Religious roots to the modern relationship to the body

Rene DescartesWe generally take it as a given that the body and mind are separate. Whether the reader is conscious of Descartes Cogito, or simply accepts the precepts of western medicine, the modern human is conceived (at best) alongside, but not a part of, the human body.

My upcoming book looks at how conceiving of the human as separate from the natural world influences our relationship to the environment, and the current ecological crisis. As many, I tie the human/nature divide to the development of the mind/body divide.

Chapter Three of the book looks at religious roots to the modern conception. Here are a few thoughts from the first pages of that chapter, in which I look toward the influence of Christianity, considering its roots in Greek culture.

This chapter will focus on Judaism and Christianity and how the body is regarded within those traditions. While both religions carry complex relationships to the body, this chapter will focus on sex as justifying representative and compelling conclusions regarding the body. The writings of the Jewish Kabbalah  will be considered, alongside Christian Gnostic  texts and the writings of the Apostle Paul.

These two religions have carried dominant influence in Western civilization; our modern attitudes toward the body have been shaped by their influence. It would be appropriate to offer the possibility that Christian attitudes were more influential moving into the age of science (as will be examined in the next chapter.)

Understanding how prior centuries regarded the body establishes the roots out of which grew the tree of modern science. As will be seen through this analysis of the Jewish and Christian relationship to sex, humanities relationship to the body has been troubled through-out Western history. It is this understanding which allows for accurate interpretation of the aspirational statement made in Job 19:26,  “Yet in my flesh shall I see God.” The body has been conceptualized at a distance from a moral human presence on this earth.

Many facets of Christianity grew directly from Judaism – most simply the New Testament from the Old Testament. But regarding the relationship to the body, it appears that societal influences had a stronger impact than religious precedent. The Christian mindset appears to grow from The Greek God Hera suckling baby Heracles, wth Athena just out of viewGreek conceptions of the body. The relationship between Greek and Christian understandings is exhibited broadly, including in the following from Clement of Alexandria: “the human ideal of continence, I mean that which is set forth by the Greek philosophers, teaches one to resist passion, so as not to be subservient to it, and to train the instincts to pursue rational goals. [But as Christians] our ideal is not to experience desire at all.”  While many are familiar with the celebrated sensuality of Greek culture, there was simultaneously an isolation of control over the body from within the human conception. As Gnostic writings make clear, early Christians take the isolation of the spirit, exhibited in the Greek ethos, to extremes. According to Greek scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant:

“The body is the agent and instrument of actions, powers and forces which can only deploy themselves at the price of a loss of energy, a failure, a powerlessness caused by congenital weakness.But it is always Death, in person or by delegation who sits within the intimacy of the human body like a witness to its fragility. Tied to all the nocturnal powers of confusion, to a return to the indistinct and unformed, Death, associated with the tribe of his kin – Sleep, Fatigue, Hunger, Old Age – denounces the failure, the incompleteness of a body of which neither its visible aspects nor its inner forces of desire feeling thoughts and plans are ever perfectly pure Thus for the Greeks of the archaic period, mans misfortune is not that a divine and immortal soul finds itself imprisoned in the envelope of a material and perishable body, but that his body is not fully one. It does not possess, completely and definitively, that set of powers, qualities and active virtues which bring to an individual beings existence a constant, radiant, enduring life in a pure, totally alive state, a life that is imperishable because it is free from any seed of corruption and divorced from what could, from within or without, darken, wither and annihilate it. ”

Excerpt Copyright Robert Bettmann, 2008

Greek culture related the human to the divine, through their Gods. The bodies weakness and lack of ability is what separated the human from the divine. In the revelation and development of Christianity, there are some strong similarities. In the way that the Greeks assessed their bodies as a weak link in being ‘god-like’, so too Christian Gnostics constructed the human body as separating the human from the divine.

Human Body SystemsWhile one might say that religion doesn’t have much to do with science, our modern philosophy and science grew from these early, possibly less rational, understandings. The subsequent/simultaneous dividing of the human from the ‘natural’ inevitably followed. A prior chapter documents environmental theories that consider the impact of that division. Subsequent chapters look at somatic training methodologies that validate embodied knowledge.