"What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit." — Jesus
I want to talk about something which is essential to the Gospel, yet widely misunderstood. It has to do with the relationship between our flesh and our spirit.
Clearly we have both of these things. We know we have a physical body, and we know we have something like a mind or inner self, with a personality, consciousness, and also deep subconscious mysteries that we do not fully understand. Our mind has to deal with various urges and desires which come up from the physical or animal side of our nature, but we also have a sense of ourselves as rational and spiritual beings. We have both a body and a soul.
I think this is all obviously true no matter what we decide about the philosophy of mind. Leave aside the metaphysical questions, I think we know that all of this is true from our experiences as human beings (if I wanted to be fancy I would use the word phenomenology here). Materialists assert that the mind is just another name for certain arrangements of matter, specifically the neural network in our brains. For the purposes of what I have to say, my response is who cares? That doesn't change the fact that we experience ourselves as having a more physical and a more mental part.
Suppose you fall to the ground upon hearing some devastating news, and a sympathetic materialist philsopher walks by. "Are you okay," he says? "My body feels fine," you say, "but my heart is broken." Somehow he knows what you mean. There is no need for him to reply: "Technically, your mind is part of your body, and oh by the way you should have said brain instead of heart. We now know that the heart pumps blood, it doesn't think."
Also, when I say we have both flesh and spirit, I don't necessarily mean that they can be separated in a clean way. Our physical condition affects our mind, which in turn controls our body. Our bodily desires cannot be experienced until they enter our mind. There's not necessarily a clear-cut distinction between where one ends and the other begins. But even if it's a continuous spectrum, we can still label the two ends of the spectrum, and decide how we feel about each of the two ends.
So what should we think about our physical or fleshly self? This is a key distinction between Christianity and several heretical off-shoots such as Gnosticism or Manicheeism. These sects taught that the physical world was evil, and that human beings are basically souls trapped in bodies. Matter is evil, spirit is good. Many Gnostics even claimed that the creator of the physical world was a lesser, evil god several emenations removed from the true God. If this is true, then salvation consists of being rescued from our physical or corporeal nature.
But Christianity could not disagree more. Matter as such is not evil, nor is it morally neutral, it is fundamentally good! We believe that the physical universe is intrinsically good and glorious because it reflects the infinite splendour of the one who created it. Seven times he calls it good; three times he blesses it:
God saw that the light was good...
God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good...
The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good...
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars... And God saw that it was good...
So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. He blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”...
God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good...
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
___So God created Man in his own image,
___in the image of God he created him;
___male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”...
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good...
Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
If this were not enough, we also know that the Word of God became flesh, that he physically rose from the dead, he communicates his flesh and blood to us through a physical sacrament, and that on the Last Day he will raise all of our bodies from the dead. The Incarnation and the Resurrection show that God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament: he continues to bless the physical, corporeal, material world.
The implications of this for our self-conception could not be greater. It means that we must resist as a damnable heresy the idea that we are souls trapped in bodies. We are meant to be physical. We must treat our bodies with respect and strive for integration between our souls and our bodies. They are part of who we are. If we think of ourselves only as "souls", we will be continually frustrated by our inability to live up to our own prideful perfect image.
Most people struggle with shame, and with various body image problems. The first step is to recognize that our body is indeed created good by God—I'm not saying that a merely intellectual affirmation is a magic bullet, but it's a start. Instead of restricting our sense of identity to the smallest that it can be, a speck of consciousness in our skull, we must extend it to the extremities of our body. Even our spouse's body if we are married. (Note that all Christians are married to Christ, whose physical body in turn includes all of us in the Church, whether on Earth or in Heaven).
With respect to human faculties, we must accept the rule that every constitutent part of human nature is good. We cannot identify any part of ourselves, e.g. our capactity for anger or sex, or our ability to rule over Nature, and say that this is evil. It was created good by God. We may corrupt or twist it by sin, or it may be stunted by disease or deformity, but the original plan and purpose was good. Even if our anger leads us astray 99% of the time, we cannot say that anger, depression, anxiety, pain, pleasure, or joy are inherently bad. Jesus experienced all of these feelings. Admittedly he chose to remain celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but Genesis 1-2 makes it clear that God blesses sex and fertility.
And yes, this includes gender. God created us male and female, each one in the image of God (who, you will notice, speaks of himself in the plural at this point). Although our salvation in Christ does not depend in any way on gender, the details of our personality are influenced in countless ways by our particular makeup, and our gender will remain eternally part of who we are. This is good. Of course, the things which humans have in common are more important than the things which separate us. But we cannot give up on entirely on gender distinctions (like some Gnostics tried to do) simply because people have often used them to oppress people. If gender roles seem oppressive, that is because they have become distorted by sin, not because they are inherently bad. Men, embrace your masculinity! Women, embrace your femininity! (I don't mean the sterotypes or false generalizations, but the truth of who you really are.)
Our spirtual self is also obviously good and noble, even if sometimes it seems to be more trouble even than our corporeal self. Still, it is what makes us human. Even if we attempt to live as if we were merely animals meant for pleasure, we will never succeed. I don't just mean that it can't lead to satisfaction (as the book of Ecclesiastes points out) but also that people can't help but turn even simple ethical nihilism into some sort of weird affected ethical game. We are human beings, we can't help it. As the Bl. Simone Weil said, "Man would like to be an egoist and cannot. This is the most striking characteristic of his wretchedness and the source of his greatness."
So if we were created good, then why are we all so royally fucked up? (Pardon my French, but I cannot think of an equally potent and apt word to describe the human condition.) That will be the subject of the next post in this series.
But let me just say now that for a long time the Church has over-empasized the faults of the physical world, and embraced a severely ascetic mindset. This was wrong, as it implicitly denied (what was theoretically admitted as doctrine) that the world was created very good. But we are now so hedonistic as a culture, even in the Church, that we are not likely to make the same mistake. In the present day we are much more likely to fail to see the need to crucify the flesh with its desires and passions! (Gal. 5:24) Seems like a total contradiction with what I said before, doesn't it? But without this you cannot be saved, so it's a bit of a shame no one talks about it much these days, because it is an essential part of the Gospel which has the power to save you. More on this to come.
Next in series: Flesh and Spirit II: Original Sin