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

Noah: Teaching us to Look to the Future Not to the Past

During this 3rd week of Great Lent, the daily scripture lessons from Genesis are focusing on the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22).  Modern American Christians are often obsessed with trying to prove the historical accuracy of the flood story, doing archaeological studies to try to find the ark, or even building arks to show it all can be done.

Interestingly the New Testament makes use of the Noah story but shows none of the interest in the Noah narrative that we see in much of fundamentalist or biblical literalist thinking.  We can look at 4 New Testament references to Noah and glean what use the earliest disciples of Christ made of the Noah story.

First, we do have one instance in which the Lord Jesus Himself refers to Noah.  Here we will look at the version from St. Matthew’s Gospel (there is also a parallel version in St. Luke’s Gospel).  Jesus is teaching about the end times and says:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.   Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”    (Matthew 24:36-42)

Jesus uses the Noah narrative to teach his disciples to be vigilant – alertly watching for the Lord’s second coming.  Jesus is using the great flood as a prophecy to prepare us for what is going to come.  Jesus is using the Scriptures in the manner advocated in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:    “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”   The Old Testament is profitable for many things, but its most important role is not necessarily to teach history.  Jesus uses the great flood narrative as prophecy to exhort us to be prepared for the end of the world.  The Noah scripture is important because the return of Christ is going to come in the same way that the flood arrived: unexpectedly.   The people of old were not prepared for what happened, but we are forewarned.  We see what happened to them, and we are not to be caught unawares.  Thus Noah is a lesson gearing us for the future and what is coming, not mainly a way to investigate the past.

The second text comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.”  (Hebrews 11:7)

Here we have presented to us Noah as an example of a man of faith – he was faithful in preparing for what was for him the unseen future:  no great flood had occurred before.  Noah had no idea what was going to happen, but he was faithful to God in preparing for the future eventuality.   Once again the Noah story becomes for us a lesson in faithfulness as we await the future and the coming again of the Lord.  Noah give us an example as to how we are to behave now as we await the end times.

 Third we have a reading from St. Peter:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.   Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

In this reading St. Peter engages in a form of scriptural interpretation which is called typology.  The flood story is significant because it tells us about something Christians now experience: baptism.  The Noah narrative anticipates the salvation story of Christ and the Church.  It’s significance is not in the past but in what was for it future events, including our own baptism.

Finally, a 2nd reference from St. Peter to Noah:

“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if  by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”   (2 Peter 2:4-9)

The Noah story is being used by St. Peter again as prophecy – it is a lesson about God  saving and rescuing godly people from the time of trial.  What happened to Noah is a lesson for us to prepare us for current problems and for the future day of judgment as well.  Noah’s story from the past is not there to have us look backwards in time to search more into the past, but rather to teach us how to live in the present and to prepare for the future.  For the New Testament authors, the Noah narrative, inspired by God, prophetically prepares us for the future and turns our gaze not to past history but to the future eschaton.

Throughout Great Lent, the Old Testament scripture lessons are being read to help us anticipate what we are preparing for during the Great Fast: namely, the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.   Great Lent is trying to shake us from a wooden, literal reading of equating historical facts to truth, and making truth co-terminus with these facts, and replacing such thinking with an acknowledgement that Truth is eternal.  Truth encompasses all the facts of the universe, but is not limited by it.  Truth ultimately transforms facts by revealing their place in God’s plan of salvation.   Jesus was making a cosmic claim for the universe when He declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I’ve written other blogs on the story of Noah and the great flood, including a long blog series in which I commented on and offered Patristic comments on every verse from the Genesis chapters on the flood.  You can begin reading that blog series at God Questions His Creation:  The Story of the Flood (a).

All of the blogs in the series on Genesis and the flood are also available as PDFs, a few of them are:

Reading Noah and the Flood through the Source Theory Lens (PDF)

The Story of the Flood (PDF)

The Conclusion of the Flood (PDF)

You can find a complete list of PDFs with links to them at  Blog Series available as PDFs.

Adam in 2 Esdras (B)

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam in 2 Esdras (A).

2 Esdras does not flinch away from the fact that humans sin, not just Adam;  sin is endemic in humanity.  The explanation for why humans created as good by a good God are so evil is that God allows humans to freely struggle to produce virtuous fruits by following Torah.  Free will is real; humans must choose between good and evil and evil is as viable a choice as is the good.   Torah and evil reside side by side in the human heart, and Torah is not able to remove the evil in the human heart.

