I think my brilliant history and liturgy professor, Fr. Larry Landini, OFM, may have given the best explanation for why so many Christians seem to be ashamed and afraid of the body. In 1969, on the last day of four years studying church history, Fr. Larry offered these final words to us as he was backing out of the classroom: “Just remember, on the practical level, the Christian Church was much more influenced by Plato than it was by Jesus.” He left us laughing but also stunned and sad, because four years of honest church history had told us how true this actually was.
For Plato, body and soul were incompatible enemies; matter and spirit were at deep odds with one another. But for Jesus, there is no animosity between body and soul. In fact, this is the heart of Jesus’ healing message and of his incarnation itself. Jesus, in whom “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), was fully human, even as he was fully divine, with both body and spirit operating as one. Jesus even returned to the “flesh” after the Resurrection; so, flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God.
In the Apostles’ Creed, which goes back to the second century, we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the
body.” I want to first point out what it is not saying and yet what most people hear. The creed does not say we believe in the resurrection of the spirit or the soul! Of course it doesn’t, because the soul cannot die. We are asserting that human embodiment has an eternal character to it. (Read all of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul tries to communicate this in endlessly mysterious ways.)
Christianity makes a daring and broad affirmation: God is redeeming matter and spirit, the whole of creation. The Bible speaks of the “new heavens and the new earth” and the descent of the “new Jerusalem from the heavens” to “live among us” (Revelation
21:1-3). This physical universe and our own physicality are somehow going to share in the Eternal Mystery. Your body participates in the very mystery of salvation. In fact, it is the new and lasting temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and throughout Paul’s letters).
Many Christians falsely assumed that if they could “die” to their body, their spirit would for some reason miraculously arise. Often the opposite was the case. After centuries of body rejection, and the lack of any positive body theology, the West is now trapped in substance addiction, obesity, anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery, and an obsession with appearance and preserving these bodies. Our poor bodies, which Jesus actually affirmed,
have become the receptacles of so much negativity and obsession.
The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction, and the fervor for gyms and salons makes one think these are the new cathedrals of worship. The body is rightly reasserting its goodness and importance. Can’t we somehow seek both body and spirit together?
When Christianity is in any way anti-body, it is not authentic Christianity. The incarnation tells us that body and spirit must fully operate and be respected as one. Yes, Fr. Larry, our Platonic Christianity is
now feeling the backlash against our one-sided teaching.