Flesh and Spirit I: Creation

"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

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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12 Responses to Flesh and Spirit I: Creation

  1. Drew says:

    Looking forward to the rest of this series, it addresses a philosophical issue I've been interested in for a while. If I may ask, Dr Wall, what's your take on how this applies to transgendered people? (men who have body's like women and vice-versa)

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your question, Drew.
    A "transgender" (or sometimes "transsexual") person is somebody whose body is unambiguously male or female, but who either thinks of themselves as, or else wishes to become, the opposite gender. (This should be sharply distinguished from an "intersexual" person who, as a result of a birth defect, is born with a body in an ambiguous state somewhere in between the two genders.)

    My viewpoint follows directly from the principles I outlined in the post above. In his teaching on gender, Jesus has told us that it was God's will that we were created "male and female". However, as a result of the Fall our human nature has been disrupted, and as I said above:

    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.

    Transgenderism is just an extreme case of a problem that we all have, of how to accept our physical corporeal selves when it doesn't match our self-conception. Whether because of overly strict gender roles, unloving parents, or some developmental issue, they feel that their body is the wrong one for them.

    Nevertheless, they are objectively mistaken on any definition which refers to facts rather than feelings. If you have e.g. male genitalia and secondary sex characteristics, then you are male. From what I understand of developmental biology, it seems highly unlikely to me that anybody has an unambiguously female brain sitting in an unambiguously male body, or vice versa. (This is not to say, of course, that there might not be a neurological explanation of why some people feel like they are the other gender when they are not.)

    So I think the wholesome and psychologically-integrated thing to do is accept the body which God actually gave us. Of course it's fine to lose a little weight, or shave, or make other minor cosmetic alterations if that's helpful to you, but trying to be somebody completely different is not the right way to fix body image problems. And, to take the extreme case, the practice of cutting off healthy organs and replacing them with (let's be honest) nonfunctional imitations seems really whacked. It's not politically correct to find this procedure disgusting, but again on any objective standard I think it really is.

    If any transgender people happen to be reading this comment, please know that I am writing this out of love for you, not hatred. Love means seeking what is best for the other person, and for this very reason love sometimes requires us to disagree. You might say: "But I have no choice over the way that I feel. Your supposedly pro-body message is actually causing me harm because I feel so uncomfortable with the gender I was assigned at birth, that to accept it as my true identity feels like being crucified."

    Well yes, that's the entire point of this series. If you are crucified with Jesus, then God will raise you up in glory. That is the good news, the "narrow gate" that we must all seek to pass through. But if you follow him he will also give you the Spirit of joy and peace, and any number of other blessings as well.

    As for intersexual people, they have my profound sympathy for being born with a condition which is almost certain to cause them distress and anxiety (not to mention infertility). In such ambiguous cases I think we should probably defer to the person's own feelings about which gender, if any, they "really are".

  3. Now that sparked some thoughts. This post is timely for me as I've been considering how to communicate (words, actions, walking the walk, any means available) the goodness of male and female to some people that I know who are skeptical on that point. The fact that they are taught to be skeptical -- and taught that being nature-affirming/biology-affirming is bigoted -- is an obstacle, to be sure. But there's an extent to which biology defines our nature, and we affirm it every time we eat or sleep or breathe.

    I see a tangle of problems in some really unhealthy gender stereotypes, some of which may possibly have roots in the old 'traditional gender roles' but others that are propagated as a misrepresentation of those traditional roles. E.g. if a man thinks that a "real man" is the chest-thumping beer-swilling football-watching type, and feels no inclination for that, he'll wonder if he's a "real man". But few people actually have that image of masculinity; I've mostly heard it from people who seem to be offended by masculinity of the "alpha" variety per se (or eager to distance themselves from it), and promote the stereotype in a way that comes across as malicious and intended to shame the alphas as somehow subhuman -- or as a desperate plea to be seen as better than that. And vice versa for women's stereotypes. As a woman who is in programming professionally, I do get bemused by people who think that, if a woman is actually good at that kind of thing, it is some sort of slight on her femininity that she has a "masculine brain". Whereas I suspect it's within the normal spectrum. Much like I know a woman who is 6'2" -- it's unusual and she's probably at the outer reaches of the normal distribution curve, but there's nothing unfeminine about her. I wouldn't talk about her "masculine height" just because she's very tall, & I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes when people talk about certain abilities being a sign of a "masculine brain". I think reality is a shade more complex.

