May 12, 2009

Flesh and Spirit

One important factor in the moral development attested in Scripture is the movement from taboo to ethics. The arc of this process is ongoing, and continues to this day. There are still some matters of morality where many seem to be fixed (or fixated) at the taboo level, what I would call the level of the flesh, the external, the physical. I have reflected before about how the prophetic tradition culminating in Jesus appears to turn us from a taboo fixation on "the outside" to look more to the heart and mind, in an ethics of the "inside" of a person. Much of the debate concerning circumcision involved just such a distinction, by means of which a very clear legal requirement was eventually set aside by an understanding of the moral issues at its heart.

Another example of this process is provided in the [BCP] lectionary from last Sunday, in which the Ethiopian eunuch is invited warmly into Christian fellowship; this in spite of the clear injunction in the Law — based, as is the circumcision law, on an objective anatomical reality:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. (Deut 23:1)

I have noted elsewhere the significance of the fact that the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah, perhaps because of the hopeful and more inwardly moral teaching espoused by that prophet:

For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isa. 56:4-5)

(How timely that the pope just visited Yad va Shem — the very "monument and a name" promised the eunuchs even before the righteous gentiles in the following verses.)

The promise is also developed in the Wisdom literature:

Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed, and who has not devised wicked things against the Lord; for special favor will be shown him for his faithfulness, and a place of great delight in the temple of the Lord. (Wis. 3:14)

And of course, Jesus offers this word on the subject:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. (Mat 19:12)

Thus there is movement from the external and verifiable taboo of the Law, concerning a fleshly reality, to the prophetic concern with the rightness of the heart, the internal disposition of the will; and finally an affirmation that something which under the Law restricted entry to the congregation should become a means of participation in the kingdom of heaven. (Though I think Jesus has so spiritualized "eunuch" here that he is not speaking literally: in itself a testament to the capacity for a physical fact to be understood metaphorically and spiritually.)

My point in this is to emphasize once again, as I have in Reasonable and Holy, that a fixation on the external and anatomical at the expense of the internal and spiritual lacks the prophetic grasp of the problems that face us, and the willingness to follow the movement of the Spirit so clearly laid out for us in regard to other moral questions.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

17 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

And all the men sayeth, "Ouch!" Surely that passage should be censored out of the Scriptures due to an x-rating.

Tobias, I had the same thought when I heard the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, except that I didn't remember the passage from Deuteronomy in quite such graphic detail. The fixation on anatomy and sex by certain people is mind-boggling. I don't exaggerate when I say that I am still stunned by it, time and again, when I encounter it.

Surely the focus should be on the movement of the Spirit in the inner person, which leads to godly actions in the outer person.

Fr. J said...

But isn't there a danger here of gnosticism, or at least to a fairly uncomfortable body/soul dualism? Yes, Jesus expands the understanding of the commandments, making it clear that what happens outside proceeds from what happens inside. But he doesn't say that what's outside doesn't matter. The point is that the body and the spirit are intrinsically linked, that you can't work on one without working on the other, can't heal one without healing the other.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I wrote in haste and used bad Elizabethan grammar. "And all the men say, "Ouch!" The words are the same in Elizabethan and today's English. I wanted them not to be.

Erika Baker said...

The strange thing is how selective this transition from the physical to the spiritual is in people. Wouldn't one expect it to develop as a general capcaity? And yet, many who have made it regarding some aspects of life and scripture remain firmly fixed at the taboo level regarding others.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks GM for the comment and correction. It is easy to get one's tongue twisted on those th's.

Fr. J, It is not gnosticism (or dualism) to distinguish between flesh and spirit. (Which is not, in any case, what I'm doing here. What I am distinguishing between is a morality externally based in "pure acts" as opposed to a morality based on intention and disposition. Dr. Richard Norris always used the example of "putting a knife into another person" which is immoral in the case of a murderer and moral in the case of a surgeon. Another example I came across recently is more to the point: if you were to be shown a photograph of a man and woman engaged in sexual intercourse, you would not be able to declare if what they were doing was moral or not -- the external fact is not capable of providing the information needed, which includes their identity and relationship and attitudes.)