“Yet you did not take away their evil heart from them, so that your law might produce fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the hearts of the people along with the evil root; but what was good departed, and the evil remained.”  (2 Esdras 3:20-22)

Continuing the look at Adam in the First Century document known as 2 Esdras, we now encounter a stream of Jewish nationalism interpreting Adam.   For now the author of 2 Esdras sees the Jews as the chosen people as the descendants of Adam and the heirs of his life.  All the non-Jewish descendants of Adam are claimed to be nothing in God’s eyes, and yet the author of 2 Esdras laments that it is these Gentiles who domineer over the Jews, not the other way around.   His argument is that God said the world is for His chosen people who should dominate the earth.  This understanding of Adam is directly opposed to how St. Paul reads the Genesis text, for St. Paul ultimately wants to tie in all humanity with God’s plan for salvation, and St. Paul sees Adam as a type of all humans.  We each can understand our own story and the human condition in the story of Adam.

“On the sixth day you commanded the earth to bring forth before you cattle, wild animals, and creeping things; and over these you placed Adam, as ruler over all the works that you had made; and from him we have all come, the people whom you have chosen.  All this I have spoken before you, O Lord, because you have said that it was for us that you created this world.  As for the other nations that have descended from Adam, you have said that they are nothing, and that they are like spittle, and you have compared their abundance to a drop from a bucket. And now, O Lord, these nations, which are reputed to be as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we your people, whom you have called your firstborn, only begotten, zealous for you, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?”    (2 Esdras 6:53-59)

The fact that evil and Torah exist in the human heart justifies God’s ultimately judging humans – for the humans must make a choice.

He answered me and said, “When the Most High made the world and Adam and all who have come from him, he first prepared the judgment and the things that pertain to the judgment. But now, understand from your own words—for you have said that the mind grows with us. For this reason, therefore, those who live on earth shall be tormented, because though they had understanding, they committed iniquity; and though they received the commandments, they did not keep them; and though they obtained the law, they dealt unfaithfully with what they received.”   (2 Esdras 7:70-72)

Now we get to the despairing attitude found in 2 Esdras.  For humans have sinned, and despite having been promised immortality and paradise, we have been denied both because we each sin.  In the passage below we come to understand St. Paul’s claims about the new Adam, Jesus Christ.  For Christ came not just to be obedient to the Father, to obey Torah, but to die for our sins, and in this death to defeat and destroy all that death represents to humanity: eternal separation from God.

I answered and said, “This is my first and last comment: it would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an immortal time has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death?  And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?  Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly?  Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it because we have lived in perverse ways? Or that the faces of those who practiced self-control shall shine more than the stars, but our faces shall be blacker than darkness? For while we lived and committed iniquity we did not consider what we should suffer after death.”  (2 Esdras 7:116-126)

Old Testament in St. Paul's Epistles

The author of 2 Esdras is basically told that the rewards of God are still there for those who faithfully keep the Law of Moses.   Esdras begs God for mercy as he recognizes all humans sin and fall short of God’s commands.   What St. Paul recognizes is that God has solved this dilemma in Christ.  Humans do sin, and the Law is not able to correct this basic human problem, but God provides the means of overcoming BOTH sin AND death.  Nothing can separate us from God, even our failure to keep the Law, which has proven impossible anyway.  For now God responds with the mercy Esdras begged for – God forgives our sins and embraces us if we come to him as penitents not the perfected.  God has answered all human thoughts about the need for perfection or for sacrifice and ended that thinking in Jesus Christ, who has gone even to the place of the dead – to the resting place of everyone who sins – and raised them up to the Kingdom.

Next:  Adam in the Writings of St. Paul

The Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury.

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Patristic Literalism: Read for the Full Meaning.

