The divorce of the material from the spiritual has had two opposite effects. One, the material/physical world is denigrated in favor of the spiritual, demoted to a status of “necessary evil” one looks forward to sloughing off in death. The body, then, doesn’t matter at all, so why take care of it? Asceticism is one extreme Christian example of this. In the third and fourth centuries especially, monks would take to the deserts, living in caves off of a sip of water and loaf of bread a week. Some would climb up on pillars they erected in the middle of the desert and sit or stand there for years at a time. Because the state of one’s soul and spirit were of paramount importance, the body was not merely discarded, it was denied care and respect in service of strengthening one’s spiritual muscles. Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, things would sometimes deteriorate into physical deprivation contests. Despite the conception that bodily denial was supposed to engender spiritual growth and wisdom, monks would try to “out-fast” one another, or outlast one another on the pole, all the while inflicting hardship and suffering on their bodies.
“It’s all gonna burn” theology is another result of separating the spiritual from the physical. 2 Peter 3:10 has been translated as, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” There are several scholars who argue that this is one of the worst mistranslations in all of Scripture: that “being burned up” could be translated as “being found out” or “being revealed.” Several posit that the Greek word should be translated as “being purified.” But, even if there was no interpretative difficulty with this passage and the earth really was going to burn up, is that any reason to mistreat it? Claiming a free pass to abuse the material world because it will one day be destroyed is like saying you don’t need to feed your kids because they will one day die.
The other paradigm that comes out of the divorce of spiritual and material is that the material is the only thing that matters. Because the material world is all we see and thus all we can scientifically “prove” exists, the reasoning goes, it must be the only thing there is. So we hungrily devour it in our worship of consumerism. Now, God did say that “it was good” after each new thing God spoke into being. But we also learn in the story of the three temptations of Christ in the dessert that “a person does not live on bread alone but every mouth that comes from the word of God” (Matthew 4:4). We’ve all been told that the three basic necessities are food/water, clothing and shelter, but science seems to be pointing out that something is missing from that triangle of basic needs…something non-material called connection. “But now doctors have quantified the effects of the loneliness disease,” Phillippa Perry writes in an article in The Guardian, “warning that lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who do not suffer feelings of isolation. Being lonely it seems, is a lot more worrying for your health than obesity.” Materialism, no matter how deeply indulged, does not seem to fully satisfy.
Interestingly, both viewpoints are destructive to the body and to the earth. When we privilege the material over the spiritual, we run our ship of gluttony aground on isolation and loneliness, destroying both body and spirit. When we elevate the spiritual over the material, it’s only a matter of time before we start saying that our physical bodies do not matter. When we start saying our physical bodies do not matter, it’s only a matter of time before we start saying that what we DO in the body doesn’t matter because what “really” matters is the heart. But isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy? Not walking our talk? Not aligning our words (so our heart or spirit) with our actions (what we do in the physical world with our physical bodies)? There’s that song that goes, “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart (in my heart), Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.” It repeats with “I want to be more loving” and then “more holy” in place of “I want to be a Christian.” It’s a catchy little tune, but every time it says “in my heart,” I want to change it to “in my life.” Lord, I want to be a Christian in my life.
And I mean my whole life, my life as a whole person. By this, I do not mean attending to spiritual aspects of my life and, separately, attending to my physical needs. I mean that there is something spiritual in this physical, embodied life and something physical about spirituality. We eat bread and drink wine to remember the death of our Lord until He comes again. We hold hands with our partner, hug those we love, cry and laugh at life’s penetrating moments. Our Lord kneels and washes the feet of His disciples. His wrists are run through with nails; His side, pierced, flows with water. I’ve said it before on this blog – that we do not have bodies and souls, we are bodies and souls. But I think I’d like to make a slight emendation: We do not have bodies and souls, we are bodysouls. The wider the space between the body and the soul, the deeper the violence to ourselves and our world, both inside and out. Both matter deeply to the God who each days with a soulful song of sunset.