Posted by: dacalu | 1 April 2019

Body – The Tangible Self

Last week, I led a retreat for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. We talked about life in body, soul, and spirit. I’ve summarized my reflections on body and soul here. More on spiritual life in the following post.

We tend to think of ourselves dualistically, as body + mind. This comes, most recently from the thought of René Descartes (1596-1650). Christianity has a different approach.

The New Testament, specifically Paul’s Epistles and John’s Gospel, present us as part of a continuum.

πνεῦμα           –           pneuma         –           breath

ψυχή             –           psyche            –           soul

σῶμα              –           soma              –           body

αἷμα                –           haima             –           blood

σάρξ              –           sarx                 –           flesh

God’s breath stirs up the dust making it into flesh through the circulation of blood, into a body through the activity of soul.  You have your own flesh, blood, body, and soul.  Theologians have argued for 2000 years about whether you have your own breath (spirit, pneuma) and, if you do, whether it can be good. I and others argue that there is only the Spirit of God. When it is moving in us, we are alive.

We can be confused when we try to collapse all of these parts into body and mind. Look at I Corinthians 15:44 (NRSV): “It is sown a physical body it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” This looks dualist, until we look closely. The physical body is really a “soul-oriented body” (soma psychikos).  The spiritual body is a “breath-oriented body” (soma pneumatikos). Both are bodies made of flesh, but one aims at nothing more than psyche (metabolism, consciousness, and individual life). The other aims at Pneuma, the breath of God, the Holy Spirit.  I Corinthians 15 explains resurrection by contrasting Adam as a living being (nephesh chay, the Hebrew term in Genesis, usually translated as soul) and Jesus as a life-giving spirit.

Body and soul are both intermediate, with flesh and blood “below” and breath “above.” But “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” and God chooses the weak to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:25-31). God chose the sarx and haima to be the means of our redemption. Jesus’ body, broken, forms the bridge between heaven and earth. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

This means:

  • There is no dualism, no true separation, only God reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.
  • We are all one in Spirit, not only with other Christians, but with every living breathing thing. In some sense we are one with all Creation by that one breath that moved over the face of the deep in Genesis 1.
  • We need not fear death. If we are alive, we are alive in Christ. Christ died and dies no more (Romans 6). We will pass through death of the body – and many smaller deaths. And yet, we continue, not only as the breath of God, but in the flesh and so in blood, body, and soul. The resurrection means that we can be in eternity, as we are now, fully alive.
  • We have a physical hope. As the spiritual is brought near, so the flesh is lifted up. With Jesus, we are resurrected in the flesh (sarx). This is why sacramental worship is so important (outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace). Grace is embodied in Jesus. Grace is embodied in the Church and in every individual.

Flesh has dignity, but it has dignity because it is caught up in the Breath of God. Therefore, we must treat bodies well: our own, our neighbors’, and the very Earth. And yet, we must not, in our souls, get too caught up in the flesh. Nor should we let our individual souls distract us from the life we have as part of a greater body.

Thank you for reading.  I have, of course, simplified a very complex idea. If you want to know more about souls and bodies, check out my book Life Concepts from Aristotle to Darwin. If you have concerns about how this doctrine has been misused to support oppression and colonialism (I believe it has, repeatedly and disastrously), please read the previous post. Life-in-Christ is not the same as life-in-Christianity.

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