There is little doubt that Christians shared with Jewish rabbis a strong belief that all Scriptures were inspired by God and that the reader of the biblical text needs to mine from the text all of the wisdom, power and knowledge which God has put into the text.  In the 3rd Century, the famous Christian biblical commentator, Origen, was a prolific exegete, commenting on a vast array of scriptural texts.  He certainly was part of that well established tradition which sought to discover all the wisdom and knowledge which God may have put in the Scriptures.  Origen was a brilliant expositor of the meaning hidden in the words of the scriptural texts.  Unfortunately he also held some beliefs which were not accepted by the Church as a whole, and those unconventional teachings were eventually condemned by the Church and the faithful were discouraged from reading his works.  Nevertheless, Origen’s methods and his prolific work to comment on the Christian Scriptures were imitated by others for generations in Christian history.  His influence in getting bishops and teachers to look beyond the mere literal reading of the text is seen in the number of modern biblical scholars who write about him.  For example, Peter Bouteneff in his BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES (pp 98-118) writes:

“For Origen, Scripture’s usefulness and importance are not primarily historical but moral, pastoral, and, finally, soteriological. … He states that the belief that Scripture ought to be interpreted according to the bare letter is tantamount to saying that it was composed by human beings alone, without inspiration. … The purpose of allegory, then, is to uncover Scripture’s latent sense, the embedded rule of faith.  As we will see again farther on, this rule, Scripture’s inner sense, is ultimately distilled in the person of Christ himself.  …  describing the pitfalls of a bare, literal reading of Scripture, for example, in the prophecies found in both Moses and the Prophets. (He calls such a reading Jewish because it fails to find Christ.)  The further hazard of an overly literal reading (or one unguided by good teachers) is that it will be insensitive to the awesome mystery behind the words and thus produce an anthropomorphic portraiture of God.”

In other words, for Origen, the importance of the Scriptures lies not in the factual recounting of past historical events, but how the Bible can and does speak to current believers about salvation, about how to live in this world morally, about how to guide us in our every day thinking and behavior, and in shaping our understanding of God.  Origen is concerned literally about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for:  “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).   The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” regarding history but rather the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world.   Bouteneff continues with an example:

Creating the heavens

“The aim of the Holy Spirit is ‘to envelop [clothe] and hide secret mysteries in ordinary words under the pretext of narrative… [i.e.] an account of visible things.’  Origen’s example …is the biblical account of the creation of the world and the first human being…Origen believes that the Holy Spirit even inserts what he calls…stumbling blocks…things that could not possibly have occurred in history—in order to shake people out of an overly simplistic or literal reading. …  (Origen argues) The Genesis account “enshrines certain deeper truths than the mere historical narrative,…and contains a spiritual meaning almost throughout, using ‘the letter’ as a kind of veil to hide profound and mystical doctrines” …    (Origen writes:) “To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a ‘first day’ and a ‘second’ and a ‘third,’ in which also ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven?  And who will be found simple enough to believe that like some farmer ‘God planted trees in the garden of Eden, in the east’ and that he planted ‘the tree of life’ in it, that is a visible tree that could be touched, so that someone could eat of this tree with corporeal teeth and gain life, and further, could eat of another tree and receive the knowledge of ‘good and evil?’  Moreover, we find that God is said to stroll in the garden in the afternoon and Adam to hide under a tree.  Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a figure… by which they point toward certain mysteries.”   …   [Origen] concluded that Scripture had indeed been dictated to Moses by the Holy Spirit, to the very last letter…Yet the Holy Spirit dictated not history but stories that contained complexities and difficulties, with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement.” (pp 98-118)

Next:  Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury

Freeing the Theological Mind from the Effects of Original Sin

This is the third and final blog in a series based upon my reading of Alan Jacobs’ book, ORIGINAL SIN.    The first blog is How Original Sin Impacts Christianity with the 2nd being, Original Sin: The Allure of Death

 I think it can be safely said that Genesis does not teach the idea of “original sin” as Western Christianity shaped by St. Augustine’s interpretation of St. Paul has proclaimed through the centuries.   God in Genesis is sorrowed to the depth of his heart and troubled by the wickedness in the human heart;  the Lord offers no explanation as to the cause of this wickedness.  Genesis is descriptive more than prescriptive when it comes to noting the human penchant toward sin. 

For St. Paul, Torah turns out to be neither a curative nor even a palliative to the human problem.  For Jews continue sinning just like Gentiles.  So what is the Law and why was it given?  St. Paul offers several ideas to explain this, but his bottom line, and his revelation is that the Law was a temporary help, to prevent the Jews from totally falling away from God, so that they could recognize the cure when it came.  The cure comes in the true Physician of humanity, Jesus Christ.

