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 Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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8 Responses to Flesh and Spirit I: Creation

  1. 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

  2. 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”.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    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.)

  6. 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.)

  7. 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.

  8. Aron Wall says:


    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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