I was spurred by the recent debate about baptism on the Fish Tank to think in more general terms about how to connect spiritual movements—repentance, salvation, sanctification—to physical facts. Seen from a certain perspective, it can seem downright silly to think that merely getting wet, or eating some bread, or being daubed with oil can affect our essential selves. However, I think that this is undervaluing the extent to which are bodies, far from being just accidental housings to our minds, are actually a fundamental part of who we are. I can’t say that I’ve thought about this issue enough to satisfy myself or solve all the questions I have, but perhaps we can think out loud together.
Take, as an analogy, musical instruments. Instruments change over time—horns, for instance, sound radically different than they sounded two hundred years ago, when Mozart wrote his famous horn concertos. Some musicians argue that horn concertos should be played on modern horns, which are more resonant and smoother in tone—wouldn’t Mozart have wanted his pieces to be played on the most beautiful instruments possible? However, others point out that Mozart didn’t write with the modern horn in mind—he wrote for the older horn. He was a musical genius; he used the idiosyncrasies of the instrument he had to write exactly the piece of music he wanted to hear, surprising changes of tone and all. If Mozart had had the modern horn, he would have written an equally beautiful piece, but it wouldn’t have been the same piece.
Surely God is as good a composer as Mozart. Surely he orchestrates his plan of salvation in a way that takes account of all the quirks of the instruments he has given us. After all, our bodies are as much a part of us—and as permanent—as our minds and our souls. We’re going to spend eternity in these physical bodies. They will be changed, to be sure, into something that now we can hardly imagine; but they will still be material. I think that it is a mistake to think that God’s treatment of us would be exactly the same if we were disembodied minds. We might wish that we were perfect intellects, unencumbered by these awkward bags of flesh, but we’re not. To think that our salvation would be the same had we bodies or not is to devalue God’s creativity.
In fact, I would go a step further (although I reserve the right to keep one foot back on solid ground, in case I’m stepping into quicksand. Feel free to be vocal in your disagreements, if you feel so inclined). Isn’t there the same lack of necessary connection between the soul and the mind as there is between the soul and the body? It is as arbitrary to connect the movements of our minds—repentance, belief—with our salvation as it is to connect salvation to our physical movements. God saves us by his grace, not by anything we do; and so it not inherently sillier to believe that he would wait for us to do something before he extends his salvation than it is to believe that he would wait for us to think something. Of course, this is not to argue that God actually does connect salvation with baptism or with repentance. The way to solve that is to look to Scriptures and see what God said. All I want to point out is that it is not a pure impossibility that our bodies, which are as much our selves as our minds, could affect our souls.