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Center for Action and Contemplation

Flesh and Spirit

Friday, April 10, 2015

Paul’s Dialectical Teaching

Flesh and Spirit
Friday, April 10, 2015

The dialectic that we probably struggle with the most is the one Paul creates between flesh and spirit. If I could change one word Paul uses, which so many people have struggled with, I would change the word sarx, translated “flesh” in most contemporary languages. John’s Gospel uses this same word, sarx, in a positive way: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But somehow we’ve come to associate Paul’s usage negatively with the human body.

I don’t think Paul ever intended for people to feel that their bodies are bad. After all, God took on a human body in Jesus! Paul does not use the word soma, which literally means “body.” He is trying to introduce another idea and unfortunately uses a word that has caused untold confusion in Christian history. The closest alternative translation we could use might be the word “ego” or even the Freudian word “id.” I think what Paul means by sarx is the trapped self, the small self, the partial self, or what Merton called the false self. Basically, spirit is the whole self, the Christ self that we fall into by grace. We are saved by a larger mystery in which we can only participate as one abiding member. The problem is not between body and spirit; it’s between part and whole.

Paul never really reconciles this dichotomy because he defines flesh and spirit as opposites in both Romans and Galatians. If you read one chapter of Galatians or one chapter of Romans, you’ll probably think, “Well, I’ve got to get out of the flesh in order to get into the spirit. But I don’t know how to get out of the flesh!” That’s because “flesh” in modern language sounds like embodiment. In fact, what most of us hear is sex. I want to say as strongly as I can, that’s not what Paul is talking about! Paul uses the word sarx to talk about the separate self, the partial self, the entrapped self, the false self. It’s the self that is trying to define itself apart from the Spirit, apart from the Big Self. It’s you apart from God, the tiny self that you think you are, who takes yourself far too seriously and who is always needy and wanting something else. It’s the self that is characterized by scarcity and fragility—and well it should be, because it’s illusory and passing. This small self doesn’t really exist in God’s eyes as anything substantial or real. It’s nothing but a construct of your own mind.

To easily get beyond this confusion, just substitute the word ego every time you hear Paul use the word flesh. It will get you out of this dead-end, false, and dualistic ping-pong game between body and spirit. The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others. And then that fragile separate self tries to make itself superior besides. It will never work.

Gateway to Silence:
I am not separate.

Adapted from Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (MP3 download);
St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (CD, MP3 download);
Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 4 (CD)

Image Credit: St. Paul Preaching in Athens (detail) by Raphael (1483-1520), Royal Collection of the United Kingdom.
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