If Jesus is both Physician and cure, then what is He curing?   The answer in St. Paul is that inner heart of humanity in which wickedness works and draws us away from God, and convinces us that being free and being human resides in throwing off any allegiance to or faith in God.    The autonomous human, freed of the lordship of its creator, is the idol which has deceived humanity.  And Torah, which was as a tutor to keep us every mindful of God, turns out not to unite us to God but to reinforce our ideas of autonomy – WE are doing what must be done – we  focus so much on what we are doing (our autonomy – we are not dependent on God) that we lose sight of God.  When God does appear on earth in the Messiah Jesus, He is not recognized, wanted, or believed to be needed.  “We are doing just fine without God – our righteousness is what we do.”  Thus Torah has actually contributed to humanity’s autonomy from God!

Christ healing the blind

St. Paul is offering to his fellow Jews an explanation and a cure for what has gone wrong with their spirituality.   In so doing, he offers thoughts about all of humanity for he understands Jesus as being a universal Physician and cure, not limited to the Jews only.   What ails humanity, is obvious from the beginning in the book of Genesis.  What perhaps is lacking there is a causal logic, which is what Augustine tried to offer with notions of original sin.   Perhaps in the Eastern Christian sense of ancestral sin, we find less a desire to provide causality for everything that happens and encounter rather the description for what is: the mystery of human wickedness, which in Genesis even God does not attempt to explain, even though He tries to eradicate it.

The trouble with the idea of original sin lies in the belief that it can explain everything about human sin and failure.  It takes on a life of its own, however, when it is seen as necessarily and logically explaining everything about humanity – including what happens to unbaptized babies, and how to deal with criminals and children.  The Enlightenment, thinking it could shake off the shackles of original sin, saw the cure for humanity as education/enlightenment.  Education and reason ignores that same mystery that God noted in humanity from the beginning:  in the human heart lies a wickedness which cannot be drowned or commanded away, nor will we be rid of it through human education.  Fascism and communism are both the legitimate children of the Enlightenment, and both fascism and communism showed that humanity believed death to be the very means to cure what ailed humanity – the death of all those who disagreed with their ideologies.  Their belief in death as a curative led them to commit wickedness on an unbelievable scale.  The allure of death caused them to sin, as the Eastern Christian theologians said in their interpretation of Romans 5:12.

How Original Sin Impacts Christianity

Alan Jacobs, English Professor at Wheaton College, in his book, ORIGINAL SIN, takes an in-depth look at how, since the time of St. Paul,  thoughts on original sin have shaped the history of Western thought.  The effects of “original sin” have not just been the dominate influence on human behavior as Western Christianity sees it, nor is its influence limited to theology and preaching,  but reflections on and reaction to the idea of original sin have shaped the notions of governance, hierarchy, law, punishment, the 18th Century Enlightenment, child rearing, education, philosophy, ideas of what it means to be human, debates on nature vs nurture, psychology, sociology, and evil.

Jacobs presents a detailed look at how various Christian spokespersons have applied their thoughts on original sin to their times and flocks.  This is not always a pretty picture, for the curative reaction against original sin has at times been a justification for abusive forms of punishment, the mistreatment of children, and the idea of assigning unbaptized babies to the eternal fires of hell.  Jacobs does offer a few ideas from outside of Western Christian tradition at how others have dealt with the notion of original sin in their own scriptures and myths.  He touches upon the Jewish reaction against such teachings, and acknowledges that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has not embraced the same ideas as the West, though he admits to not comprehending the Orthodox view.

The notion of original sin and its impact on Western civilization can be traced back to the writings of St. Paul and his exegesis of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.  It is the interpretations of his writings which so influenced Christianity, and pushed notions of “original sin” to the forefront of Christian theology.

Why humans are not “naturally” inclined toward doing good, toward pleasing God, is something that has puzzled those inspired by God in the Jewish tradition from the beginning.  Logically, it has something to do with free will –  for free will to be true, there must be the possibility that humans can choose between good and evil, AND good and evil must be equally attractive, or otherwise there is no real freedom of choice.  Yet Scripture presents the disappointing story that humans do not even seem to arise to goodness 50% of the time, as mere randomness would have it.  Rather, humans are attracted to the evil.

Before the Great Flood annihilates all life on earth:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.   (Genesis 6:5-6)

After the Flood waters have resided:

… the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”   (Genesis 8:21)

The scriptures have it that even God the Creator does not know what to make of or how to deal with His failed human creatures.  God seems to acquiesce and accept that He will have to work with these beings He created, but who stubbornly gravitate toward wickedness, even when that harms them.  

Though Augustine and the Christian tradition tried to make sense of humanity by working out causality, God Himself does not speculate about human nature;  rather, He adapts His plans and thinking to the errant nature of these creatures He has made. In Genesis, God does not blame Satan, the serpent, or original sin for the wickedenss of humans.

