2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1
So, how many of you heard this passage and immediately thought…Yoda?
OK, then, maybe I was the only one. For any of you who don’t know what I am talking about, let me explain. If you don’t remember, Yoda is the little green Jedi Master and sage in the Star Wars movies. And in Empire Strikes Back, there is an extended series of scenes in which Yoda is training Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force. And at one point in the series, Luke’s ship sinks into the swamp and he cannot get it out. Yoda uses it as a teaching moment, in order to explain to Luke about the relationship between the Force and physical objects. According to Yoda, and the ideology of Star Wars, the Force is this spiritual field that governs physical objects and is created by them. There is this duality between the physical world and the spiritual world of the Force. And in this scene, Yoda explains this: “luminous beings are we…not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.” In other words, there are two worlds, physical and spiritual, and one governs the other. And, to prove his point, Yoda closes his eyes, lifts his little green hand, and lifts and moves the gigantic spaceship to dry ground.
So, when I read Paul’s words here, I cannot help but think about Yoda:
• “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
• “…because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
• “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Inner nature. Outer nature. Seen. Unseen. Temporary. Eternal.
The most obvious conclusion that we must all come to then is this:
The Apostle Paul was a Jedi Master. That’s all there is to it.
Actually, there is something a little more subtle going on here. If we were to read this passage and only this passage, we would probably have to admit that Paul was, indeed, a Jedi. Or at least a dualist. At least someone who believed in this dualism between body and soul. Physical and Spiritual. And there is no doubt that Paul was influenced by this way of thinking. It was incredibly common for the Greek philosophers of his day that taught at the same time that he was teaching and writing. They believed in a very dualistic view of the world.
One of Plato’s favorite quotes was “soma sema”…“the body is a tomb.” Like Yoda, he proclaimed that we are luminous beings, not this crude matter. The body is an outward sign of our true selves, our souls. Our souls are imprisoned in our bodies, and the best thing that we can do is to escape this physical reality and return to our true form – our spiritual form. Plato’s dualism was stark and clear.
Plato’s impact on Christianity at the time of Paul was clear. Most obvious was its effect on a group called the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed in this body-soul duality, and imported this duality into their Christian teachings and practices.
• They preached that Jesus was not really human and divine, but merely looked like a physical being. He was only divine. There is no way that God incarnate could have anything to do with this crude, fleshly matter.
• They believed that the most spiritual practices have nothing to do with our physical selves. If our bodies are evil, then everything having to do with our bodies is evil. Carnal. Hopelessly lost. Therefore, every individual physical aspect of our bodies – our health, our sexuality, our diet – were at least irrelevant, or at worst, evil, and requiring strict asceticism or even physical punishment.
• Finally, Gnostics then believed that our responsibility as Christians is basically to sit around and wait it out until we die and our souls are reunited with our spiritual Creator. This world means nothing. Again, it is irrelevant at best, evil at worst. They sought freedom from this world by way of escape. Instead of engaging with the world, they taught that we must run away from it. Church, then, became a hidden place where people taught this hidden Truth. People might stumble into it in order to hear the truth, but there was no attempt to go out to find them. They were a part of the evil world, after all. Why bother?
And, a simplistic look at Paul sounds like this is exactly what he is saying, as well. Temporary vs. eternal.
But, if Paul were a dualist, he would have given up and told them to sit it out and wait for the end. But he didn’t! Paul is the last person who could be accused of teaching a duality in which we should just run and hide from our world instead of engaging in it. He was writing to the Corinthians, a church that he had begun while spending eighteen months living with them, working beside them, making and selling tents at their marketplace. He was as engaged as anyone could be. In other words, he is saying “This isn’t all there is. But this is still a big deal.”
Hear his words again:
“we also believe, and so we speak.” In other words, we preach this truth because it matters to those in this world.
“grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” In other words, share the story, and don’t hide it.
Paul didn’t outright reject the idea of body and soul and something beyond this world. But he didn’t buy into a black and white dualism about it either. His perspective was probably close to what Frank Stagg refers to as one of the key polarities of human existence. Remember, if the truth is a polarity, it contains pieces of both sides of the equation, unlike a duality which requires one or the other. Polarities, he writes, sound contradictory or conflicting. But it is only in the paradoxical sense that they are true. In the tension between these polar realities, we find the truth.
