Who am I?
Humans have been wondering this long before Socrates actually asked the question. Ever since the first caveman took up a brush and painted images of running bison, herds of horses, and images of themselves hunting, we have sensed we were different. Adam and Eve, who existed in a special state of communication with God, of course would have understood why. But this knowledge would have been lost to the cavemen, who fell somewhere on the timeline between our primal parents and the flood of Noah.
Who am I? What are we?
Today we seem better positioned to answer such questions. Aren’t we a compound of body and soul, created in the image of God, destined for eternal things?
Indeed, we are.
The body is what we are physically: our hands and feet, our heart and lungs, our ears and ears. The soul? Well, that’s where we exercise our intellect and free will, where we believe and love, sin and yearn yet all the more for God.
But there’s a wrinkle.
Christianity also speaks of our spirit, drawing its language right from the New Testament. In
1 Thessalonians 5:23, St. Paul writes about the spirit in such a way that it seems to distinguish it from both the body and the soul: “May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So where does the ‘spirit’ fit into the whole scheme of the body and soul outlined above?
It’s an important question. And it’s a question that all of us should care about—not just theologians who have been stuck in libraries for too long. There are a few things none of us can afford to get wrong in this earthly life. And figuring out what we are should be one of them.
A few key principles lay the groundwork for an answer.
First, the Bible has many different ways of talking about our spiritual anatomy. This is obvious from the get-go: our Scriptures are bilingual: an Old Testament originally written in Hebrew and a New Testament in Greek. Each is immersed in the thought-world of its corresponding culture.
The second testament has an added layer of complexity because it recorded events and encounters that first occurred in Aramaic and then were rendered by the early Christian writers into Greek.
For example, Colossians 3:12 calls on Christians to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” That’s how it reads in more modern translations. But literal translations identify the location of such virtues: “Put ye on therefore, as the elect of God, holy, and beloved, the bowels of mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience.”
Aside from the question of how to “put on” bowels—clearly a metaphor—is the equally enigmatic issue of what the “bowels of mercy” are in the first place. One Bible dictionary explains that the ancient Israelites associated the bowels with the more tender emotions. Likewise, for the ancient Israelites, the ‘heart’ was considered the ‘seat’ of one’s entire being: it was not only the organ of thought but also of volition.
Second, beyond the biblical vocabulary, the Thomistic map of one’s inner self—still the dominant one today for Catholics—is also quite complex. For example, we must observe a fundamental distinction between the intellect and the will. Then there is further differentiation within each. The intellectual, for instance, consists of the perceptive, apprehensive, and cognitive powers. From there the complexity just compounds further.
The point is that as Christians we are not necessarily committed to any one scheme but can be multilingual in how we talk about our fundamental identity. In other words, if one were to pray through the words of Psalm 13:6—Grant my heart joy in your salvation—that does not entail denial that one has a soul, which in a Thomistic scheme is comparable to what the heart was for the ancient Israelites. Neither Scripture nor Sacred Tradition compels us to use one set of words for our inner selves.
Still, some clarity would be nice.
In its section on man, the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us two main ways of understanding how ‘spirit’ fits into all this.
First, we can think of body and soul as denoting what we are with spirit referring to our longing for the eternal and infinite. The catechism states this quite succinctly: “‘Spirit’” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.”
Second, we can also think of ‘spirit’ as designating what kind of a soul we have. This especially makes sense within a Thomistic paradigm, in which the soul is understood generically refer to the life-giving force of a thing. So, even animals and plants have ‘souls.’ But those are ‘corporeal’ or ‘material’ souls. But only human beings have ‘spiritual souls.’ (For more on this see this explanation in the catechism. Aquinas’ scheme is well-summarized here.)
This explanation should bring us to what is familiar territory. Who among the Church faithful is unaware of the ever-present need to be ‘more spiritual’? In a sense, then, these two meanings of spirit—we’ll call them the teleological and ontological—converge. Indeed, to quote an ancient maxim, this is our great calling in Christ: ‘to become what we are.’
A note on sources: Originally, the above maxim was intended as a paraphrase of Augustine. But it appears he may himself have been inspired by the ancient Greek poet Pindar. What I’ve termed an ‘ancient maxim’ above is also a close paraphrase of a line from Pindar’s poem “For Hieron of Syracuse.” ‘Become what you are’ has also been adopted by some modern inspirational writers who were not sources for this piece (and normally never would be). But in an abundance of caution I’ve chosen to put this in single quote marks to make it clear this phrase is not original to me.