[Programming Note: This post begins a new series on Soul, Body and Sex. But it continues the subject of the previous seven-part series on Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis. I recommend reading those essays as a foundation for this series.]
Where are we?
In previous posts I’ve tried to get to the roots of the moral crisis that engulfs contemporary culture. At the origin of this crisis stands the abandonment of the long-accepted notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as communities and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good.
Given its subjective view of the good, modern culture can no longer make sense of the right as a moral rule that conforms to the moral law. Hence the “right” becomes a private assertion of “what is right for me” or it is identified with legislated human law made through the political process. The simmering crisis becomes open conflict when society’s subjective views of the good and right become concrete disagreement about specific moral behaviors. These disagreements can be settled only by coercion in one of its modern forms: protest and intimidation or legislated human law.
Thoughtful (and faithful) Christians find themselves under fire because they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right. When Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel and downright hateful. Indeed, they appear as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription and even persecution.
We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where we need to speak about specific behaviors. And I might as well begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash of two irreconcilable moral visions. Though the particulars differ, the clash is not new. The New Testament is replete with warnings about this collision of worlds: two opposing kingdoms (Col 1:3), life and death (Col 2:3), visible and the invisible (2Cor 4:18), the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (Gal 5:13-26) and many others. One of the clearest contrasts is found in Colossians 3:1-14. Paul contrasts two ways of living as opposition between two orientations: to things above or to earthly things:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
The New Testament clearly views the moral life as an aspect of a comprehensive and internally consistent way of life, at once religious, spiritual and moral. Its specific moral rules are not isolated and arbitrary. The moral prohibitions in Colossians 3:5-11, quoted above, are interrelated. All of them are integral to the “earthly nature.” The list in verse 5 centers on misuse of the natural urges of physical body: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” The list in verse 8 has to do with misuse of our need for acceptance and fellowship from others: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” And the physical dimension cannot be separated from the social. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others.
The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the goodness of the body lies in the possibility for the body’s proper use. The body is not absolutely good, so that whatever we do with it is also good. It can be misused and misdirected. Those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things above” want to use their bodies for the Lord while those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things on the earth” view their bodies as instruments for their own pleasure and power. Those who direct their minds toward Christ desire to learn the purpose for which God created their bodies and the rules for their proper use. To those whose minds are set on earthly things, the Bible’s moral rules for the proper use of the body seem strange and unnatural.
The Bible speaks of human beings as body and soul. We are physical and mental. We possess freedom at some levels of our being, but at other levels the automatic processes of nature operate apart from our choice or awareness. The Bible is not concerned with the philosophical problem of the composition of human beings, with debates about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body. It is concerned with the orientation of the whole human being toward or away from God. But the Bible acknowledges what we all know from experience: there is a hierarchical order in the relationship between body and soul. The mind is the ruling aspect and the body needs to be ruled and guided. Our minds enable us to gain wisdom to discern the good and right. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctually.
Now consider the two orientations of Colossians 3:1-14 again in light of our created nature as body and soul. Paul speaks of the two ways of living, two possible orientations to God of our whole persons. As whole persons we are body and soul, and the body must be guided by the soul. (Note: the soul is more than the mind, but it includes the mind.) But the mind must be illuminated by moral and spiritual truth from above in order to guide the body to its proper end, which is to serve God. Paul urges us to set our minds and hearts on “things above”. Unless the mind is set on “things above” it cannot lead the body to do good and right. When the mind forsakes “things above”, the body–through its automatic and instinctual urges–begins to dominate the mind and the mind becomes a mere instrument we use to seek out ways to please the body. It thinks only about “earthly things”. Instead of rising higher to become more and more like God, human beings fall to earth to become merely smart animals. Dangerous ones too!
To be continued…
Future questions: what is the body for? Do I have a right to use my body as I like? Does mutual consent make what I do with another human being good and right?