By: Christopher West
True or false: Man is a spiritual being. True or false: Man has a spiritual nature. “Religious” people typically answer “true” to both questions. But — at least from the authentically Christian perspective — such “religious” people are mistaken. Contrary to widespread belief, man is not a spiritual being with a spiritual nature. Angels are spiritual beings with a spiritual nature. Man is a human being with a human nature, and human nature is at one and the same time spiritual and physical.
Human nature presents an anomaly in all of creation. Angel nature is spiritual and animal nature is physical, but human nature is both at the same time. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but their union forms a single nature” (365): human nature. In a way, we’re part angel and part animal. I like to call us “angimals.” The temptation of religious folk to “spiritualize” human nature is constant and fierce. Christians must resist this temptation just as fiercely. For it poses an insidiously dangerous threat to the very foundations of our faith. Christianity is the religion of the Word (the Logos) made flesh in the womb of Mary. En-fleshed religion and un-fleshed religion are antithetical. Un-fleshed religion is, in fact, a diabolic attack on Jesus Christ. As St. John tell us, we recognize the anti-christ as the one who denies Christ come in the flesh (see 1 Jn 4:2-3). In other words, we recognize the anti-christ as the one behind un-fleshed religion.
The Devastating Effects of an Un-Fleshed Religion
Why does the enemy want to un-flesh our religion? Because, as the Catechism says (quoting the early Christian writer Tertullian): “The flesh is the hinge of salvation” (1015). Our very lives, our very existence, our very selves, our very salvation depend on the unity of body and soul. What do we call the separation of body and soul in man anyway? That’d be death. Hmmm. That would mean that those who seek to live a “spiritual” life apart from their bodies are, in fact, “dead.” And this brand of “death” is widespread. During a recent lecture to a large group of priests, I asked them to guess what percentage of their parishioners considered their bodies to be a kind of “shell” in which their true “spiritual selves” lived. The lowest guess was 60%. The highest was 98%. Most of the priests guessed about 80%.
No wonder pornography is everywhere. Here, one of man’s deepest needs — to be in touch with his own flesh — is making its presence felt in a terribly disturbing and disturbed way. When religion is un-fleshed, porn’s job is easy. When religion is un-fleshed, God’s love becomes an abstraction and the satisfaction of our need for en-fleshed “love” is only a mouse-click away, so the purveyors of porn would have us believe. Some argue that the Scripture itself demands that we un-flesh ourselves. St. Paul often admonishes us about the dangers of “the flesh” and contrasts this with the life of “the Spirit.” But St. Paul cannot possibly be teaching heresy, and the idea that the flesh is the “bad” part of us and the spirit is the “good” part of us is just that — heresy. Contrary to appearances, Paul is actually calling us, as he himself says, to experience “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
Reclaim the Flesh for Christ
To live “by the Spirit” does not mean we un-flesh ourselves. It means we en-flesh the Spirit. It means we allow the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us, in our human nature — which, let us recall, is both spiritual and physical. “If the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11). This is the logic of Christianity. God’s logic — theo-logic — is revealed through the flesh: Logos made flesh, God’s logic incarnate, theology of the body. As I once heard a priest explain, if the language of Israel is Hebrew, and the language of Islam is Arabic, the language of Christianity is the body. This is the language we must speak if we are effectively to counter the terrible distortion of the flesh taking place in our world today.