This is the 19th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is The Angelic Human: An Angel in the Flesh?.
One of the issues with which Christianity has struggled, especially once it actively engaged the pagan Hellenic culture, is what is the relationship of being human to the actual body of flesh which is part of our existence. Hellenistic paganism was dualistic in opposing spirit to flesh, unlike Biblical theology. Christians received a tradition that the flesh was created by God was seen as good in God’s eyes (Genesis 1). Genesis did not portray humans as being spiritual beings who became flesh through sin or who needed to escape the corporeal body to achieve a spiritual goal, which was a common idea in pagan thinking Platonic Hellenism as well as throughout the ancient Mideast and into India in Hinduism and Asia in Buddhism. The corporeal body is created by God, is good in God’s eyes and is destined for theosis. Christians understood that God in fact loved the world and in the incarnation God unites Himself to human flesh showing that flesh is capable of bearing God and worthy of eternal salvation. Taking such a message of the salvation of the material world met resistance in the dualistic thinking of paganism which viewed the physical as evil and thought the goal was to escape the flesh. St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165 AD) for example says:
“If indeed the flesh possesses no useful function, why did Christ heal it? And why, in particular, did he go so far as to raise the dead to life? What was his purpose? Was it not to show us how the resurrection was to take place? How, moreover, did he raise the dead? Was it souls or bodies? Clearly, it was both together. If the resurrection was to be only spiritual, he would have to have shown, at his own resurrection, his body lying dead on one side, and his soul on the other in its risen state. But he did nothing of the sort. He rose with his body, convinced that the promise of life concerned it too. Why did he rise to his crucified flesh, if not to demonstrate the reality of the resurrection of the flesh? Wishing to convince his disciples who were refusing to admit that he had really risen with his body . . . he offered himself to be touched by them and showed them the marks of the nails in his hands. But because they still could not admit that it was he, in his own body, he asked to eat with them . . . and he ate some honey and fish. Thus he proved to them that resurrection would come to our actual fleshly bodies. Furthermore, having declared that our dwelling-place will be in the heavens, he wanted to show that it is not impossible for the flesh to go to ‘heaven’. Indeed, they saw him ‘taken up into heaven’ (Mark 16:19) just as he was, that is to say, in the flesh.” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 83-84)
So while the New Testament focused on Christ’s resurrection from the dead, it doesn’t openly confront dualistic attitudes opposing flesh and spirit because it has the biblical assumption that a human is a whole being is both body and spirit: an ensouled body or perhaps an embodied soul, but the spiritual and physical are not in opposition to each other but both are necessary to have a human being. SoSt. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) writes of humans:
“… they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual. For if any one take away the substance of flesh, that is, of the handiwork [of God], and understand that which is purely spiritual, such then would not be a spiritual man but would be the spirit of a man, or the Spirit of God. But when the spirit here blended with the soul is united to [God’s] handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God. But if the Spirit be wanting to the soul, he who is such is indeed of an animal nature, and being left carnal, shall be an imperfect being, possessing indeed the image [of God] in his formation (in plasmate), but not receiving the similitude through the Spirit; and thus is this being imperfect. Thus also, if any one take away the image and set aside the handiwork, he cannot then understand this as being a man, but as either some part of a man, as I have already said, or as something else than a man. For that flesh which has been moulded is not a perfect man in itself, but the body of a man, and part of a man. Neither is the soul itself, considered apart by itself, the man; but it is the soul of a man, and part of a man. Neither is the spirit a man, for it is called the spirit, and not a man; but the commingling and union of all these constitutes the perfect man. And for this cause does the apostle, explaining himself, make it clear that the saved man is a complete man as well as a spiritual man…” (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 7592-7603)
A human being is by nature an inseparable unity of the physical and spiritual, and any separation of the two leaves something less than a full human being: a body without a soul/spirit is a corpse, and a spirit without a body is a ghost, but neither is human. So St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) writing two hundred years after St. Irenaeus but continuing his thinking says
“’But if the soul cares for the body, and takes great forethought for it, and suffers thousands of things in order not to leave it, and resists being separated from it, and if also the body ministers to the soul, and leads her to much knowledge (gnosin), and is adapted for her operations, how can they be contrary and conflict with each other? For I perceive that they are not only not contrary but are exceedingly concordant … and adhere to each other through their works.” (quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 122)
Soul and body, physical and spiritual – these categories having become the framework in which the human is conceived are still shown as being mutually concordant. The human can be human only when the physical and spiritual work together to do the will of God. A human is not to neglect his/her body or his/her soul.
“When the body is ill, the soul is badly affected. In the great majority of cases, in fact, our spiritual capacities behave according to our physical condition; illness lays us low and makes us different, almost unrecognizable from when we are well.
If the strings of an instrument give a feeble or false sound because they are not taut enough, the artist has no way of displaying any particular talent: the defect in the strings defeats all skill. It is the same with the body. It can do a great deal of harm to the soul.
So I ask you: take care that your body stays fit, safeguard it from illness of any sort.
I am not telling you either to let it waste away or to let it grow fat. Feed it with as much food as is necessary for it to become a ready instrument of the soul.
If you stuff it with delicious dainties, the body is incapable of resisting the impulses that attack it and weaken it. A person may be very wise and yet, if he abandons himself without restraint to wine and the pleasures of the table, it is inevitable that he will feel the flames of inordinate desire blazing more fiercely within him.
A body immersed in delights is a body that breeds lust of every kind. (St. John Chrysostom)” (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 68 )
If we pay attention only to our bodies, to what is related to our animal nature, we will be nothing more than another animal on earth, whereas God has set before us the ability to be united fully to divinity.
“God has given us a body of earth, in order that we might lead it up with us into Heaven, and not that we would draw our soul down with it to the earth. It is earthly (geodes), but if we please, it may become heavenly (ouranion). See how highly God has honored us, in committing to us so excellent a task. ‘I made Heaven and Earth,’ He says, ‘and to you I give the power of creation (demiourgian). Make your earth heaven, for it is in your power.” (St. John Chrysostom, WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 146)
It is within our power to live in such a way as to experience the spiritual and thus the divine in our bodies in our life on earth. A foretaste of the kingdom of heaven is accessible to us.
Next: Humans: Flesh and Body (II)