God’s first attempt at dealing with human free will is simply to give them a rule – don’t eat from the Tree of Good and Evil.  But if He expected the humans to intuit goodness from this rule and to simply obey it, He was greatly disappointed.  God, however, does not attempt to stop the humans from taking the forbidden fruit, which can make us wonder why, since He will intervene and prevent the humans from taking fruit from the Tree of Life by expelling Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden.   Humans are not automatons, and God allows them to follow their hearts and to experience the grave consequences of their behavior.  This seems part of His plan, however irrational it appears to us.   The Bible is comfortable with mystery, though Bible readers often are not.

God’s next effort at dealing with the inclination of the human heart is the story of the Cataclysmic Flood whose purpose was to drown wickedness in the world.  This too as noted in the Genesis passages above (6:5-6) does not have the desired impact on humanity.  God recognizes that there is something about humanity which defies logic (8:21). 

Next in the series:  Original Sin: The Allure of Death

God Questions His Creation: An After Word

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

Genesis opens with words of grandeur and mystery:  “In the beginning, God…”  God creating the heavens and earth is the beginning of space and time which are necessary for our own existence.   Genesis does not begin offering insights into this God apart from His creating and His creation; despite God’s revelation of Himself, He remains a mystery to us, with His essence beyond our capability of knowing.  (Fifth Century Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus postulates that Genesis does not begin with dogmatics because the ancient Israelites were not yet ready to understand the depths of such revelation and rather needed to learn about the Creator to refute the false worship of creation the Jews were coming to accept from the Egyptians at the time of Moses who is credited with writing the story). 

The story of God for us commences not in eternity but in His self-revelation in time and space.  We in fact can know nothing about God apart from creation:  all that we can know about God is known by us (mediated) through created things (including ourselves!).   When God chose to reveal Himself, He created that which is “not God,” that to which He can reveal Himself.  God’s initial action inaugurating creation is to speak His Word, and in doing so light comes into existence.  God’s spoken work is all about illumination and revelation, making it possible for those with eyes to see.  God brings forth life, which is to say “not God” into being, and also empowers this “not God” with the ability to perpetuate itself through procreation.  That which is “not God”, creation,  shares in the life of God and the life-givingness of God.  We create and procreate because God shared Himself with His creation.

While we logically read the Genesis story as the beginning of our story as human guests on God’s earth starting with verse 1:1, experientially the story of Genesis begins for us in its last line: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt”  (Genesis 50:26).  This last line of Genesis causes us to stop and ask, “Why do we die?  How did we humans created to live in Paradise, ever get to this point of lying dead in a coffin in Egypt?”  We started with God creating the heavens and the earth.  We started with God breathing His breathe into dust and forming a living being.  How did humans created in God’s image and likeness, placed in a perfect garden whose landscape architect and maker is of God, created by God to have dominion over the entire world, chosen by God to be His people and doers of His will, ever end up subject to mortality and lying dead in a coffin in the foreign land of Egypt?  Why aren’t we living in a perfect world, in which God clearly reigns over all, and in which humans are clearly regents over every other form of life on earth?  Why aren’t we living in paradise or at least the Promised Land?    The answer to that question is exactly what the Book of Genesis is about. 

Genesis is our spiritual sojourn to discover how we became the beings we humans are.  More than a historical accounting, Genesis is a spiritual sojourn – the unfolding of human interaction with God and with creation.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, sums it up this way:  “The book (Genesis) commences with, ‘In the beginning God created…’ and ends with the words, ‘…in a coffin in Egypt.’  These first and last words of the First Book of Moses, Genesis, are in themselves a summary of man’s spiritual history, for God is ever saving and man is ever falling; God is ever delivering and man is ever becoming enslaved; God is ever giving life and man is ever choosing death.”  (TCAF, p. 3).

We read Genesis to understand our human condition, our human nature, our human plight, and our common human experience.  We read Genesis to experience God’s role in the world in order for this to be the foundation for our faith in God and our hope in the future.  We read Genesis to understand Jesus Christ.   We read the first book of the Bible to learn how to live in this world with faith and hope, and to prepare ourselves for life in the world to come.  Genesis is thus much more about our present and our hoped for future than it is about the past.  “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  We read Genesis not so much to discover the past, which we cannot change, but to prepare for the future – for the eschaton which we change by our choices now.

