The Spirit and the Flesh

By Dan Clendenin

In a recent New Yorker cartoon (March 27, 2017), a man sits on his sofa with two thought bubbles above his head. One says, “Get up!” The other one says, “No!” Underneath the cartoon, the caption reads, “The mind body problem.”

Some things are hard to define, like the mind-body problem that has perplexed philosophers and neuroscientists. But that doesn’t mean that some broad affirmations aren’t sometimes more helpful than getting lost in the weeds. That’s what I do when trying to understand Romans 8:1–11, which provokes a number of complicated questions.

In the epistle this week, Paul contrasts living “in the flesh” with living “in the Spirit” (or “spirit”). Translators and theologians have struggled with how to render this word “flesh” (sarx), which, with over 140 occurrences in the New Testament, has a broad semantic range. I agree with those who object to the NIV translation of sarx as our “sinful nature.”

Paul also mentions our “body” (soma), which word likewise occurs over 140 times in the New Testament, sometimes with spiritual or figurative meanings, and which would seem to be similar to and yet different from our “flesh.”

Math meets art in da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned “Vitruvian Man,” c. 1490.

He also speaks of the “mind,” which raises questions about how the mind relates to the human “spirit” and our “body.” He does not mention our “soul.”

Is Paul speaking colloquially here, or is he using technical language? I wonder how the original recipients of his letter to Rome two thousand years ago heard these words. How would we update or understand this vocabulary today?

To complicate matters further, and to state the obvious, we wouldn’t expect Paul to have a contemporary understanding of the neuro-biology of the mind, the brain, the body, human nature, decision making, or that most vexing of all questions, the nature of consciousness. We have to connect his ancient text with our modern context.

Nor is there a scientific consensus on these questions today. And, our best scientific knowledge today will be badly outmoded a century from now (and just try to imagine how outmoded it will be in two thousand years).

My simple takeaways from this reading are twofold. One is directed toward science, and the other toward the church.

First, in his book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (2015), Curtis White observes that people aren’t mere “Darwinian survivalists” who exist only at a material level and who only need to master “adaptive fitness.” Rather, we are “maximalists” who need meaningful narratives in order to flourish. Food, for example, is about community and sharing, not just nourishment; sex is about much more than pro-creation.

That is, human beings need a spiritual life in addition to their material existence, a life in or of the spirit, or for believers, a life in the Spirit. We do not exist only as “flesh” or “body.” We don’t live by bread alone, said Jesus. A strictly materialist account of human nature and consciousness, such as Daniel Dennett’s new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017), doesn’t adequately account for our lived experience.

Our best artists understand this. Back in October, I saw the new play “The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, which questions the reduction of consciousness to mere matter. Similarly, the recent trilogy of movies by Terrence Malick critiques a life lived only “in the flesh” — money, sex, and power.

A friend of mine whose mother just died described having to settle her estate. She reflected on the interplay of matter and spirit in her mother’s life — how the physical objects that had created a place of beauty, or facilitated loving hospitality, were now disassembled, divided among the family, or sold. She reflected on how “the memories of happy times tied to one place were becoming more insubstantial.” An embodied life, with physical objects, richly animated by a life of the spirit, now gone.

The church has also contributed to misunderstandings about the nature of our mind-body or spirit-flesh existence, in particular with body shaming. Perhaps we inherited this uncritically from Plato, for whom the spirit-soul-mind was good and the material body with its physical appetites was bad.

Whatever else Paul is saying in Romans 8:1–11, I want to avoid the dichotomy that my “flesh” is bad and that my “spirit” is good. No, “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4), says Paul, and that includes my physical body. God hates nothing he has created.

I’ve come to love the poem “Good is the Flesh” by Brian Wren, from the book Good is the Flesh: Body, Soul, and Christian Faith, edited by Jean Denton (2005).

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

The most fundamental doctrine of the Christian story, the incarnation, that God became a man, affirms the goodness of the material world. On the first page of the Bible, Genesis calls this created, material world “good” seven consecutive times.

Your brain on religion.

In some mysterious sense, human beings are a psycho-somatic unity, made up of both mind-body and spirit-flesh. And so, when I go to bed at night and say my prayers, I hedge my bets and cover all the bases. I commend my deepest self and my truest identity to God — not only my “flesh” and my “spirit,” but also my body, mind, brain, soul, and my psyche. I entrust myself to my loving Father who created me “so fearfully and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:14) in the first place.

Note: for the Terrence Malick trilogy, see Song to Song (2017), Knight of Cups (2015), and To the Wonder (2012).

Image credits: (1); and (2)

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