And so, Stagg claims that one of the basic polarities of human existence is that we are “aspective yet holistic.” In other words, there exists in us these aspects of our reality. Body. Soul. Eternal. Temporal. Yet, it is not the case that one is good and one is evil. In fact, it is in the holistic sense that all of these aspects come together in order to understand who we are as humans. We are both body and soul. In us exists the eternity of God’s heaven, and the temporary nature of God’s good creation. We are aspective, yet we are also holistic. The Paul who wrote that we must preach the truth to this world, and we must be patient for the coming of the next one, demonstrated this polarity. His Gospel was both aspective and holistic.
So, who cares? What does this have to do with me, right?
It has a lot to do with you, and me, and us. Whether or not we follow the Gnostics (and Yoda) in dualism or Paul and the polarity of “aspective yet holistic” has a significant influence on the way that we live our lives. Remember the three practical teachings of the Gnostics? Let’s look at those from the perspective of this polarity.
One, the dualistic Gnostics preached that Jesus was not really human and divine, but divine only, masquerading as human. There is a reason why the church rejected the Gnostics as heretics. Because a Jesus who was not really human is not a Jesus with whom we can identify. If he was not a Jesus who felt alone, felt afraid, dealt with temptation, and suffered death, then what’s the point. It’s like the snot-nosed kid that brings his own Monopoly game to game night, and says, “unless everyone plays by my rules, then I’m taking my game and going home. I’ll play, but I don’t have to pay anyone rent, I can take any property I want whenever I want it, and I own the bank and can take whatever money I want (some would also say that this is the Goldman-Sacks version of Monopoly, but that is another sermon for another day.) If Jesus was not really human, then he wasn’t really entering our world, and all of its risks and dangers. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he didn’t really die. This is not a God I would worship, nor is it one I would choose to follow with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Number two, the Gnostics preached that our “this crude matter” is evil and should thus be treated with contempt. But from the beginning, in Genesis, God has proclaimed that this creation is good. To view God’s creation as good and not evil changes the way that we talk about a host of topics:
• It gives us an opportunity to talk about our bodies in a new way. It was a Gnostic dualism that motivated so many of the Victorian principles that proclaimed that human bodies, especially the bodies of women, are unclean and carnal. But the bulk of the message of the Bible proclaims a different message. A holistic Christian acknowledges that our bodies are good. Not evil. Our health, our diet, our sexuality – these are opportunities for worship, for stewardship, for faith.
• It gives us an opportunity to talk about nature as in a new way. A dualist would conclude that this world doesn’t matter because it is evil anyway. We can treat God’s creation with contempt and do whatever we want with and to it. A holistic Christian acknowledges that it is part of our stewardship to care for the earth, and to proclaim it a part of God’s good creation.
• It gives us an opportunity to talk about our relationships in a new way. A dualist would look around at the world with suspicion. Every person they see is an example of a decrepit and evil world. Perhaps they have the come to know the divine spark of their eternal and spiritual selves. But most likely, they are just empty and hollow flesh buckets. But a holistic Christian acknowledges that every person is a child of God and created in God’s image. The way that we see with others, talk to others, listen to others, completely changes when we look at relationships in this way.
To view God’s creation as good and not evil gives us a new way to look at the world around us, the people around us, and at ourselves in the mirror.
Finally, dualistic Gnostics then believed that our responsibility as Christians to bunker ourselves against the world, hiding with our version of the Truth from all others. But to be a holistic Christian means that we enter and engage in the world. There is a phrase that has been oft-repeated in journalism and even preaching circles that helps us to understand this concept. Most likely, it was first written tongue in cheek by humorist and writer Finley Peter Dunne, who spoke of the role of newspapers to both “comforting the afflicted” and “afflicting the comfortable.” Dunne was warning that perhaps the papers were taking themselves a little too seriously, and his warning against our own self-importance should be noted. Nonetheless, it is a powerful way to ask some important questions about how we are indeed called to engage the world. Are we hiding behind a bunker of our own ideology, or engaging the world? Are we seeking the afflicted and asking how we can be Christ’s hands and feet? And are we seeking the comfortable and asking how we can echo Christ’s prophetic call for justice and hope?