The Apostle Paul and Jesus make the kind of distinction between flesh and spirit I am making here. This is not about any kind of "disembodiment" or diminution of the reality of the flesh, merely an affirmation (in keeping with Paul and Jesus -- see John 6:63) that morality does not lie in the flesh itself, but in what we do with it.

For more on this from Paul, see Romans 8-9. It is also to the point of my short comment above to see what he says about circumcision, in particular to the Galatians (3:3). Salvation does not lie in a merely external physical change in the body.

And speaking of changes in the body, Paul comes to his most radical statement on this subject in his total rejection of the body of flesh in his understanding of the resurrection: it is sown a physical body but raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15) This points to the life of the resurrection (and the resurrection body) as not merely a resuscitation but a transfiguration.

So I am not suggesting anything either gnostic nor dualist here -- but rather the understanding that morality is based primarily in the dispositions of the heart.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Dear Erika,
Yes, this can be a slow and struggling process. I think Paul himself is a good example of that struggle, as he came to grasp the truth of the Gospel and moved away from his own past reliance on the Law, fixated as it was on external compliance with commandments "not to touch, not to handle" Col 2:20-23

Christopher said...

Your book finally arrived, so I'm digging in.

Bryan Owen said...

Isn't it a bit strong, Tobias, to say that Paul's theology of the resurrection of the body entails a "total rejection of the body of flesh"? Total rejection of the body of the flesh on the one hand, and transformation or transfiguration of the body of the flesh on the other, are not at all the same things.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks Christopher. I look fwd to your response.

No, Bryan, I don't think that's too strong a way to put it. Here is the culmination of Paul's argument:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot (ou dunatai -- lack the capacity to) inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Cor 15:50)

Although Paul could certainly not have understood modern physics, he grasped something about the eventual dissolution of the physical universe that many people fail to understand: that matter itself has a sell-by date, and will eventually dissolve into a cold neutrino soup, which will eventually "evaporate" into nothingness.

The reason this is not dualistic is that it imputes no "evil" to matter (as C.S. Lewis observed, "God likes matter. He invented it.") But matter is impermanent -- by design; whereas Spirit is eternal. This is why the body of the resurrection is "a spiritual body" -- as Paul says.

The whole old-fashioned (scholastic) notion of the resurrection (which isn't really biblical, and by rejecting atomic theory isn't modern either) imagines that people have "particular" bodies -- whereas in fact our bodies are a constantly shifting collection of different material substances. At any given moment, you inhale at least a few oxygen molecules that were once inhaled by Jesus, or Socrates, or Genghis Khan -- and they become part of your body for a time. The body of the resurrection is not connected with somehow reassembling the atoms "I died in" but rather in the spiritual body of my true self being reexpressed in a transfigured form. Spiritual being, as I think Augustine once noted, is more like music than architecture. Each of us is like the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven -- conceived in his mind and then expressed, but coming alive again in orchestra after orchestra.

I am comforted in the fact that a contemporary scientific understanding of these matters is conformable to the biblical witness on the subject! As Paul also noted, if for this life alone we had hopes, we are of all the most to be pitied. The world to come is not simply a better version of this material world -- it is a new creation.

At least, that is how I think Paul sees it.

Bryan Owen said...

But affirming a new creation is not the same thing as a total rejection of the body of the flesh. After all, creation includes bodies. So new creation means a reaffirmation of the body of the flesh - or a transfiguration, as you say, or perhaps even better, a transformation. That does mean a total rejection of sickness, death and decay, but that's not the same thing as rejecting flesh per se. Nor does it necessarily entail rejecting any notion of continuity in the midst of the radical changes of transformation.

That seems, to me at least, to be part of the point of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus. According to the Gospel accounts, he has a real flesh-and-bones body. And while there are things about him that are the same, he's also different. Now you recognize him, now you don't. Now he's eating a piece of fish, now he's appearing through locked doors.