    It also doesn't help that masculinity (esp "white men") is the scapegoat for most of the things that are wrong with the world. My gender roles textbook in college actually contained an essay with the thesis that testosterone is a poison. It was somewhat humorous but that didn't change the fact that it was presented without rebuttal in a college text on gender studies. What are the odds that the constant stream of hatred directed towards men -- at that kind of ontological level -- causes a certain percentage of men to snap and want to disown that identity at that same level, whether by surgery or hormone treatments?

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF

  4. Drew says:

    Dr Wall,
    An interesting, well thought out response. While I do disagree to a degree (though still developing, an awful lot of research has indicated that there are a number of physiological and neurologically-structuered differences between the average transgender person and the average cis-gendered person), I don't find myself qualified to really have a specific stance on this topic. Your presentation was excellent, and I can definitely follow your reasoning. Thank you for your perspective!

  5. TY says:

    I’d like to share a thought.
    I was at a Lenten study recently and a member of my church was leading the discussion which was on the life of St Francis of Assisi and the theme of the discussion was: living more with less. Fitting topic because it speaks to the life of this medieval saint. The speaker quoted the well knows verse from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
    The speaker noted that in that verse, "God so loved the WORLD” – that’s everything in it.
    This verse echoes the many Genesis references that St Aron makes about God seeing what he made as “good”.

  6. David says:

    If I'm not mistaken people who have sex reassignment surgery become dependent on medication for life, which seems pretty unhealthy, . . . but I'm no doctor!

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    TY,
    Looking through all of history, it would be hard to find somebody who had more joy in the material creation than St. Francis did. Which makes it kind of interesting that he was also an extreme ascetic, doesn't it? There's a paradox here, and it's closely related to the paradox at the center of Christianity.

    Anne,
    Thanks for your comment. Your diagnosis is probably reasonable for some people (of course it doesn't explain transgender people who go the other direction), but I assume that people feel weird about their own bodies for all kinds of different reasons, some of which may be cultural and others more physical. We live in a fallen world and everyone is broken in one way or another.

    And of course, when I tell people to embrace their masculinity or femininity (as the case may be) I don't necessarily mean we all have to go around being hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine (or dismissing those who do). I myself am more of the "sensitive male" than the "he-man" type, and the whole "Wild at Heart" image of masculinity doesn't appeal much to me. And yet I still think of myself as male, and masculine in so many ways.

    I think telling children that they might actually be the other gender (or that their gender is responsible for most of the evil in the world) is a very pernicious thing to do to them; it's hard enough to accept yourself as you are, without adults planting ideas like that in your brain. We have become so concerned with giving marginal people a fair shake, that we forget that most people don't do very well without any guidance or encouragement from society about what is a normal and healthy way to be.

    Drew,
    The compound "cisgendered" is a remarkably ugly sounding word for "normal". Although as a classics major my real objection is that the prefix "cis" doesn't actually mean anything (it doesn't come from Greek or Latin, or anywhere else for that matter). [Apparently I was misremembering, see below---AW]

    Also, I never said that there were no neurological or physiological differences on average between normal and transgender people; in fact I hinted that there might be. People get different dosages of various hormones in life, and it's obviously not surprising if e.g. women who think of themselves as men tend to have more masculine characteristics than the average woman, and vice versa.

    But having a brain with slightly more feminine traits than the average man is completely different from actually being a woman. Even if there are physiological differences between a MtF transgender person and an average man, aren't the physiological differences with the average woman far greater? (Hint: if the answer to this question were genuinely no, they would be intersexual, not transgender.)

    I've read that there are profound differences between the organization of men's and women's brains in general, so when I read one of these studies about how they examined some tiny area in transgender people and found such and such, I want to ask questions like: "but did you look at the rest of the brain, or did you just focus on this one area, to find the result you were looking for?".

