This is part one of a three-part series by Fr. Jesse, leading up to All Saints Sunday and the construction of a Columbarium.

Reclaiming the Body

Nowadays people of faith don’t talk much about the physical human body. Many people assume Christianity is only concerned with the soul or the spirit. It’s not their fault. Western Christianity has really neglected to think theologically about what it means that God created us—humans, God’s chief creation—with bodies of flesh and blood. (I can’t tell you about how many theology books talk about “humanity” without ever talking about the physical body and only broach the subject when it comes to Jesus becoming one of us.)

Some would pit the body against the soul, in a duality. In the early Church, a group called the Gnostics tried teaching people that matter, the physical world, and the human body were corrupt, sinful, and in opposition to Jesus’ God, whereas they said the soul and the spiritual world were oriented towards that God. Their goal was to learn the secrets of the universe so that they could escape the physical prison they saw their bodies trapped in and reunite their souls with God. Others, the Donatists, taught that the physical world was so hopeless and lost that they reckoned that Jesus never truly became flesh and blood, he only “seemed to be” human. They thought dwelling in a physical human form would be beneath God.

The Church Fathers continuously said that these views were mistaken and incorrect. They said that a religion that was more faithful to what Jesus taught would recognize that physical creation, although it might be flawed and imperfect since the Fall, was still good at its core, because God created it and called it “good” (cf. chapter 1 of Genesis). And, they had harsh words for anyone who would doubt the Incarnation, that is the truth that Jesus actually became a human being of flesh and blood. In fact they believed that the Second Person of the Trinity dwelling in human form meant that God still had hope for humanity. A classic collect says, “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature…” (Christmas II). Jesus, by deigning to become one of us, has helped humanity along the way to what God originally intended for us to be.

Moreover, even after Christmas morning, God was not through with the human body. After the Crucifixion of Jesus, God did not abandon his Son’s human body, but instead raised it up bodily to new life and later ascended it into the heavenly realms where it would be incorruptible for ever. God saw value in this human form; God did not reject it as something untouchable. There is an old hymn, by Christopher Wordsworth, which says, “Thou hast raised our human nature / on the cloud’s to God’s right hand, / There we sit in heavenly places / There with thee in glory stand” (See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph).

Centuries may have passed since the Church Fathers tried to correct those misconceptions about the physical body in the early Church, but misconceptions have persisted down to our own times. In the Medieval Church, and to a considerable degree today, any expression of human sexuality was considered taboo and sinful, or at least less than us at our best. (A trap Judaism never fell into.) This theological framework is built around an assumption that the spiritual is good and the physical is bad. (So it would follow that physical intimacy would be considered a necessary evil for the conceiving of children and that clergy, if they are called to be holy people, must be celibate.)

At its core, it could even be argued that the Temperance Movement demonized wine and alcohol and others later demonized tobacco, in part, because they failed to recognize the intrinsic goodness in God’s physical creations. Some would say that elegant food and fine dining are unchristian because Christians should not be so sensual and pleasured. (Remember the film Babette’s Feast?) Of course such things can be misused and become problematic, but still they shouldn’t be outright dismissed as entirely bad, nor should we discount the proper use of them in moderation.

The result of these Centuries of avoidance in thinking theologically about our human bodies is that we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. God is not just concerned with the soul. God cares about our bodies too, because God created them and blessed them as “good.” In the beginning, the Book of Genesis says, “The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature” (2:7). The writer has used such vivid details that you can feel the earthiness and physicality; this human creature is truly meant by God to be flesh and blood.

In fact, in a classic Hebraic understanding of the human person, there is no delineation between soul and body: This was clearly the understanding of the earliest Christians. The often overlooked early Church Father, Nemesius, who served as Bishop of Emesa (present day Syria), wrote in AD 390, “Not a few persons of standing have asserted that man is admirably composed of an understanding soul and a body, and indeed, that he can hardly exist, or be composed, otherwise” (De Natura Hominis, I:1).

Despite our cultural framework of body versus mind/soul, we need to recover that early understanding of the holistic person, because both are essential, the two are intertwined and inseparable, together they are what make us human. The Eastern Church seems to have maintained this balance slightly better over the centuries, with even bishops teaching the faithful about the importance of both body and soul. For instance, Greek Orthodox bishop Nafpaktos Hierotheos recently spelled it out for his faithful in a pastoral address:

It is clear that man was directly created by God in a positive way….It also means that the body is not the prison of the soul, but was formed by God at that moment, and man was formed in this way a unity of soul and body….Man is not simply a soul or simply a body. The soul is the soul of a human person and the body is the body of a human person, i.e., man is always both, because he consists of both soul and body. [1]

He makes the point clear: From a Christian perspective, humanity means having both body and soul.

In the western world, much of the progress of recovering a sense of the sacredness of the body has been left to theologians, often those in fringe traditions, growing up out of marginalization and oppression, such a liberation theology, feminist theology, and queer theology. One prominent teacher, the late Dr. Marcella Althaus-Reid, who taught theology at the University of Edinburgh’s New College, speaking as a Latin American theologian from a feminist perspective, once wrote:

The point of critical reality is where poor women can end the Christian split between body and spirit in a drastic way, or God will continue to be thought of as a sort of “illusion of substance” or idealist starting point which feminists and post-colonialists alike have renounced together with the master‘s authority. [2]

The point is that for a variety of reasons, we as Christians cannot forget about our bodies. They are part of us, they are part of who we are and what God made us to be. They not be perfect or sometimes fail us or are less than our ideal, but they are integral to our humanity, and God has a plan to restore them…at some point, in the fullness of time.

I’ll pick up that line of thought in the next installment in September.

 

[1] Orthodox Heritage, 25-26

[2] From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, 83.