Maybe I'm just missing the point. But it seems to me that, in the midst of New Testament diversity, there's a strong affirmation of the goodness of all of material creation (the flesh included), and of God's will that nothing be left behind, but rather healed and restored. Even if it takes a radical act of new creation instigated by Jesus' resurrection (which Rowan Williams calls "a second 'Big Bang'").

Maybe we're saying something similar in different ways?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

I think there are several things at work here. First, I am trying to follow Paul's distinction between flesh and spirit, not between body and spirit (which I think gets him wrong). He is not denying that there is a "spiritual body" just that it is not the same as the "physical body." The physical, of flesh (psykikon, sarx) body perishes -- it is perishable; while the pneumatic body is eternal.

Luke is the evangelist who emphasizes the flesh and bones body of the risen Christ the most, contrasted with a "ghost." (pneuma) All I can say is that there is clearly some tension (or development -- or reaction?) with the Pauline description of the Risen Christ. Of course, what Paul experienced on the road to Damascus was not just the Risen Christ but the Ascended Christ -- so perhaps that is his way of understanding the Resurrection in a less fleshly way --- and provides a rational for his different emphasis, to which Luke may have been reacting (?)

We could speculate endlessly on the body of the Risen Christ -- and let me affirm that I think it fair to say the Gospels attest that whatever the nature of his resurrection it included the wounded and crucified body. But it must have been more than that, not less -- unlike Lazarus and the other resuscitated folks from Jesus' own ministry, there is a truly qualitative difference about the Risen Christ. And we aren't given much detail about it.

But as I alluded to, I'm trying to put this into language that is meaningful in a post-Ptolemaic and even post-Newtonian world, in which the resurrection (of Jesus and us all) must be understood in light of the eventual dissolution of all things physical. The physical universe will not enter into the spiritual world of the new creation. To use another analogy, it is about software, not hardware. None of this is to suggest that matter is bad, certainly not evil -- but that it serves a temporary end. I join C.S. Lewis in thinking of Spirit as more real and solid than matter, not less. Sadly, our prevailing culture tends to see the spirit as ephemeral or ghostly, but I think it is on the contrary stronger (and more enduring) than matter. That's one of the reasons, for instance, I think the Risen Christ could walk through doors!

I'm not sure we are saying something similar -- perhaps more addressing the same truth from a different metaphysical angle. And this may reflect as well the different views between Paul and the Synoptics.

Bryan Owen said...

Yes, we may be saying something entirely different from one another. My understanding is that the very idea of "resurrection" in New Testament times by definition incluedes "bodies," and thus, by definition, cannot include "the total rejection of the body of the flesh." Indeed, in my understanding, such a total rejection resonates more with forms of Gnosticism and Greek philosophy than with the Christian faith articulated by New Testament writers such as Paul.

I'm not sure how "meaningful" it is to "translate" (which often entails a substantive change in core meaning) a term like "resurrection." If it leads to something contrary to the creedal affirmation of the resurrection of the body, then I think it could be a real problem.

N. T. Wright's discussion of Paul's theology of resurrection - and specifically his notion of what gets translated into English as "spiritual body" - in The Resurrection of the Son of God, is quite helpful. It goes a long way towards deflating notions that Paul - being insufficiently Jewish - espoused a theology of resurrection that had little if anything to do with bodies.

In short, I disagree with readings of Paul - and the other NT writers - which read them as endorsing a total rejection of the body of the flesh. And I say that knowing that, for me, it's hard to even conceive of an imperishable body. But, in my reading, that's an intrinsic part of the Christian hope.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bryan, perhaps we are talking at cross-purposes here. I am in no way rejecting the concept of "body" -- what I am saying, with Paul, is that the body of the resurrection is spiritual. I know how hard it is for us to hear that without hearing it as a rejection of "body" altogether.

The problem (as I see it) is that we have been taught ever since the Age of Reason to think of "spiritual" as somehow unreal or at best ephemeral. My point is that Spirit is _more_ real than matter and energy, not less. In fact, Spirit (for God is Spirit) is the cause (in every sense) of matter and energy: of all that is, visible and invisible.

