This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Body and Spirit

There’s a paradox in the ways Eastern and Western societies view the relationship between the body and the spirit. In the Eastern world, the body is used as a vehicle for spiritual growth, whether through yoga, many forms of meditation, dance, martial arts, or any of a wide range of other physical practices. In the West, spiritual growth is focused far more on mental activities such as prayer, meditation (understood as a rational activity), study, etc. There is little or no tradition of using the body as a vehicle for spiritual development.

This situation is curious from a worldview perspective. Eastern thought tends toward monism, the idea that everything is one (frequently identified as god), and that distinctions between things are illusions. In fact, in many versions of Eastern thought the physical world itself, including the body, is an illusion.

In contrast, Christianity believes that the physical universe is real, including the body. The world is a creation of God that is sustained by Him but has its own integrity: it operates according to its own rules in accordance with the laws God established at creation, subject to miraculous intervention on the part of God.

So how is it that the worldview that sees the physical as an illusion uses the body for spiritual development, but the worldview that sees the physical as real doesn’t?

We need to add one qualification here. Physical disciplines involving self-denial, such as fasting, abstaining from certain kinds of food or drink, sleep denial, and celibacy, find their ways into spiritual traditions around the world. There are many reasons for this which we may explore later. In this post I’m more concerned about physical disciplines that involve developing the body as a vehicle for spiritual transformation

Looking at the Eastern world first, physical disciplines in these spiritual traditions are intended to produce one of two specific results. They may be designed to put you in an altered state of consciousness that will enable you to see through the illusion of distinctions to the fundamental unity of everything—in other words, to generate a mystical experience that transcends the merely physical. Alternately, they may be intended to focus the mind on the immediate present, a state known as “mindfulness.” Mindfulness can be a means of shedding your ego and living with compassion because you recognize your unity with everyone around you. Living in a state of mindfulness is generally what people mean when they use the ill-defined term “spiritual” to describe someone.

The point is that in the East, the body is used as a vehicle to transcend the physical.

In the West, particularly since the rise of Christianity, spirituality is connected ultimately to the Bible and related texts. Since the Bible emphasize practices like prayer, singing the Psalms, meditation (understood as a rational activity), and study, along with corporate worship, these form the core of Christian spirituality. The body is conspicuously absent from this list, except for fasting and different forms of self-denial. The only focus on the body in these devotional practices comes from the use of particular postures for meditation in some traditions, such as the Celtic crossfigell (cross vigil).

In an odd way, the very fact that the West sees the physical world as real contributes to the sense that the body is irrelevant to spirituality. Particularly in the wake of the Enlightenment, we’ve bought into the idea that the physical and the spiritual world do not mix, that the world of matter and energy is completely separate from the world of the spirit. Since the spirit is non-physical, we thus must use non-physical means to develop it.

This idea is akin to an ancient heresy called Gnosticism, which argued that body and spirit are separate and ultimately opposed to each other. In Gnosticism, the body had nothing at all to do with the spirit, leading Gnostics either to unbridled excess on the one hand or to extreme asceticism on the other. Even though the Church rejected Gnosticism as heretical, in part because the Bible teaches that the physical world is intrinsically good, it has had continuing influence on Christianity.

A good part of the reason for this is the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical contrast between “flesh” and spirit, where the flesh is described as evil. When used this way, however, Paul does not mean the physical body; he is referring to something that is non-physical, that is, the part of us that resists the Holy Spirit’s authority and direction in our lives.

To be sure physical appetites can be occasions for sin and the body can be used for sinful behavior. Christians need to recognize that and deal with it. But Scripture tells us that the body is good and that it needs to be used in the love of God (“The greatest [commandment] is ‘Love the LORD your God with all your … strength’…”).

So it is clear that we need to reject Gnosticism, and along with it the idea implicit in the typical post-Enlightenment worldview that the spiritual and physical worlds do not connect with each other.

Does this mean that physical development can be part of our spiritual development? I think it can be, for reasons that I’ll discuss in the next post.