Christopher Smith reflects on the importance of body and soul in created humanity
One of the reasons for the descent into bonkers-ness of the modern western world is, I suspect, to do with the difficulty that people have nowadays in believing that the human race has any particular, and indeed special, place in the universe: a place assigned by our creator that is different from that of any other part of creation (on this planet at least) because it is rational. Brought up to believe that the prophets and evangelists have been superseded by Charles Darwin, it becomes difficult for many of our contemporaries to see mankind as anything other than one step up from the great apes, and another step away from evolving into the next species on the evolutionary ladder.
But we have something else to say about the importance of being human, because we believe in the Incarnation. And the Incarnation has, as it were, validated our understanding of humanity at the centre of God’s creation, even though human reason is weakened by sin. We have a rational soul which sets us apart from the rest of earth’s created order, but we also have a body, and both body and soul were taken by the second person of the Trinity in the Incarnation, and he did not discard them on Ascension Day. Therefore, our body is neither that of a superior kind of ape, nor is it a temporary shelter for a spirit—a shelter which might be a nuisance or a plaything. No: the human body is part of the human being.
If being human is important, moral development consists in becoming more human, more authentically human. Although we are individuals, we exist within a society which is a kind of ‘whole of wholes,’ in which moral development is a continual process of trying to overcome the selfish part of our nature which is the consequence of the Fall, and trying to promote the truly human, grace-receiving self-giving part. The godless moderns may believe themselves to be liberated, but they actually live more limited lives, for it is the grace of God which intensifies human freedom and fruitfulness.
In fact, part of being human, and therefore rational, is our ability to understand that we are created—that there is a God upon whose creative activity we are perpetually dependent. We should and, as Christians, we do, come before God with an attitude that combines gratitude and contentment with expectancy and wonder. Exhilarating, isn’t it? So why are so many of our fellow human beings so miserable? Why are so many of them just sitting around, waiting to be offended about something? This year’s silly season has been sillier than most, and if your attention wasn’t wholly diverted by ‘letterboxgate,’ I wonder whether you noticed the belated reinstatement of a nurse called Sarah Kuteh.
Sister Kuteh once worked at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford where, by all accounts, she was a good nurse. Being a Christian, it did not seem to her at all odd that there should be a question on the pre-operative assessment questionnaire about ‘faith.’ The modern NHS does at least pay lip service to the fact that, in seeking healing, we might have spiritual needs as well as purely physical ones.
There is, it seems, a fine line between seeking to address someone’s spiritual needs when they are in hospital, and having any kind of meaningful conversation with them about God. It is, as most patients will know, hard enough to make someone in hospital hear what you are saying about your physical symptoms, let alone have any conversation about something whose impact is far longer-term than your illness. But Sister Kuteh, when working through the ‘faith’ question in the paperwork, sometimes crossed that fine (and invisible) line, and caused ‘offence.’ Sometimes she offered to pray with patients. As she put it herself, ‘I would… reassure them, based on the joy and peace that I really have found in the Lord.’ And in 2016, in what must have seemed to her an act of simple human kindness, she gave a patient her own bible. Somehow, if she’d trotted down to the chaplaincy and obtained a bible from one of the ‘spiritual care team,’ that would have been ok. But you can guess what happened next: she was marched off the premises without even being given the chance to say goodbye to her colleagues and dismissed after a disciplinary hearing a couple of months later, which at the very least seems to be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and could have resulted in her being struck off.
Once upon a time, of course, it would have been seen as a good thing that Sister Kuteh’s nursing career had been inspired by her Christian faith. Even so, the doughty sister took the case to an employment tribunal, where the judge opined that ‘people should not express anything about their own beliefs without it first being raised as a question by anyone else’, although he did concede that he didn’t know very much about religion. She didn’t get her old job back but, last month, the Nursing and Midwifery Council lifted restrictions on her permission to practise. Of course, they made her beg, but in the end they felt able to say that she had ‘set out the steps you have taken to address the deficiencies highlighted in your practice. You have addressed how you would act differently in the future.’ Chilling, isn’t it?
Sister Kuteh could see (and said as much) that there is a problem if we are only considering a person’s physical needs. She knows that the body is not the whole person. Sadly, though, as Jacques Maritain put it, ‘Man has achieved a fictitious emancipation.’