So yes, there is definitely an imperishable body -- and it is a spiritual body. It is not that Paul proposes a "disembodied" notion of resurrection, but that the substance of the risen body is not "of the flesh." Resurrection is not simply reanimation or reincarnation: it is something totally new and eternal, made of eternal "stuff."

It seems to me the only other option, depends on the everlasting existence of some kind of material world (that is, made of matter that does not follow the laws of physics). But this begs the question that time itself is part of the material universe: part of and inextricably bound up with the fleshly world of matter and energy. To put Paul's language about flesh and blood not inheriting the kingdom in modern terms: physical matter cannot exist apart from space-time. You cannot "take" matter out of the cosmos.

To be truly one with God, in eternity (which is not simply a very long duration of time but outside of time itself, and thus out of space), requires something other than matter and energy; and Scripture attests to Spirit as that which is eternal. And the body of the resurrection, as Paul affirms, is a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot (are incapable of) the kingdom. That which by its nature perishes cannot simply "become" imperishable. The first man was made of perishable dust, the new man (Jesus) is a lifegiving spirit.

Again, this is not gnosticism, which rejects the flesh _in this world_ (or attempts to) which is quite missing the point. While we are in the flesh we must deal with the flesh; but we are not to set our heart upon it.

Clearly, as I note, there is some tension in the Scriptural handling of this subject, a tension which in later years gives rise to notions I think hardly commendable to the modern mind (such as the Articles' insistence that Jesus took his "flesh and bones" into heaven and "sits" there waiting to come again.) A literal interpretation of these notions (the idea of a "local" heaven) is hardly congruent with Paul's much more spacious vision, which for all its faults, is capable of an understanding which someone familiar with space-time and the actual structure of the cosmos need not find ridiculous.

But again, let me say one last time: this is not a rejection of embodiment. The creed does not say, "We believe in the resurrection of the flesh." It speaks of the resurrection of the body. And that body is spiritual.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias and Bryan, I've been following your discussion rather closely, because I find the Paul's phrase "spiritual body" troubling, too. I think of "spiritual" as incorporeal, thus the two words together seem mutually contradictory. Perhaps I limit the word "spiritual" by thinking of it only in terms of incorporeal.

Tobias, matter has a sell-by date? I don't know if I agree with that. I'm not convinced that transformed necessarily means disappeared, is-no-more.

Of course, I could be wrong. ;o)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks GM. That puts the problem nicely: the tendency we all have to think of spiritual as incorporeal. That's exactly what makes "spiritual body" so hard for us to wrap our brains around.

As to the sell-by date for the material universe, it is really the flip side of the creation: there was when the universe was not. I'm loath to use "before" because time itself is a result of the creation. But there is in our distant future a gradual draining away of all matter and energy. This is a long, long way off. The estimated lifetime of a proton is between 6.6 and 6.8X10^30 years. The current age of the universe is figured at 1.37x10^10 years. Other theorists give a higher liftime or halflife.) An estimate for the decay of almost all the matter (protons and neutrons) in the universe is around 10^40 years. But long before the nucleic collapse, the universe will essentially have been reduced to a uniform (and lifeless) state. Of course, this is all theoretical, and if the expanding universe cosmologists are wrong, we may be in for a Big Crunch instead. But whatever the case, it seems that we had best not trust in "the flesh" but rather hope in the Spirit!

Grandmère Mimi said...

I'm still not sure that there will be nothingness at the end of it all - maybe just not matter as we know it. Where is Jesus, and where are the faithful departed?

However, I don't really want to go into all that, and I'm not losing sleep over it, because I don't put my trust in "the flesh", but in the Lord.

Anyway, I'll be in the sweet bye-and-bye when it all happens.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Amen, Mimi. The way I see it, "where your treasure is there your heart will be also" -- so we who treasure jesus will be with him where he is. That's his promise and his doing, and it's good enough for me.

I realize we've wandered off into some rather far edges of speculative theology and cosmology! My initial point was simply to note that morality and ethics, from the perspective of Jesus, are geared away from a taboo model --- which is where I think much of the present divide over sexuality is still stuck.