By Nathan Brown

It was a strange place to find something so familiar. It was assigned reading as part of a study program: a Catholic theologian reflecting on his church’s response to the state oppression, torture and disappearances in Chile in the 1970s under the Pinochet regime. Titled Torture and Eucharist,

William Cavanaugh’s study is a fascinating reflection of the role that the dominant theology played in “allowing” such horrors and its inadequate response to the abuses—at least, initially—as well as the growing realization of the need for the church to respond in better and more concrete ways.

However, the theological question raised in Cavanaugh’s study that most caught my attention—of course, because of its familiarity—is the critique of the long-held assumption that had been made by both church and state in Chile that the body was the realm of the state and the soul that of the church. It highlights the significance of the Adventist under- standing of wholism and its rejection of the more common theological assumption—drawn more from Platonic Greek philosophy than biblical foundations—of a duality between body and soul.

Cavanaugh goes some small way toward discounting the body–soul duality: “If we understand the unity of body and soul, we must understand that what is really at stake is not body-power versus soul-power, but competing types of soul/body disciplines, some violent and some peaceful.”1 He argues that this should bring understanding that state control of the body is also control of the soul and, similarly, the church’s ministry to the soul must also have bodily implications.

Not only is this significant for the individual, but it has much broader application for the church as “the body of  Christ.” Human individuality and society are not to be sub-divided into different existential realms but considered as a whole, in which the church—or better, the kingdom of God— is “a contrast society, a counter-performance of the body to that of the state.”2 The kingdom of God is not merely a spiritual reality or entity, but a wholly different way of being.

A Whole Gospel

This has dramatic implications for how we understand the heart of the Gospel, the message of who Jesus is and what He did in His life, death, and resurrection. As we seek to understand the fullness of the Gospel and Jesus—including His becoming human with all that entails—we should reflect back on the brokenness of sin in the fall of humanity, including its physical and social damage. If salvation in and through Jesus is to be complete, it must address all aspects of our lives and all the relationships that have been broken by sin.

This is where a wholistic understanding of human nature—“an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit”3—is valuable. As anyone with experience of violence, abuse or disease will sadly attest, “evil makes no distinction between our bodies and us. How, then, in our call to overcome evil, can we make that distinction?”4 As such, the Gospel must respond to, heal, and restore all aspects of what it means to be human.

Because we are spiritual and physical and intellectual and emotional and social—all at once and together—what Jesus did and does for us, in us, with us, and through us brings healing, restoration, and hope to all these aspects of our lives. Our souls are not disconnected from our bodies; God does not save souls, He saves people. This is why Jesus ministered in the way that He did, and instructed His disciples in this same wholistic ministry (Matthew 10:5–8).

A Whole-Life Response

I recently caught up with an actor friend who is writing a spiritual memoir of her relationship with her body. Her story moves from teen-age eating disorders and self-harm to on-screen nudity and off-screen sexual exploration, then to her conversion, ongoing acting career, and, now, to mother- hood. She asked me about our Adventist belief about bodies and souls—and heard something that felt familiar to her experience. Her finding faith was linked to her learning to better appreciate and respect her body, and vice versa. As we talked, she was enthusiastic about how a wholistic understanding of what it means to be human has so many implications for how we live as people created, loved, and called by God.

This is why the physical and social practices of our faith are as important as those we might consider more spiritual. As Cavanaugh’s book title suggests, communion creates an alternative community to the society around us. It is a physical, social, and even political act that changes us and the relationships with those we celebrate it with. As is foot-washing, kneeling or other physical acts of prayer, singing together, and even the act of gathering itself (Hebrews 10:25).

Our practice of Sabbath is no less physical and social than it is spiritual, which is one of its great strengths and a weekly reminder of who we are. When we stop physically, disconnect ourselves from our everyday routines, and for a day are no longer either slaves or masters (Exodus 20:8–11), we are practicing the reality of the Kingdom of God and are physically and socially recalibrated. Week by week, we practice this reality and, by such practice, it becomes a greater reality (Hebrews 6:11).

In our Adventist tradition, we have expressed this wholism in three key ways that contribute greatly to human flourishing: health, education, and stewardship. By each of these emphases—and the institutions they have built—we have aided the improvement of human beings and their societies. Unfortunately, in our past century, we have been less responsive to the Bible’s call to work directly for justice for others. But this wholistic nature of human beings is one of the rationales for why alleviating bodily suffering, such as poverty, slavery, hunger, imprisonment, displacement, and torture, cannot be disconnected from “saving souls”—if that terminology makes sense any more. Because we are never disembodied souls, the treatment of people’s bodies matters.

An embrace of wholistic humanity also points us toward the greatest hope of resurrection, restoration, and re-creation. We are less interested in floating off one by one as death takes us, even if to a “better” place, and neither are we afraid of everlasting spiritual torment. Instead, we are more deeply engaged with our physical/social/spiritual world—it all matters so much more—and when our current lives come to an end, we await the final defeat of death (1 Corinthians 15:26) and the renewal of all things (Revelation 21:5). This is the largest kind of hope.

From the darkest prisons of 1970s Chile to the glamorous façade of Australian TV screens, our Adventist understanding and practices of wholism help make sense of the best and worst of life in our world. And it prompts the best response to all the people we see hurting around us. This belief matters because it urges that it all matters—and it all will be made new.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. His recent book is Engage: Faith that Matters. Email him at: [email protected]

References: 1William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), p. 197. 2Ibid, page 180. 3Seventh-day Adventist 28 Fundamental Beliefs—“Seven: The Nature of Humanity.” 4Skye Jethani, Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 178.