My wife has been taking classes from a counseling training center called CCEF (which we highly recommend), and one of the issues in a recent class was the question of how many “levels” make up a person. The standard secular view is “monist”– the physical is all there is; the brain is physical, and thought is physical. The second, favored view of CCEF is the “dualist” or “dichotomy” view– the body and brain are physical, but thought and personality are spiritual, not physical. A third view they mentioned is the “trichotomy” view, that there are three levels: the physical (including the brain), the mind, and the eternal soul. One of the problems with this last view, from a biblical standpoint, is that the words for “spirit” and “soul” and not sharply distinguished in Scripture.
I would propose a different view from any of the above, which could be called a “modified dualist” view. In this view, the mind (conscious thought) and body are of the same nature, but there is an additional spiritual side of people which is unseen. Some arguments for this view: 1) many animals clearly think, yet do not have eternal souls (though some might want to debate this– do all dogs go to heaven?) 2) the effect of physical inputs and drugs on thought is well known. 3) Much of what Paul calls the struggle of the “flesh” is against what we would call desires, which are things that we value and think about. The Bible does talk of having our minds lead our bodies, but our minds are still of the “flesh” which can enslave us– Paul talks of people being slaves of “sensual minds” (e.g. Col 2:18) and equates the desires of the body and the desires of the mind in at least one place (Eph 2:3). 4) The spirit is essentially defined as unseen in Scripture, while our thinking is very measurable and detectable. 5) Also, Jesus as the incarnate God was eternal in his Spirit, but his mind as well as his body was limited; his thoughts were one at a time, and he didn’t know some things in his mind (Mat 24:36).
The classic dualist view equates thinking with spirituality, which is a view associated with Greeks like Plato. It has the unintended consequence of making intelligent people be seen as more spiritual, almost by definition. This is certainly the way it played out for the Greeks, Gnostics, and also in the European revival of Greek thinking in the Enlightenment– the thought life is spiritual while the physical life is unspiritual. Scholars are valued and plumbers are not. In German, the word for intelligent is “geistlich” which literally means “spirit-like”, or spiritual. Another consequence of this view is in worship– people who believe thought is to be equated with the spiritual will not want to sway or show a lot of emotion in worship, and will focus on the lyrics of songs as the only spiritual part.
In my alternate view, both body and thinking are good creations which are “of this earth”, and will be radically changed in heaven, while the spirit is that part of us which is eternal. Thus an unintelligent day-laborer can be more spiritual than a professor. Worship is at its fullest when it involves both body and mind (with mind leading).
How then does the spirit interact with the mind? Of course, since we are whole persons, it is not so easy to split up the actions of different levels. However, we can say generally that our ability to do good and evil lies in the realm of the spirit; animals think but just do what they do, and we do not attribute evil to animals. It seems to me in many ways that Scripture uses the term spirit and/or soul to refer to the “essence” of what a person is, what he or she is in the “heart”. It is hard to pin down exactly what that means, but I think we know what that is referring to, in some deep way.
This post is open to comments. I’d like to hear what people think about this topic. Is it just a matter of opinion, or does science enter in?