Monday, March 21, 2005

THEOLOGY: A Different View of the Body

Western thinking about the body has been traditionally informed by a body-soul dualism, assigning purity to the soul and corruption to the body. The body is thought of as a "dark prison" for the soul in this life, a "mortal coil" to be "shuffled off". Sensuality and sexuality, being located in the body, are viewed as prone to corruption. In this dual mode of thinking, the pure soul becomes subject to corruption because it is trapped in the body. This same dualism spills over into our epistemology, where the "inner life" of our rational cognition is deemed "purer" than our "outer life" of sensual experience.

In the first essay in the anthology, "Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syraic Perspective" by Susan A. Harvey, the early Syraic Christian tradition is explored to discover a very different theological perspective on the body. Syraic (a dialect of Aramaic) arose in the first century A.D. in what is now southeast Turkey, and became "the primary Christian language throughout the Middle East and beyond." While our familiar Western theological roots lie in those who wrote in Greek and Latin, a Syraic theological tradition developed further east, less studied in the West, but with arguably equal claims to "authenticity". (I gather that some theologians look to study of ancient Christianity for "authenticity", similar to how some American jurists look to the writings of the founding fathers to find the "original intent" of the Constitution.) Drawing on early Syraic theology, particularly the writings of 4th century theologian Ephrem Syrus, Professor Harvey illuminates a view of the body as an essential part of who we are (not something to be ultimately shuffled off) and as not inherently corrupt. To the Syraics, a soul without a body was like a bicycle without wheels. A disembodied soul would have no way to experience God, nor any way to manifest ourselves to Him. Their view of worldly corruption was not located in the body, but in the artificial separation of body and soul at death, which must be reunited at resurrection.

Harvey writes: "For early Syraic writers, then, Christianity was located in the body because the body, in the most literal sense, was what God had fashioned in the beginning and where God had chosen to find us in our fallenness."

Though somewhat startling to a Western sensibility, this view seems well grounded in Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, we were indeed created as a body. And God came into the world as a body. Even the sacrament of communion is located in the very bodily activities of eating and drinking. From this perspective, the body is essential to our relationship with God, both in the experience of our senses and in the expression of ourselves as "present and active" in the world. As Harvey put its it, "From this view, the body becomes the instrument by which God is known in relation to the believer and the believer in relation to God." Without the body, we could not know God and God could not know us.

Harvey's essay includes extensive quotes from Ephrem, which were quite delightful to discover, both for their insights and their poetic imagery (much of it appropriately sensual). It was also quite interesting to learn about a tradition I was completely unacquainted with (including some colorful characters such as Simeon the Stylist, who stood on top of a column for 40 years, like a human cathedral spire pointing to Heaven). I found this different perspective about the body quite appealing, leaving me to ponder whether the traditional Western notion of the corrupted body is a "dark prison" I should "shuffle off".

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