As we proceed through Lent, the scripture lessons for Sundays and daily prayer are once again filled with the dichotomy between flesh and spirit. Between Paul and John it’s easy to get the idea that the flesh is bad while the spirit is good. It’s a theme that has influenced a lot of poorly thought out religiosity parading as Christianity.
What is flesh is often framed as carnal desire, lust, or anything to do with sex. By extension, it includes things culturally related, such as drinking, dancing, gambling, and all the rest, depending in large part on what one’s cultural milieu is. To a lesser extent flesh can mean anything connected to excesses of wealth, consumerism, secular power, or whatever one does not have but another does. Then there is good old secular humanism, a wonderful catchall for anything that is inconsistent with local church customs. From golf on Sunday morning to belief in evolution, secular humanism can encompass it all. More than behavior, what is flesh becomes all that is material in which fleshly behavior is engaged.
Spirit, by contrast, is taken to mean whatever is consistent with one’s church customs and cultural beliefs about what is religiously right and good. Divorced from materiality, spirit stands in opposition to the whole of whatever is flesh, firmly confident that it is what God has established as the standard against which the righteous and unrighteous will be judged. Whatever else it may be, spirit is not material flesh. It comes close to being anti-material, or anti-flesh, in the way that antimatter opposes and destroys matter. It is spirit that must destroy flesh if one is to be united with God. Very Buddhist isn’t it? Ironically, spirit, for all of its fierce opposition to flesh, is frequently manifested sentimentally in romantic terms of warm, fuzzy feelings about Jesus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does remind me of Psalms 26 and 101 in which the spiritually self righteous can’t abide even the thought of being in the presence of those who aren’t, according to the psalmist’s personal judgement about who is to be allowed in, and who isn’t.
Can that be right? If we are, as our faith proclaims, embodied souls. If the Christ whom we worship was manifested materially in Jesus, born of a woman. If, as God proclaimed in the beginning, that what had been materially created was good. If all of that and more is true, then what is flesh and what is spirit are complementary parts of a holy whole. It’s sinful to try to pull the two apart, placing them in enemy camps. Indeed, the gospels’ healing stories are about the reconciliation of flesh and spirit, not the destruction of one by the other. So what is it about the flesh of Paul and John that is so troubling? Why are we to be suspicious of that which is flesh?
I think it’s this. It’s the destructive, but perhaps unavoidable, habit of incorporating into the fabric of our religious beliefs and practices the culturally acceptable ways of our own time and place in such a way that we assume them to be God’s ways that, coincidently, are our ways also. It means that other ways are not God’s ways, and since God's ways are also our ways, we are the judges of who and what are with God, and who and what are not. It inclines us to interpret scripture by what our local culture says is acceptable, rather than interpreting the local culture by what scripture reveals to be God’s word. It’s what allows us to live comfortably with established patterns of injustice and discrimination in their many forms, without any awareness that they may not be in accord with God’s will. It’s what stands between us and the new things, new understandings, being brought by God into creation. At its worst, and for some people, it gives a lot of power to the devil, and very little to God by setting up the illusion that it’s “You and me, God, just the two of us (and maybe a few others) against everything else out there,” as if everything else out there must be of the devil.
Whether Paul or John would agree with my take remains to be seen. As for me, when I follow Jesus into that discussion, it always arrives at the same place. The warnings about flesh are warnings that the ordinary and comfortable ways of being religious can never be more than approximations of God’s ways. They are always in need of testing, always in need of reformation, and always in need of staying in conversation with the centuries of others who have shown the way of doing that. They do not set spirit against fleshly materiality. They are always about working toward reconciliation of the whole.