I conclude with the same words with which I ended QUESTIONING GOD“We could say more but could never say enough; let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’” (Sirach 43:27, NAB)

God Questions His Creation: Glossary

God Questions His Creation: Bibliography

Theophany, Baptism, and the Garment of Salvation (2)

This is the conclusion of the blog series that began with Theophany, Baptism, and the Garment of Salvation (1)

 We go naked into the baptismal font and come out clothed in the garment of salvation.  At Theophany, Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan and comes out clothed in our sins – he who takes upon himself the sins of the world.   This is the interchange – Christ becomes what we are so that we might share in what he is  – God became man so that humans might become God.  Our nakedness is associated with our fallen nature.  We are naked in church only right before we are baptized – after baptism we are clothed in garments of light and our sins are covered!  Christ who is God the Word becomes incarnate to clothe Himself with our fallen nature.

In a previous blog, At Baptism We Put on a Glorious Body, I mentioned the Holy Saturday Liturgy in which, like at every baptism, we sing, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.”  Putting on Christ means to receive from Christ the glorious garments which God had bestowed upon Adam and Eve when they lived in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Paradise before the Fall. As  Gary A. Anderson notes in his book, The Genesis of Perfection:

“And in his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul described the resurrection as an act of ‘putting on immortality’ (1 Cor. 15:53). From these letters three sets of symbols emerge: first, baptism is marked by clothing; second, baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; third, resurrection is a putting on of immortality. All we need to do is add the theme of the stripping of Adam and the picture is complete: At baptism the Christian is stripped of the garments inherited from Adam and vested with the token of those garments he or she shall enjoy at the resurrection. And, not by accident, the entire incarnate life of Jesus is read through the same lens; Prior to his incarnation, Christ resided in heaven clothed in glory. He descended to earth, assuming the garments of flesh bequeathed by Adam at his fall. There, he persevered all temptation and was obedient even to the point of death. As a result, God the Father raised him from the dead and reclothed him with a glorious body on Easter morning.”              

Ideas of nakedness somehow being a sign of holy innocence emerged in the Renaissance humanism and later with the Enlightenment.   Notions of the noble savage and nudist colonies being a return to what’s innocent and natural were born of a different age and mindset than that of the Patristic writers who received the message from the apostles.  In the ancient world when one was in the presence of a king, one wore appropriate garments.  This was the assumption they brought with them about being in God’s presence as well.

In Jewish thinking in biblical times, death – the loss of the body, was not a release from this world, but rather the loss of one’s ability to communicate with God.  In Sheol – the place of the dead – one does not live eternally praising God because without a body (hands, knees, heart, brain, tongue and mouth) one cannot even praise God.

 “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”   (Psalms 6:5 NRSV)

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going”   (Ecclesiastes 9:10  NRSV).

Nakedness in general in the Bible is associated with being exposed, vulnerable, extremely poor, being humiliated and violated.   It is not the condition of holy innocence nor somehow assumed as the “natural” condition for a sinless humanity – for those under God’s care are clothed and protected.  (See Revelation 6:11, the redeemed martyrs of the Lord are robed in white by God as they await the establishment of God’s kingdom – even here nudity is not the norm for the saved).   In Genesis 2:25 Eve and Adam are said to be naked in Paradise and yet not ashamed, but no explanation is offered as to why they would have been ashamed except for the assumption that nakedness is in fact associated with shame in Genesis.   They seemed unaware or unconcerned in Paradise about their being nude, but after they sinned they are aware of their nakedness and this is not a good experience to them; they try to cover their own nakedness immediately.   Most interestingly in Genesis 3:11 after they confessed being naked – God asks them, “Who told you that you are naked?”   Apparently god assumed they were unaware of being nude in Paradise – because He had clothed them in glorious garments of light?  That was the assumption of many Eastern Fathers in reading Genesis.

Standing in the presence of royalty, the ruled were expected to be robed in appropriate garments – this was the natural experience of the ancients.  I think it also explains the rather odd detail in the Gospel parable of the man at the wedding banquet who doesn’t have the wedding garment and so is expelled from the celebration (Matthew 22:1-14).  In the parable the king had commanded that everyone – good and bad – be brought into the feast.  Yet one who is brought in is then unexpectedly expelled because he doesn’t have the proper attire for being in the King’s presence.   Many biblical scholars agree that there is no known custom of providing wedding garments for all attendees of a marriage feast – something which would have been way too expensive for the masses in any case.  The parable seems to have incorporated the notion because it is a king who is hosting the wedding feast – this is a royal wedding and in the presence of the king one has to have the proper royal attire. 

