Tuesday, August 19, 2008

There's a snake in my boots...

I like Greek food. Hummus is the bomb. Falafel is some great stuff. I don't know if I like Greek as a language simply because I've never taken a class on it and don't know much at all about it. The country of Greece seems like a neat place. I bet I'd like it. I just wanted to get that out there so you know that I don't have any issues with all things Greek.

But I've really been bothered by this dualism of the physical and spiritual. I've really tried to figure out where the idea came from. Apparently, the answer was easier to find than I expected...

Christians have a tendency to take stories, holidays, Scripture, etc., and make them fit their cultural understanding of it all. For instance, take a gander at paintings of Jesus and Mary. Most European artists paint a lily white version of both. Or you can look at Christmas and Easter. Neither were originally "Christian" holidays, we just adopted them as our own and modified them to fit our view of things. Its not out of the ordinary for Christians to contextualize things to accommodate their cultural understanding.

The followers of Jesus were originally mostly Jews. A lot of historical documents addressed the Christians (in the early years) as a sect of Judaism. It didn't take long, however, for Greeks/Gentiles (non-Jews) to begin converting to the Way of Jesus. This posed some major issues. Greeks didn't cut the foreskin off of their penises. Greeks would eat a lot of things that a good Jew wouldn't come near. Greeks weren't allowed in the Temple and most of these Jewish Christians still went to Temple to pray. Long story short, these were two very different cultures colliding.

The book of Acts in the New Testament has lots of stories about the tension between these two groups in the church. At one point, Paul even goes to Jerusalem to discuss with James and Peter what Jewish guidelines Greek converts should be held to. Jews were still the majority at this time. But that didn't last too long. In fact, some of the books written later that are included in the New Testament document the flow of Greek culture into church. Though the term isn't used in the Bible, Gnostics (a sect of Christians who believe that knowledge {Gnosis in Greek means knowledge} equaled salvation and that temporal things, like the body, were evil) were butting heads with others in the church. These were just our first indications that more trouble was on the way.

Post-New Testament, the church changed dramatically. Greco-Roman culture overtook the church. As Christianity made its way across Europe, the majority of new converts were no longer Jews holding to Judaic law and culture. These people were Greeks who held Socrates, Plate, and Aristotle in high reverence. Then Constantine comes along and makes Christianity a protected religion of the state. Augustine, who is considered one of the major shapers of Western thought, was actually a convert from a form of Gnosticism. Though he improved some of the thoughts on the "equality" of body and soul, he furthered the idea that the two are separate.

In Gnosticism, the physical world was tainted and lesser than the spiritual world. Therefore, the body was separate from the soul because it wasn't as important from the soul. The body was earthly and evil. (Some sects even held that Jesus was never crucified because he couldn't have a body because the body was sinful. They said we just "saw" it happening, but it never happened.) The soul was spiritual and would have been God's main concern. It follows that if the soul is God's main concern, it should be our main concern as well, right?

Its easy to see that this line of thought still affects the church and Christian thought today. I'm sure people won't like reading some of this. Some people will argue that this dualism is held in Scripture. But to be honest, the only way you can read the New Testament and come out with the understanding of a separate body and soul, of which the soul is more important, is if you read it through a world-view that has been heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.

I think we are a holistic being. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying "Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Mark and Luke quote the same thing, but they add "... with all your strength" as well. I think Jesus was reminding us that we're one, whole being. Not separate, but one.

In light of all that, lots of people have told me that I put someone's "physical" needs above their "spiritual" needs. That I overemphasize the "temporal" and am forgetting about the "eternal." I'm not here to argue that one is more important than the other. I'm pointing out that they're the same thing. To verbally tell someone about the God who loves them and desires them to be a part of His story is the same thing as making sure our friend Rick under the Church St bridge in Nashville has food and water. I think 2 Timothy 4:2 is on the same plane as Matthew 25:31-46.

Doug Pagitt makes the point in his book "A Christianity Worth Believing" that "when we minister to people, we minister to the whole person. This is the implication of holism, not that we pick one side of the old debate between caring for physical needs and caring for the soul but that we understand and live in the reality that the "difference" between them is not what we may have thought it was."


Doug Pagitt said...

Sounds like a great book. 0)

JD said...

Wow. Doug commented on my blog. Wow. I don't know quite what to say other than to state that I am elated.

Though the conversation has been ongoing for several months, a couple of chapters in his book really lay this out there and encouraged me to go ahead and write about it. A story about a local Episcopal rector, a philosophy class, and a book I bought as a gift for a friend all were crashing around inside me and came out as this post.

That's freakin' rad. Thanks for stopping by, Doug.

kaleidoscope BG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
terry shoemaker said...

I'd like thoughts on this:

I know that Luke is explaining to an audience how a movement that started as Jewish (or at least a Jewish cult) slowly became a Gentile (Greek) movement.

Would some say that this was destiny, providence or at least under the direction of the Holy Spirit? Would some say that this is the direction that God wanted the church to go, developing the Greek philosophies, etc? Josephus actually thought that God had abandoned the Jewish people and jumped on board the Greek boat of doing life. Wouldn't many people state again, that the Spirit led this to be like this?

How do you counteract this argument?