The Christian emphasis on the Incarnation challenges any simplistic Gnostic or Embodied dualism. To be more specific, the Incarnation of Christ redefines how we are to understand our bodies. In the light of Christ, we can neither reject our bodies in favor of the spiritual world nor can we out right elevate our bodies to the levels of the gods.
There is a popular understanding of Christianity today that often defines the religion in terms of repression. This is, in part, due to the Incarnational critique of worldly embodiment. Once we can see the fallen and redeemed anthropologies side by side, we understand why the world might say we are prudes and puritans. Yet, as in the days of the Gnostic debates, we are trying to describe and live into a right ordering of the spiritual and the material.
It doesn’t take too long to realize that American culture loves bodies; hard bodies, lingerie covered bodies, or naked bodies. However we take our bodies, whether through sexual or ocular conquest, the root of our obsession is pleasure. Our eyes feast on the delicacies of curves and abs for our own gratification. All the while we spend hours and fortunes trying to discipline our own bodies into a shape admired by others. Through it all, it is my pleasure that matters. In the end, it’s a new kind of solipsism. It is my pleasure and satisfaction that matters.
When “incarnation” is used in this context, it is simply a theological justification of solipsistic hedonism. Two things could not be further from the heart of the Christian doctrine. This is often because we want to ignore the two corollary elements of the tradition: The Fall and the redeemed quest for virtue. When we set incarnation within the matrix of Christology we are reminded immediately that the Incarnation was for one purpose- the transformation of a fallen world. For it is in Christ that we see the intent for humanity. It is in Christ we learn that our proper mode of being is in right relationship with God. In other words, our spiritual self defines and guides our embodied self, not the other way around.
Two things emerge from this Christological critique. First, the coming of God into the world is a necessarily social action. In other words the redemption of humanity comes at the initiative of another. Right away, the solipsistic view of the self is dismissed. It is not I who am saved, but We. My happiness, my full life is inextricably linked to that of other persons. Secondly, just as Christ is in relationship with God, so are our souls and our bodies. What is more, just as Christ is sent by God, so are our bodies activated by our souls. There is, then a particular relationship which is revealed in the relationship of Christ to God. (NB: I am working with a more Eastern Christian trinitarian theology. Through the ages, the Latin speaking Church has some to see both God and the Son in similar roles of sending. This is made evident in the use of filoque in the Nicene creed. There it states that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Here, rather, I am assuming that the Son and the Spirit are the divinity sent.) This analogy helps reveal that in the human person the soul is the animating element of the human person.
If we do not balance this anthropology of the soul guiding the body with the rejection of Gnostic dualism, the danger is clear. The soul can punish or diminish the body. But, as I noted in the first section, the affirmation and fundamentally the redemption of material existence quarantines such a theological anthropology. As many of the Christian Neo-platonists of the early Church noted, it is the soul which can elevate the flesh to resurrection and it is the body which informs and teaches the soul. We learn to know God through signs, the signs of scripture, world and Christ. Even more so, the body can guide or distract the soul’s natural affinity for God. Take for example the emphasis on the posture of the body within prayer, whether kneeling, laying down, or standing.. John Cassian chides his monks not to lay prostrate too long at times of prayer for fear of falling asleep. For him, the preferred posture is to stand or kneel, thus keeping the soul attentive to God.
When we draw the Christological parallels to anthropology we see that today’s embodied Gnosticism is as equally problematic as the Gnostics of the past. Here we see that the Incarnation reveals the proper ordering of the soul within the human body, namely that the soul guides the flesh towards virtue while the flesh can reveal God at work in the world. There is thus no individual, or solipsistic element to the human person. It must relate to both God and the world through the elements of the body: The soul towards God and the body towards the world. In the Incarnation we understand the proper ordering of these elements so as not to mistake the material for the spiritual. Indeed then, we arrive at the importance of PanENtheism, the notion that God is active in the world but still beyond creation.