by Kelsey Vandeventer
It was the philosopher, Plato, who wrote that things, which are distinct, are necessarily opposed. The soul is immortal and superior, while the body is mortal and base, and it is the job of philosophy to free oneself from the chains of the body. In death, the body dies, while the soul rises to Freedom.
This classical Greek idea created a distance between the earthy world and the heavenly world. They germinated Western thought, the University with its categories and subjects, and even forms of Christianity.
We see evidence of this Greek influence in Puritan and fundamental denominations that believe in the separation between the flesh and the spirit and faith and works. For example, works and the body are merely accessories to faith and the spirit. The body, many believe, is only a vessel for our souls while we live on earth, as the innately sinful part of a human. Its desires must be reigned in and even ignored. Church buildings are extraneous and mostly functional. And thanks to Augustine, who attributes the origin of sin to sex, shame and guilt are often weaved into our relationships with our bodies.
Where do we get this opposition and discomfort with our bodies and the world around us? Paul’s epistles that focus on the flesh and the spirit are often interpreted through this lens, and our solution is to pray more and stay away from bodily experiences and desires.
Another common selection is: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6). This verse addresses priorities and what someone really cares about. Let’s suppose that earth means Earth and heaven is located up ‘there’ but also associated with specifically Christian things: church and the Bible. But, if the Word is in all things to a degree, including creation, scripture, and people, then earth has to mean something different than Earth. If earth, as a physical location, is destructive, and heaven–including ‘spiritual’ things like church and the Bible–is good, then we can evaluate people’s motives and place them in either camp. But, let’s face it. We can’t pin God down into categories of where he is and where he is not because we just don’t know, and filtering people through principles is not realistic. I think we’re often uncomfortable with mystery, with the weaving of the physical and spiritual, because it leaves us without the reigns. This is true for me. When we can say where something ends and something begins, we can judge and evaluate a circumstance or person. The point is is that there are more things going on than we can see, and God and truth are found in more curious places than we can put a finger on. When we disallow mystery, we miss people, we miss God, and we miss the curious combination of what we see and what we can’t.
There are some dangerous consequences with this type of rational. Do we ignore the fact that Jesus came to us in a human, Mary, and in human form, and that physicality– a body, a cross, and resurrection– is our way into life? Saint Athanasius writes in On the Incarnation, “His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument… At one and the same time — this is the wonder — as man He was a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.” And again: “…in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body” (On the Incarnation 43). This is a mind-bending, mysterious combination of the physical and spiritual. Through the physical, what we know and can sense, we have a way into life, and we are healed in both body and soul. It was the fall of humans in Genesis that caused nature to turn on itself and also was the fissure that broke body and soul apart, but it is Christ who sewed them back together. So, perpetuating this separation is really only perpetuating death. In the Orthodox tradition, after Christ was crucified on the cross, he descended into hell– called the “harrowing of Hell.”
In this famous icon, Christ descends into hell and breaks Adam and Eve’s chains with the very body that died, raising them with him in resurrection. A hymn sung at Easter, or Pascha, repeats in increasing volume, intensity, and joy: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” It is with his body that he redeems and unites both the physical and spiritual realms.
What I am not saying is that no distinctions exist. Good is still good and evil is still evil. God and Satan do not have pow-wows. But, the places and people where we connect with God often surprise us, and the physical and spiritual are much closer than we may realize. Our senses and what we can sense are not an end in themselves but precisely the way into life.
This story will serve as a window into part two of this article (next month) in which I’ll explore how this union influences our view of death, the dead, prayer, and hope. For centuries, Mount Athos in Greece has been a haven for monasteries and ascetics. One day, two monks were out walking and one monk fell down very far and landed on a large boulder. He should have been hurt, and probably killed. However, he was unharmed. The priest who told me this story said that they attribute this miracle to prayer that, over hundreds of years, has seeped into the mountain’s very landscape, restoring nature to itself, and this being the embodiment of harmony that saved the monk’s life.
Photo credits: getreligion.com; theburningbush.files.wordpress.com