    David,
    I wouldn't know, but it sounds plausible.

  8. Aron
    The Gnostic view of matter being evil is clearly rejected by biblical teaching, as you demonstrate. But there are some Scriptures which seem to indicate that a physical person is a soul contained in a body and that a human type person can exist independently of a body. Paul speaks of our bodies being our clothing or dwelling, but he probably does not quite think of it as a prison like Plato did. Paul said he would rather be with the Lord and away from his earthly body (2 Cor 5.1-9) and that our present bodies will become incorruptible bodies at the resurrection (1 Cor 15.42). He longed to be clothed with his glorified body and to be free of his mortal body. The former passage suggests that without a body of some kind, though we still exist, we will be in some sense “naked.” Given these various thoughts it is probably wrong to think of ourselves as being souls trapped in bodies, but it isn’t a heresy and certainly not a damnable heresy.

    Are our bodies a part of who we are as you claim? As the persons we are in this world, maybe. But in this regard, I don’t think the Scripture says clearly, so I don’t think Christians should feel certain either way. But as I’ve mentioned, it seems pretty clear to me that we can exist as persons without bodies.

    Concerning your response to Drew’s use of the word “cisgendered”: my computer’s dictionary (I think it may be the American OED) says the prefix “cis” is the Latin, “on this side of”; thus one whose self-identity conforms with their biological sex.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    Dennis,
    Regarding "cisgendered", I had read an article previously about the origin, which I thought I remembered had claimed that the "cis" prefix was just "made up", which I took to mean it wasn't a standard prefix. However, checking again, it seems that (1) the person who was claiming to have invented it apparently wasn't actually the first to use the term, (2) it actually originated from previous academic usage (making a Latin origin more plausible). Also, (3) perhaps he meant "made it up" meant something different from what I thought it did, but this is rendered moot by (1). So it seems you are right and it does come from the Latin.

    That a person can exist temporarily apart from their body is not at all a heresy (in fact, it is the traditional Christian view, and has some support from the Bible as well). But even if that is so, it doesn't change the fact that my body is part of me now. In common sense language, I can say that my hand is a part of myself, even though if I lose my hand in an accident I would go on existing.

    But to say that a person is a soul trapped in their body is a completely different statement! That would imply that we are not meant to be physical creatures, and this is tantamount to denying the Resurrection. And that is certainly a heresy. It may not lead to the damnation of every person who believes it (especially if, like Plato, they didn't know better) but it is a denial of something fundamental to the gospel message. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then we have believed in vain.

    I'm not sure which claim exactly you are saying is not clear in the Scriptures. But the statements that (1) the material world is good and created by God, (2) that God created us to have bodies in this life, and that this is a good thing, and (3) that we will have bodies at the Resurrection, and that this will be an important part of our blessedness; these statements are all pretty clearly taught by the Bible. Surely, if something is that closely bound up with God's plan for us, it is fair to say that it is "part of who we are". (Indeed, if our bodies are not part of who we are, then Christ's body was also not a part of him, and then what becomes of the statement that the "Word became flesh"? I think a denial of this would threaten to remove the entire Incarnational and sacramental aspect of Christian theology.)

  10. Hello Aron,
    Well, it’s just that I’m not really sure that my body is a part of “me.” Since I can exist without a body, then my essential self does not need a body. But having a body is better for a person. It enhances or improves their being in some way. At least this is true of the resurrection body we will be given. Paul said that he anxiously longed to be free of his mortal body and to be clothed in his glorified body. So that’s better than being without a body but it’s also better than having our present mortal bodies. But, of course, he doesn’t go so far as to say that having a mortal body is a bad thing.

    The three points you bring up (matter is created good, it is good that we are created to have bodies, and it is good that we will have resurrection bodies) do not imply that our bodies are a part of ourselves. Indeed, I can imagine that a Christian Platonist could argue that with the Fall our bodies have become prisons from which we need release. Matter may be good (they might have to admit, at least if they study the Scripture honestly), but spirit is better, they might say. I think you would have the better argument once they must deal with the resurrection body. We are ultimately meant to be (in part) physical beings and this is better than if we were merely spiritual beings. But they might still argue that “in this life” even a bodiless existence would be better than our present fallen embodied existence. Thus it is not necessarily true that our present bodies are a part of ourselves. And however good our resurrection bodies will be, we are still not told they make up a part of our essential being.

