By Audrey Stallsmith
You need only watch an episode of the TV show, Extreme Makeover, to discover the contempt and virtual hatred even some non-Christians feel for their bodies. And believers down through history, have denounced, deprived, and tormented their flesh, as if in an attempt to bring a "monster" under control. Those Christians who assumed their bodies to be their chief problem would probably be surprised to learn that belief is heresy.
Chesterton points out "it is due to Manichaeanism that there has grown up in Christendom. . .the vague suggestion that the body has somehow fallen farther than the soul." Although I found the whole Manichaean heresy a little too complicated to wade through, its basic tenants seem to be that there are two worlds and two gods--one of darkness, one of light. And, although man’s physical body belongs to the world of darkness, there are sparks of light in his spirit.
This, of course, flatly contradicts the scriptural account that man was created in the image of God. And, as one of Don Francisco’s song titles asserts, "All the World He Made Is Good." In the Forgiveness of Sins, Charles Williams relates that "the holy flesh. . .was dragged down with the will but. . .was not itself the origin of the Fall, since initiative could only act by the assent of the will."
The holy flesh? That is a rather startling concept to one, like me, who was raised in a fundamentalist church! But I have to concede Williams is right. If God’s breath and workmanship are in my protoplasm, it has to be holy.
And my body doesn’t make decisions; my will does. Jesus Himself stated quite clearly that sin does not originate in the body but in the heart. (Matthew 15:19) And, by "heart," He did not, of course, mean the organ that pumps blood! So my spirit, not my flesh, is responsible for my misdeeds.
Williams adds "our physical nature was dragged down with our spiritual and laboured, as it labours still, in a state it was never meant to endure. The Incarnacy was to redeem the flesh from what it had not invoked as well as the soul from what it had."
In other words, our physical bodies suffer, just as nature and the animals have suffered since the Fall, for something over which they have no control. Man’s revolt against God left nature, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in Creation and Fall, "without a lord and therefore it is itself rebellious and desperate." He describes man as being "at odds with God, with the other person and with nature. . .yet. . .he cannot live without God, without the other person, or without nature."
Just as innocent animals were--in the Old Testament--sacrificed to compensate for the sins of man, so our innocent bodies suffer death as a consequence of the choices our spirits make. "All things," Williams concludes, "are finally worked out in the body. . .It is the only crucible of the great experiment."
That idea would have horrified the founder of the Manichaean heresy. Mani abhorred the physical so much that, although he admired Christ, he refused to admit Jesus had come in a genuinely human body.
The Gnostics, another heretical sect, also--according to Chesterton-- "removed from that supreme Godhead of theirs any tendency to creation. . .they agreed that somehow the pure light of the lower heaven had got involved in this unpleasant business of matter and had to be redeemed. It was set free by the descent of a Redemption which, however, itself put on merely the appearance of matter. . ."
But, for Christians, as Bonhoeffer reminds us,"the escape from the created work into bodiless spirit, into mind, is forbidden. God wills to look upon his work, to love it, to call it good and preserve it." The body, rather than being a negligible and contemptible part of man is essential to his make-up. And it will, we are told, be resurrected along with his soul.
But, if the concept of the badness of the body is heresy, why--you may ask--did Paul and others frequently mention the "flesh" in a disparaging way? After looking over some of those references in a more modern translation, I have concluded that when Paul referred to the "flesh," he usually meant the sin nature. Just as when he referred to the "world" he usually meant, not the physical planet, but the ungodly customs of mankind. In Peace of Soul, Fulton Sheen confirms "it is never the physical world but the spirit of the world that is evil."
Of course, we don’t want to go to the other extreme and laud the physical either. Some New Agers seem in danger of doing that. Although Wiccans call themselves witches, they appear to venerate nature rather than Satan. Chesterton warns, "it is not natural to worship nature."
That, after all, is like praising a painting to itself rather than to the artist who created it. And, although nature was originally benign, "nature without God," Sheen writes, "is traitorous." It can inspire you one minute and kill you the next.
In Miracles, Lewis declares, "It is not in nature, but in Something far beyond her, that all lines meet and all contrasts are explained. She is not the Absolute: she is one of the creatures." And, like the creatures, she has no self-consciousness--no sense of right and wrong. A dog will look guilty, granted, when it is caught doing something it knows is not permitted. But, as the animal behaviorists inform us, the dog does not understand the action is wrong, only that it displeases the master.
Nature, Chesterton posits, "exists for our education." We might say for our sustaining too, since our bodies can not survive without it. And, as Francis Schaeffer points out in "Perspectives on Art," "The common symbolic vocabulary that belongs to all men. . .is the world around us. . ." We draw our examples and metaphors from it. If we lived in a vacuum, we would probably not be able to think at all.
And nature, of course, received its greatest affirmation when God chose to reveal Himself to mankind via a human body. As Fulton Sheen writes in The Power of Love, "Truth becomes loveable only when it is flesh and blood." As a result of the Incarnation, Paul Tillich points out in The New Being, "the universe is no longer what it was; nature has received another meaning. . ."
Somehow I doubt that an extreme makeover will make self-hating people suddenly comfortable in their bodies. Their dissatisfaction, I suspect, goes much deeper than skin-level. But we Christians should long since have been reconciled with the physical world so we can view it--as Chesterton recommends in Orthodoxy--"with an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy without once being merely comfortable."