Nakedness in the scriptures is associated with poverty, shame, vulnerability and being humiliated.   God exalts humanity by clothing them not by exposing their nakedness.  Even the Lord Himself is not naked but clothed in majesty (Psalm 93:1; see Also Psalm 104:1-2).  It is with glory that He clothes the humans He created in His image and loves.

And God said: The Cosmic Background Noise of the Big Bang

The Pulse of the Planet radio science program for July 4, 2008 talks about the sound of the Big Bang. 

Mark Whittle, Astronomy Professor at the University of Virginia tells us “that over the past few decades, scientists have been studying cosmic microwave radiation, the residual energy of the Big Bang. A picture made with this radiation revealed enormous sound waves moving through the hot gas of the young universe.”

Scientists have actually recorded some of the background noise left from the Big Bang and have simulated the sound they think came from the moment of creation.  Interesting, let us listen….

 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.  (Genesis 1:1-4)

Actually if you listen to the Pulse of the Planet show entitled Big Bang – Silent Bang you can hear what sound scientists think is associated with the creation of the universe.   It is described as a growing crescendo of sound, which grows louder as time goes by.  The show tells us: “Thee reason for this is that what is driving the sound is not somebody’s vocal cords.”  Indeed, the sound is not produced by vocal chords at all but by the will of God.  And the sound we can hear in the universe is well described in poetry in Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.    Day to day pours out speech,  and night to night reveals knowledge.    There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.    Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Science may be able to study the sound and the light of the universe, but God is able to see the goodness in it.  And science for all of its knowledge can only study the physical aspects of creation, but cannot see or proclaim the goodness of creation in fear of losing its scientific objectivity.  The first thing God sees in the light created by His voice and Word is that it is good.   May our eyes and our hearts always be open to seeing the goodness in the light that God saw from the beginning, and may we never be blinded by scientific objectivity to the value in creation.

The Quantum Natures of Mind & Matter and Body and Soul

We have, I believe, come to think in such dualistic terms that we lost sight of a basic understanding of what it is to be human.  The dualism is expressed in various ways – soul and body, spiritual and physical, mind and matter – but it always involves seeing things as dipolar opposites in an adversarial dialectic

But if we go back to Genesis and the creation of the world, we come to realize that all of these things – soul, body, human spirituality, human physicality, mind and matter all belong to the CREATED world.  They all are part of what God called into existence when He spoke that which is “not God” into being.   None of those human attributes are eternal, but all belong to the temporal created world.

The physical and the non-physical are not separate realities but both belong to this “not God” created universe.   Consciousness, self awareness, intelligence and conscience all belong to the created order. They are not just constructs of the Bible and religion, but belong to the reality which science itself studies – that which came into being at the Big Bang.   They exist in the matrix of time and space.  Any theory of evolution or of the origins of humanity must also be able to explain the how and why of intelligence, of consciousness, of self awareness, of intelligence, and the relationship of the mind to the brain, and the self to the body. 

This is not mere metaphysics but belongs to science proper since all of these things can be observed and tested.  The reality of the universe is that quantum type thinking applies not only to the wave/particle relationship, but to the spiritual and the physical, the mental and the gray matter, the self and the body, the soul and the body, time and space,  and even the divine and the human.

At some level all of these attributes interface, and communicate back and forth between the realms they represent.  We do experience mental and spiritual things in our bodies, and can medically detect their effects on our bodies.  Dualism is thus an inadequate  way to comprehend the universe.  God created everything visible and invisible – it all is created and in this sense mind, soul, body, spiritual, physical are of the same substance – that which God created, “not God.” 

John Polkinghorne wrote:  “There is only one stuff in the world (not two – the material and the mental), but it can occur in two contrasting states (material and mental phases, a physicist would say) which explain our perception of the difference between mind and matter.”

Thomas Nagel wrote:  “The strange truth seems to be that certain complex, biologically generated physical systems, of which each of us in an example, have rich nonphysical properties.  An integrated theory of reality must account for this, and I believe that if and when it arrives… it will alter our conception of the universe as radically as anything has to date.”

Amen.  It is a thinking whose time is coming and it will bring about a more theistic understanding of the universe despite what some think.

See also my Why is it Creation VERSUS Evolution?