    I also bring up this argument, this modified Platonic approach, just to say that even though I might disagree with it, I don’t think we can call it heretical. One may claim that we are souls imprisoned in bodies (fallen bodies remember) without denying that we are meant to be physical creatures in at least one aspect of our being.

    Oh, and by the way, when you first said the souls-trapped-in-bodies belief was damnable heresy, I knew you were just using a little hyperbole to make a point. :-)

    One side note: Some arguments against the resurrection focus on Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15 that the resurrection body is a “spiritual body” (vv.44-46). As such, it is claimed, no one was really claiming that Jesus rose bodily. Some would claim that it would also follow that our resurrection bodies are just our spirits living after death, an idea some Christian Platonists might want to seize on. But this is just a bad translation of the word. “Pneuma” and “pneumaticon” are used but the fuller meaning in this context is “spiritually empowered” or “spiritually animated.” N. T. Wright points this out in his monumental study, The Resurrection of the Son of God (346-356).

    (Final note: Sorry for failing to use italics or for sometimes using quotation marks when I should use italics. After I’d mutilated some comments a month or so ago, I’m fearful of touching any HTML codes.)

  11. Aron,
    There was one point you made (probably more) that I forgot to speak to. You suggested that to deny that our bodies are a part of ourselves denies that “the Word became flesh” and threatens incarnational theology. But when we understand “the Word became flesh” we understand merely that the second person of the Trinity became human. He didn’t just become flesh. We don’t take the statement so literally that we think that Jesus’ lifeless body, when it was taken from the cross, was fully identical with the Logos of God. It is when John says that he came in the flesh and Paul says he came in the likeness of sinful flesh that we get the more accurate meaning (1 Jn 4.2; Rm 8.3). He took on human flesh; he was distinct from the flesh; the flesh was the clothing he put on while on earth.

    “The Word became flesh” is likely the most beautiful poetic expression of the incarnation that Scripture gives us. It is a statement which provides far deeper nuanced meanings once we explore it. God stooped so low that he “became” something different (in nature, not in person). It wasn’t just an Apollinarian kind of God inhabiting a body. I think Lewis went so far as to speak of God reducing himself not to just humanness, but to lower than even a beast when he became less than an embryo. The kenosis was a temporary change since he was fully man in nature during his earthly lifetime and is fully God in nature now. These are the more subtle points. But for the issue we face now I would want to emphasize my earlier point: he did not literally become flesh but he became the flesh inhabiting Word.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Dennis,

    We don’t take the statement so literally that we think that Jesus’ lifeless body, when it was taken from the cross, was fully identical with the Logos of God.

    On the contrary, the traditional Christian view is that Jesus' lifeless body was still fully united to the Logos. See here for some Scriptural and patristic proof-texts. But leaving aside this tricky point of theology, how on earth can you read 1 John 4:2 as a denial of the statement that Jesus became flesh? The obvious meaning of the words is that he did (and that the opposite teaching is the spirit of the Antichrist.) As several Church Fathers said, "that which is not assumed [by Christ in his Incarnation], is not healed".

    Your second paragraph is equally concerning, since you seem to suggest several times that the Incarnation was temporary. It was not. Christ was fully divine in nature while he was on earth, he remains fully human (though glorified by the Resurrection body) while in heaven.

    In any case, I don't buy the argument that if I can exist without something, it must not be part of me. My apartment would still exist if the kitchen were removed, but that does not mean that the kitchen isn't part of my apartment. And a person with a prosthetic limb or heart might reasonably refer to it as being part of them. I don't think the question of what is metaphysically separable is the relevant question when I ask what I should think of as "me". Christians are part of the body of Christ, and spouses are joined into one flesh, and the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. Bodily identity is a somewhat flexible concept in Christian theology, but it plays a critical role in the economy of salvation.

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