do these accounts tell us of what our glorified bodies may be like?

  4. Read Pope St. John Paul II’s General Audience – Humans are Spiritual and Corporeal Beings. What does St. John Paul say about the theory of evolution and Catholic teaching on body and soul?

Remember if you have any questions, get in touch via responding to this blog, or sending a message through the website contact form. 

'Till next time... God bless!

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