Humans: Flesh and Body (IV)

This is the 21st blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (III).  In this blog we will consider a few more authors who mention the connection between being human and having a body of flesh.

“Christian thinkers affirmed without qualification that in the absence of a body a soul is not a person.”  (Robert Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 159)

As previously noted, a body without a soul is a corpse, and a soul without a body might be a ghost, but neither is human.  After His resurrection, Jesus tells the “startled and terrified” disciples:  “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  (Luke 24:39, NRSV)

The essential connection between flesh and soul/spirit is clear in the biblical narratives of God creating humans , in the Christian theology of the incarnation in which the Word becomes flesh and in the soteriology of theosis.   Poet Scott Cairns  beautifully weaves together the Orthodox theology of body and soul with poetic artistry.  [I often think it is the poetic nature of portions of Scripture and the hymnology of the Orthodox Church which will rescue Orthodoxy from being lured into the temptation of American fundamentalist biblical literalism.  Poetry reminds us that beauty and truth are the same realities.]   Cairns lyrically proclaims the truth of Orthodoxy:

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and yes, fully

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure. Fear not.

For even at its beginning

the humble clay received

God’s art, whereby

One part became the eye,

another the ear, and yet

another this impetuous hand.

Therefore, the flesh

Is not to be excluded

From the wisdom and the power

That now and ever animates

all things.  His life-giving

agency is made perfect,

we are told, in weakness—

made perfect in the flesh.


Many people have recognized the poetic nature of Genesis 1, made clear in the Septuagint because of the etymological connection in Greek between poetry and creating or making.   In the beginning God makes (poetizes, if you will) the entire universe.  In the poetic language of Genesis and in biblical thinking as we have already seen the flesh and spirit are not dualistically opposed to one another but rather exist harmoniously as a whole with the human being an ensouled body or embodied soul.

“Ancient Hebrew thought is not dualistic, and so flesh is not opposed to “soul” or “spirit” as the material “body” is in Greek philosophy. The latter idea shows itself in modern thought as the body/soul dichotomy and divides the human being into the physical and the nonphysical. Although the Hebrew idea of “flesh” is transitory as belonging only to mortal life, it is not the same as our modern connotation of “body.” In fact, Paul does use the term “body,” but for him it is a completely neutral term that encompasses all of one’s concrete earthly life, good and bad, as when Paul says, “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20).”   (Elliott Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 338-42)

Fr. John Breck reiterates the same truth:

“From a biblical perspective a person does not ‘have’ a soul, in the sense that the soul is an independent entity that enters or is ‘infused’ into a physical body at some specific moment: at conception, at implantation, at birth or whenever.  The human person, rather, is characterized as a ‘living’ being’ (Gen 2:7), which means a ‘living  soul.’  Soul is the transcendent aspect of our being.  Although we speak of the ‘separation of soul and body’ at physical death, the soul is still not to be considered an entity distinct from the body.  (More accurately, it is distinct from the ‘flesh,’ which ‘is dust and returns to dust’).   In other words, we do not ‘have’ a soul; we ‘are’ soul.  Soul is the transcendent, animating principle of our entire being.”     (GOD WITH US, p 51)

Modern thought is far more dualistic than biblical thinking.  The physical side of being human is also spiritual, capable of being transformed and transfigured by the Spirit as well as capable of partaking of divinity (2 Peter 2:4).

“The soul is very closely connected with the body.  … The soul is everywhere in man’s body.  The fact that the soul gives life to the body joined to it proves that man was made in God’s image to a greater degree than were the angels. . . . there is a clear distinction between the soul and the body, but it is not possible for both of them to exist independently of each other.  Furthermore, even at death the soul ‘is violently separated from the harmony and affinity of this natural bond’.  And this separation occurs ‘by divine will’.  Thus the soul is not man but the soul of man; and the body is not man, but the body of man.  Man consists of soul and body, he is a psychobiological being.  Therefore, the body will be deified also and it will be resurrected at the Second Coming and will pass into eternity.”  (Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, THE ILLNESS AND CURE OF THE SOUL IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION , pp 62-63)

So the empirical and corporeal world are made spiritual in the human because the human soul is the interface point between God and the physical world.  The human is the mediator between God and God’s creation.   However, Christianity recognizes that the world we live in is the world of the Fall, and human flesh has been tainted by sin.  So Orthodox Tradition speaks negatively of the works of the flesh which is understood in terms of the Fall – that will and energy in humans which has defiantly separated itself from the God of love.

“From the perspective of the Church, its Holy Tradition, and its reading of the Scriptures, the works of the flesh are not part of our human nature as God created us and wants us to be.  They are the results of wrong choices on our part.  It is true that repeated choices allowing us to succumb to the life of the flesh can become ingrained and sometimes even vicious habits.  These habits can control us to the point that we feel our behaviors are somehow natural to us.  However, they are really the most unnatural behaviors for people created in the image and likenss of God.”  (Stanley Harakas, OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 105)

Living according to the flesh theologically means living only FOR one’s mortal nature, living merely as animal devoid of spirit.

“In today’s existentialist language we might explain flesh as the condition of any human person reacting defensively when left to him or herself and bereft of God’s help and encountering the menace of nonbeing and finitude (Gorgulho and Anderson 2006, 72). Such a person lives in a way that safeguards the ego and thereby closes off the higher calling of God’s will.”   (Elliott Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 354-56)

Sin and death can cause humans to live purely in a self-preservation mode which causes us to abandon love for others.  In such a mode of life the abandonment of love cuts the self off from relationships with others.  This is the very notion of what happened to Eve in choosing to eat the forbidden fruit.  “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). From a selfish, self-centered, egotistical and narcissistic point of view, Eve sees the fruit as good for her.  She blinds herself to what her action will do to her relationships with  God, Adam and the rest of creation.  When one lives for oneself, one lives in self-love which is the opposite of true love, and dehumanizes the human who is created to live not alone but in relationship to God and all creation.  The practice of Confession is our acknowledgment of the ways in which we have abandoned love and become inhuman.   We confess our sins in order to repent and restore both sanity and humanity to ourselves.

As Eve and then Adam rejected both God and love, choosing to live according to the flesh, so they abandoned the Spirit and their own humanity.  Adam was made human by God inbreathing the breathe of life into the clay of the earth (Genesis 2).  So humans return to the dust when they lose the spirit.   In Christ, in and through the mysteries of baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist, we are reunited to the Spirit of God and recreated as humans.

“Christians now receive a ‘certain portion’ … of the Spirit towards their perfection and preparation for incorruptibility . . . Irenaeus is emphatic, as one would expect, that this takes place in  the flesh: they become spiritual not by abandoning the flesh, but by being ‘in the Spirit’, having the Spirit dwelling in them.  As Adam became a psychical being, flesh animated by the breath of life given from God, so too, by the imparting of the Holy Spirit, do Christians become spiritual beings, flesh vivified by the Spirit.”   (John Behr, ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN IRENAEUS AND CLEMENT, p 75)

Next:  Humans as Relational and Communal Beings