A quiet rant on the theme of mind-body dualism and the church

I was introduced to this quote by a student…

‘The line that runs from the ancient world through Plato and the medieval church to Descartes and the Enlightenment and into the contemporary world, turns out to be inaccurate. There is not an opposition of mind and body, reason and emotion, spirit and matter, order and chaos, and so on, and still less is there a privileging of the first in each pair in comparison with its poor, dark twin: instead only complex, lumpy, ever-present materiality, which informs ourselves and everything we know.’ (Pearce, 2010, xv)

I don’t think the student was expecting me to rant at him about it, poor guy. It still rankles because (with all due respect to Pearce) that line does not run through the mediaeval church. The mediaeval church is the scapegoat for many things that people don’t like about their own history but, in this instance, the role of the church is much more nuanced than Pearce implies.

The problem is that the position of the church on mind-body dualism was fraught with difficulties that they had inherited. On the one hand, the church had chosen to communicate through the language and categories of the Greco-Roman world. Whilst Aristotle’s position on this is quite thoughtful and nuanced Platonic and neo-Platonic thought does seem to have carried with it the idea of mind-body dualism. At the same time the church inherited (whether it like it or not) Hebrew thought which insists on the mind and body as a whole, valued and redeemed by God. The mediaeval church was caught therefore in this tension between Greek and Hebrew thought, trying to maintain irreconcilable positions.

To be fair, the position of theologians shifted across this tension. Pseudo-Dionysius rewrites neo-Platonic ideas into a Christian frame and thereby inherits that dualism. Augustine has, it seems, profound misgivings about the body – and the importance of Augustine cannot be underestimated. But, as the work of Caroline Walker-Bynum has shown, church orthodoxy never let go of its Hebrew heritage. It is the real body that is redeemed or fragmented on the judgment day in the images on cathedral walls. It is the real fragments of bodies that are venerated, though not always without misgivings. Mediaeval church thinkers might not have liked it but they maintained the self as a psycho-somatic whole (not that they would have used such a phrase).

It is difficult to live with an unresolved tension like that. More recently, N.T. Wright has criticised the latent dualism in many Anglican (and Methodist) hymns. You can hear it too in Southern Country Gospel: “No more cold iron shackles at my feet, I’ll fly away”. In a sense the appeal of escape is understandable; the songs offer the promise of a release from a world of physical hardship but they are on theologically uncertain ground. N.T. Wright’s recent work has focussed on re-establishing the balance and on expounding a vision of Christianity which takes the salvation of the whole self and the whole creation seriously.

From a slightly different perspective, process theology (as far as I understand it) offers a potentially complimentary approach. I think it was Philip Clayton who recently commented (probably on a Homebrewed Christianity podcast) that we no longer live in the Greek philosophical thought-world, therefore we do not need to use the categories that have been inherited from the Greeks to do our theology. We can, therefore begin with our own contemporary categories to re-think both our theology and church practice. Personally, I think the notion of embodied cognition has a lot to offer even as it creates profound challenges for the way that Christians think.

That said, even if the church was not the scapegoat that Pearce implies, it would still not comfortably with the position she espouses. The church was, and probably still is, committed to a vision of the world that is more than “complex, lumpy, ever-present materiality”.


Pearce, S. (2010) ‘Foreword’ in Dudley, S. H. (ed) Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. Oxford: Routledge, xiv-xix

Walker Bynum, C. (1995) Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, Columbia University Press

Walker Bynum, C. (2011) Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Mediaeval Europe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Wright, N.T. (2008) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, SPCK Publishing


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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