Thursday, March 19, 2009

Body and Soul, Part 3

I was reading a post from the jollyblogger, who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis and is currently in treatment and receiving chemo, and it brought back memories of my own chemo experience. I had never really understood physical suffering up until that point.  Here's what the Jollyblogger had to say:

Embracing weakness was a challenging thought and compelling concept when I thought of it as a kind of metaphorical, spiritual kind of weakness. I could embrace this metaphorical, spiritual weakness as long as I could also remain strong and healthy and competent in the whole of my life. For me it was synonymous with humility, so in other words, I would try to be emotionally, spiritually and physically strong, but just be humble about my strengths. 

Then cancer struck and I also took another look at the classic passage from Paul on weakness - II Corinthians 12:7-10

7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I always lifted verse 9 out of the context and thought of the weakness here as a kind of "spiritual" weakness. But after I found I had cancer and started enduring some serious physical weakness I looked at the context more closely and saw that the weakness Paul is speaking of here is physical. It's a "thorn" in the flesh, not a "metaphor" in the flesh. It's a thorn in the "flesh" not a thorn in the "spirit" or the "soul.

I appreciate what he has to say and recognize that I used to do/still tend to do the same thing. It brought me back to what I've been pondering in my previous posts

While I've been kicking around the idea that human beings are by nature purely physical beings, without separate, immaterial "spirits", I realized how much what I thought I knew about certain Scriptures has been tainted by what I have assumed.  Much of what I have been taught, and also learned on my own, consists of the spiritualizing of passages which probably were meant to be taken literally, in a physical, material sense.

Some examples might be helpful. I think the one jollyblogger alludes to is a good example. Frequently that Scripture is quoted in the context of Christians struggling with sin. The thorn is the flesh is not really seen as having anything to do with the body, but is seen rather as a person's propensity for a particular sin. 

Another example...."For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 6:23

I've read or heard that verse many times. When I have read or heard it, "death" did not hold its everyday, common use.  Instead, it became a spiritualized version of the word, meaning damnation, hell, really bad consequences for sinful choices.  Never in my mind, or in the minds of most Christians, is it interpreted as simply being physical death.

However, once again I notice that death is being contrasted by eternal life, whose source is a gift from God.

Why does this happen?  Why do we spiritualize what would otherwise be straightforward passages in Scripture?

There are a few things at play here.  The first problem may be that we are trying to reconcile our common experiences with what we've been taught about God.  When we see that there are many people who sin with abandon and without remorse, and yet they are still sucking air and living relatively untroubled lives, we attempt to make sense of it.  Obviously people don't die when they sin, unless their sin has somehow put them in physical danger. At the same time, because death is not immediate and because all people die--holy and unholy, believing and non-believing, saint and sinner--we assume that the verse doesn't mean what it clearly says.  It must mean "spiritual death" or hell, or any number of things.

We follow this same interpretation in the Genesis account.

Genesis 2:16

And the LORD God commanded the man ,"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Well, they didn't die, at least not instantaneously.  They eventually did die, but we tend to not like the messiness of explaining why they didn't die right away, especially when we have God quoted as saying "when you eat of it you will surely die."  To explain away this perceived contradiction, Christians usually say that Adam "died" in a spiritual sense when he ate the fruit. We spiritualize the verse to convey that something internal happened to Adam, and that physical death was eventually a consequence, but by no means the most important consequence.

Now, when I conjecture that man, in and of himself is simply a material being, some may think that I am putting him on the level of common animals, that somehow I see man as being less unique, or special than those who would divide a human into body and spirit. That isn't what I am aiming for.  What I am saying is that man's "soul" is part and parcel of his body.  The two can't be separated and are not meant to be.  If God wanted pure spiritual beings, then there would be no need for physical resurrections.  

God created a material universe.  He created material beings.  He condescended to become a material being himself.  I think it would be safe to say that He values physical reality and has chosen to work through it.

One of the more interesting aspects of following this train of thought is the recognition that in the Old Testament, God's wrath or judgement is always fulfilled through death.  Humanity becomes evil all the time, so God sends a flood to wipe them out.  The Israelites won't trust God and enter the promised land, so they stumble around the desert for another 40 years until the doubters are dead.  A guy who accidentally touches the Ark of the Covenant  is instantly struck dead.  

The prophecies of judgement all revolve around death and destruction with no hint of "spiritual" consequence, no never-ending conscious torment.

Of course...this all eventually rolls around to annihilationism again, which I plan to get back to at some point.

I know...this is probably boring to everyone who reads my blog.  "Enough already!", everyone's thinking.  What can I say? I'm boring and tedious sometimes.  Just look away.  Don't worry...I'll throw in a cute cat picture one of these days.

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