Thursday 14 January 2016

In the Flesh

To be human is to be embodied. But many religious and spiritual traditions see the flesh as something to be overcome or transcended; an illusion to be seen through; a temptation to be overcome; a temporary home for an immaterial being who may in the past even have been an animal—and may be again in the future. 
Christianity too, has sometimes been guilty of demoting the body. When Aquinas married Aristotelian philosophy to Christian theology in the 13th Century, he claimed it was the intellect that made us properly human. Being bound to body was a limitation that tempted us to chase lesser goods, and forced us to know things through the senses instead of directly perceiving their essences as God does. Aquinas’ vision was of heaven or blessedness as the eternal, intellectual contemplation of the divine essence. This is a vision which leaves little place for the body and has bequeathed to Christianity a tradition of an immaterial afterlife. In popular Christian thought to this day, this airy future has tended to supplant the New Testament hope of a resurrected body which will physically inhabit a new creation.

It is not surprising that this view has been difficult to quash. There are many NT passages that connect the flesh with sin, Romans 8 being one of the clearest:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
(Rom 8:5)

And there are others that suggest the body has no place in the kingdom of God:

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Cor 15:50)

Yet a closer examination reveals that the ‘flesh’ these texts leave behind is the fallen, mortal body—not embodiment per se. Yes, we will receive bodies that are different to those we have now, but we will still be embodied:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:42-44)

God himself took on flesh in the person of Jesus – something we particularly remember around Christmas time—and in his resurrection, he remains embodied.
In the latest edition of Case Quarterly we explore embodiment through a number of interesting articles. In ‘Earthy Epiphanies’ TrevorHart draws out the interconnections between our embodiment, Christ’s incarnation, and the materiality of art. The article is based on the second of Hart’s 2015 New College Lectures, in which he considered the inseparability of meaning and matter in works of art and its parallels in Christology.
The resurrection body, with its escape from death and decay, is something Christians long for. Yet while we remain in the flesh in this era, we still face death and decay, and two of our articles address this. Vaughan Olliffe looks at the particular hopes and concerns regarding this transformation from the perspective of people with disabilities. John Wyatt, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London, shares his insights and stories of those who suffer, yet find redemption and hope where we might expect despair. For in Christ we have ‘the knowledge that suffering is not the end of the story’. 
These themes—creativity, embodiment and brokenness--are also expressed beautifully and movingly in the poetry of Peter Stiles, whose collection of verse, Trumped by Grace, has just been published.[i]
Kamal Weerakoon scrutinises the meeting ground of Human Rights legislation and human sexuality, asking whether there is such a thing as a right to sexual fulfilment.
This exploration of embodiment is completed with Steve Brown’s reflections on the church as the body of Christ, and what this means for its members.
Subscribers to Case Quarterly should have their copies already – enjoy! If you are not a subscriber you can read two articles from the latest edition free of charge by visiting the CASE website. You might like to consider many of the other free material while you are there. If you’d like to subscribe you can do so for as little as $20 per year for four issues (student rate), pdf version ($30 per year) or $55 per year the hard copy. Library and school rates are also available.

[i] To find out more or order the collection, please email Peter at: