The Word Embodied
Setting Free the Flesh
My yoke is easy, my burden light (Matthew 11:30).
Paul is famous for his suspicions about the body. His own words make him suspect. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the evil deeds of the body, you will live.” Such texts have opened Paul to the charge that he is anti-body, even Manichaean, in his theology.
We know, however, that Paul’s view is far more nuanced than might first be suspected. The word sarx, “flesh,” does not indicate the same reality as soma, “body,” the latter word being far more integrative and unifying than the former. But the human body or soma can be jailed in the prison of mere flesh if it is without the liberty of spirit and soul.
Mere flesh, sarx, the debased, sin-ruled body, is earth-bound human existence left to itself. Flesh, in this sense, is dominated by the organic drives for self-maintenance and enhancement, even at the expense of others, until the force of death holds sway.
The rigid rule of these drives makes any thought of spirit, freedom, or love impossible. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, Paul describes the law of the flesh as wild sexual irresponsibility, slavery, and violent jealousy.
How Freudian this sounds. Freud, considered passé in some psychiatric circles but the rage in cultural studies, articulated most fully the logic of flesh, or sarx. In The Future of an Illusion, a critique of religious faith, he deemed that our primordial organic desires are incest, cannibalism, and killing.
Even those who, under civilization’s hard constraint, shrink from incest or murder, “do not deny themselves the satisfaction of avarice, their aggressive urges or sexual lusts, and do not hesitate to injure others by lies, fraud, and calumny, so long as they can remain unpunished for it.”
This sounds like the world of sarx in Romans and Galatians.
Freud has nothing on Paul when it comes to unmasking the raw and deadly face of flesh closed in upon itself. Without civic prohibitions, we would “take any one as a sexual object, kill any rival or anyone else who stands in the way, and carry off any of the other’s belongings.”
Freud proposed that science, rather than religion, might save us from ourselves. The voice of intellect, he said, would he heard and, he hoped, obeyed.
Both in his own thought and in subsequent years, however, it would prove to be the other way around.
The tiresome labor of flesh-bound mind is powerless to escape the yoke of blind lust, violence, and avarice. Science, like the flesh that makes it, merely delays the heavy burdensome end of life’s labor. “For the aim of all life is death.”
Paul the psychologist understood this. The life he knew, however, transcended the world of mere flesh. The body inspirited could become a temple of eternal promise. It could sing of love, play in joy, console with gentle compassion, touch with kindness—all those gifts of the Spirit that make the human body revelatory of God.
Unlike Freud’s flesh, in turmoil, condemned to labor and death, Paul’s is transcended by the spirit of Jesus, who invites us:
Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Gospel).
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University