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Center for Action and Contemplation

Flesh and Spirit

Friday, April 6, 2018

Human Bodies: Week 1

Flesh and Spirit
Friday, April 6, 2018

The Apostle Paul tends to use dialectics in his writing, jockeying two seemingly opposite ideas to lead us to a deeper and third understanding. One of his most familiar dialectics is the way he speaks of flesh and spirit. Paul uses the word sarx, typically and unfortunately translated as “flesh” in most contemporary languages with a negative connotation in opposition to spirit. John’s Gospel uses this same word, sarx, in a wonderfully positive way: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). So flesh must be good too! But Paul’s usage had the larger impact.

If you read Galatians or Romans, you’ll probably understand these two terms in the usual dualistic way, which has done great damage: “Well, I’ve got to get out of my flesh in order to get into the spirit.” This was even true of many canonized saints, at least in their early stages—as it was with the Buddha. But I want to say as strongly as I can: you really can’t get out of the flesh! That’s not what Paul is talking about.

The closest meaning to Paul’s sarx is today’s familiar word “ego”—which often is a problem if we are trapped inside of it. So what Paul means by “flesh” is the trapped self, the small self, the partial self, or what Thomas Merton called the false self. Basically, spirit is the whole self, the Christ Self, the True Self “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) that we fall into by grace. The problem is not between body and spirit; it’s between part and whole. 

Sarx or ego is the self that tries to define itself autonomously, apart from spirit, apart from the Big Self in God. It’s 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 finally an illusion and passing away. It changes month by month. 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. It is exactly what will die when you die. Flesh is not bad, it is just inadequate to the final and full task, while posing as the real thing. Don’t hate your training wheels once you take them off your bicycle. You should thank them for getting you started on your cycling journey!

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 from God. And you are not!

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download;
St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CDMP3 download);
Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 4 (Franciscan Media: 2002), CD.

Image credit: The Banjo Lesson (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893. Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Deep knowing and presence do not happen with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. —Richard Rohr
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