197. Are You Guilty of Misreading the Bible in a Heretical Way When it Comes to the Relationship of Flesh and Spirit?

I just received an email from someone in a quandary about Saint Paul saying we should “live by the Spirit” and “not by the flesh.” She, like many, seemed to think Saint Paul himself divorces flesh and spirit, saying the former is bad and the latter good. She asked specifically how to explain Catholic teaching on the relationship of spirit and flesh to non-Catholics who only believe in the Bible. I sent her the following excerpt from my forthcoming book written specifically for Protestants.


Spirit and Flesh

When it comes to present-day Christianity, people are used to an emphasis on “spiritual” things. In turn, many Christians are unfamiliar, and sometimes rather uncomfortable, with an emphasis on the physical realm, especially the human body. But this is a false and dangerous split. Spirit has priority over matter, since God, in himself, is pure Spirit. Yet God is the author of the physical world, and in his wisdom, he designed physical realities to convey spiritual mysteries. “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God,” as C.S. Lewis insisted. “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not … He likes matter. He invented it.”

We should like it, too. For we are not angels “trapped” in physical bodies. We are incarnate spirits; we are a marriage of body and soul, of the physical and the spiritual. Living a “spiritual life” as a Christian never means fleeing from or disparaging the physical world. Tragically, many Christians grow up thinking of the physical world (especially their own bodies and sexuality) as the main obstacle to the spiritual life, as if the physical world itself were “bad.” Much of this thinking, it seems, comes from a faulty reading of the distinction the Apostle Paul makes in his letters between Spirit and flesh (see Rom 8:1-17 and Gal 5:16-26, for example).

In Paul’s terminology “the flesh” refers to the whole person (body and soul) cut off from God’s “in-spiration” — cut off from God’s indwelling Spirit. It refers to a person dominated by vice. And, in this sense, as Christ himself asserted, “the flesh counts for nothing” (Jn 6:63). But the person who opens himself to life “according to the Spirit” does not reject his body; it’s his body that becomes the very dwelling place of the Spirit. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  …Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

We honor God with our bodies precisely by welcoming his Spirit into our entire body-soul personality and allowing the Spirit to guide what we do with our bodies.  In this way, even our bodies “passover” from death to life: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Rom 8:11).

Christianity Does Not Reject the Body

The “spirit-good / body-bad” dualism that often passes for Christianity is actually an ancient gnostic error called “Manichaeism,” and it couldn’t be further from a biblical perspective. In fact, it’s a direct attack on Christianity at its deepest roots. If we’re to rediscover God’s glorious plan for our sexuality, it will be necessary to contend with some ingrained habits in our way of thinking that stem from Manichaeism. So let’s take a closer look.

Mani (or Manichaeus), after whom this heresy is named, condemned the body and all things sexual because he believed the material world was evil. Scripture, however, is very clear that everything God created is “very good” (see Gen 1:31). This is a critical point to let sink in.  Unwittingly, we often give evil far more weight than it deserves, as if the devil had created his own “evil world” to battle God’s “good world.” But the devil is a creature, not a creator. And this means the devil does not have his own clay. All he can do is take God’s clay (which is always very good) and twist it, distort it. That’s what evil is: the twisting or distortion of good. Redemption, therefore, involves the “untwisting” of what sin and evil have twisted so we can recover the true good.

In today’s world, sin and evil have twisted the meaning of the body and sexuality almost beyond recognition. But the solution is never to blame the body itself; it’s never to reject or eschew or flee from our sexuality. That approach is gnostic and Manichaean in its very essence. And if that’s our approach, we haven’t overcome the devil’s lies. We’ve fallen right into his trap. His fundamental goal is always to split body and soul. Why? Well, there’s a fancy word for the separation of body and soul. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Death. That’s where Manichaeism, like all heresies, leads.

The true solution to all of the pornographic distortions of the body so prevalent today is not the rejection of the body, but the redemption of the body (see Rom 8:23): the “untwisting” of what sin has twisted so we can recover the true glory, splendor, and inestimable value of the body. John Paul II summarized the critical distinction between the Manichaean and Christian approaches to the body as follows: If the Manichaean mentality places an “anti-value” on the body and sex, Christianity teaches that the body and sex “always remain a ‘value not sufficiently appreciated.’” In other words, if Manichaeism says “the body is bad,” Christianity says “the body is so good we have yet to fathom it.”

We must say this loudly, clearly, and repeatedly until it sinks in and heals our wounds: Christianity does not reject the body! As C.S. Lewis insisted, “Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body – which believes that matter is good, that God himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness.”

Of course, it would be an oversight not to acknowledge that, in this life, our bodies are often a source of great unhappiness and sometimes terrible suffering. Genetic defects, disease, sickness, injury and a great many other maladies and misfortunes ­– not the least of which is the inevitability of death – can cause us to loathe our bodily existence. Or, united to the bodily sufferings and death of Christ, our bodily maladies and misfortunes can become something redemptive – for us and for others. Suffering, as I once heard it said, can either break us, or break us open to the mystery of Christ. Matthew Lee Anderson expressed the conundrum well: “This is the paradox of the body: The body is a temple, but the temple is in ruins. The incarnation of Jesus affirms the body’s original goodness. The death of Jesus reminds us of its need for redemption. And the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for its restoration.”

Question: Why do you think we find it so hard to hold spiritual and physical realities together? Please share on Facebook and Twitter.

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