why God can do that with stuff–a postscript

The day after my Corpus Christi post I was thinking about ‘stuff’. It’s not exactly a technical term, is it? But it serves an important function in the account of sacraments I was sketching there. God can do that with stuff–change it completely without making it appear as anything other than what it was before–because God is already sustaining everything that is. I realized this morning how much I owe my understanding of sacraments and sanctification to John McDade’s essay on the incarnation. He borrows Peter Geach’s phrase to describe the presence of God in the world: ‘God sustains the world as a singer sustains his song.’ Thanks also to McDade (and to his reading of Aquinas) I think about sacraments and sanctification together with the incarnation and transfiguration. God has a way with creatures that allows them to be creatures, and yet to be wholly alive only as God’s creatures.

If God is already so intimately present to us, already keeping us in being from moment to moment, it doesn’t make much sense to think of ourselves as somehow competing with God for ‘control’ of our lives. The breath of God enlivens us, makes us who we are. I am who I am because of the mysterious interaction of God’s life and the human being–body and soul–who appears and thinks and speaks in the world. God transforms me–just like the Eucharistic elements–without violence.

I thought about this all in a different way as I read the account of Transfiguration that JK Rowling gives in the first Harry Potter book. (I admit to being a decade and a half behind with this. I am a loyal citizen of Narnia, and somehow it felt like treason. Now, I have to attend to the world of Harry Potter because of my children.) Hermione remarks that she’s looking forward to Transfiguration, which she glosses as (something like) how to turn something into something else. No, I thought (I might even have said it out loud…) that’s not really what transfiguration is, at least not as I remember and celebrate it on the 6th of August. That’s not why it is my favourite of the Luminous mysteries. And it isn’t why I connect transfiguration with holiness and the sacraments. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, his disciples see him as Jesus. The point is not that he’s suddenly something other than what he was before; rather, his identity becomes clearer to them as a result of his being temporarily, blindingly bright. So, I think, it is with us as God transforms us into the image of Christ. Our identity in God becomes clearer, even as we remain recognisably ourselves.

I’m told that Rowling’s account of Transfiguration becomes more nuanced as the series goes on. Guess I’ll  just have to keep reading.

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Aristotle on the soul

This morning a strange thing happened: Lewis and I found ourselves in the car alone. No interruptions from the children, and Lewis about to teach on–you guessed it–Aristotle on the soul. I dug into the topic this morning in the car with an unusual sense of having a stake in the question. The question began as 'how is the soul the form of the body, for Aristotle?' That's quite a difficult question to answer, as it happens, and I expect more conversation will take place the next time Lewis and I have a l chance to take it up. If anyone happens to have an answer to hand, I would love to hear it.
 
Fear not: I am not going to rehearse here Aristotle's doctrine of the soul. My hunch is that it loses something in the process of being summarised. Besides, it is full of paradox and warrants a sort of attention I am not able to give it. But I should, and I will, because what I could recognise immediately in Aristotle's account of the soul is the way it shows up in the Questions on the Soul of St Thomas Aquinas. His account of the soul is, not surprisingly, full of paradox and has been the subject of at least one paper I have read recently, and two that I have given at conferences. Surely there was plenty of conversation about the topic last June at a conference on the soul in Oxford (which I was unable to attend, sadly).
 
The question of the soul interests me because I am very anxious to retain soul language in Christian discourse. No, I don't think it is much threatened in mainstream Christianity, but I do think it is widely taken for granted. That means we tend not to teach about the nature of the soul or its function in our Christian life. I think (not without some background, I promise) that 'soul' names an aspect of human life that is inseparable from body and mind, but not coterminous with either. It's important, because sickness in body and mind is not the same as sickness of the soul; weakness in mind or body is not the same as weakness of the soul.
 
It's important because the question 'In what sense do [people with profound cognitive impairment] have a soul?' (which Frances Young raises in Face to Face) needs an answer that is careful and deeply grounded theologically. I would argue strenuously that people with severe developmental and cognitive disabilities have souls, regardless of whether their engagement with the world around them has grown beyond the level of an infant. The soul is not the same as the mind, and not the same as the body. We are too used to thinking about our relationships with one another and with God as somehow dependent on our own agency. But it is not so, not necessarily so. An infant does not yet exercise the kind of agency that sustains the relationship into which he or she has been born; the relationship exists, to begin with, because a parent does the work of relating to and caring for the infant. Of course our relationships with one another can be mutually intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, and such friendships are to be cherished. But if our relationships depended on others when we were tiny infants, so much more does our relationship with God depend on God.
 
I don't pretend to know exactly what the soul is. I cannot tell you in what sense it is the 'form of the body' for Aristotle. But I think that in saying that we have souls–that we are embodied souls, or ensouled bodies–we are affirming that there is a mysterious dimension to human existence. We are saying that God relates to each and every one of us as a parent to a tiny child, in the sense that there is a tremendous inequality between the parent's ability to understand, to care for, to bear with, and to meet the needs of the infant child, and the infant's ability to do anything for the parent. The idea of a 'soul' can remind us that we receive our very life from God, regardless of the capacities of our minds and bodies. The soul's capacity for God is not diminished by mental or physical incapacity, but by sin.
 
But sin is another topic entirely, best left for another day.