This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series: ‘Modern Myths’ (Sampson)
It is often supposed that the Christian faith has had, down the years, an overwhelmingly repressive attitude towards the human body. This ‘story of repression’ is discussed by Philip Sampson in his book Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, (a book that deserves to be better known, I think). Here are some of the things that Sampson has to say.
Jonathan Miller described Christianity as more concerned for ‘the metaphysical fate of mankind’ than for ‘the physical order of nature’. Whereas the Pompeian murals of the 2nd century portray bodies as solid and delightful, in a world in which ‘man was obviously pleased to linger’, medieval European art depicts bodies as unreal and lacking depth, indicating impatience for the next world.
For the feminist Simone de Beauvoir, ‘the Christian is divided within himself; the separation of body and soul, of life and spirit, is complete, original sin makes of the body the enemy of the soul; all ties of the flesh seem evil.’ Christianity is ‘a religion that holds the flesh accursed’.
‘With Christianity…came the idea that sex was sinful, that Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden because of sexual sin.’ In the Middle Ages, ‘whole villages were given to whipping themselves to drive out wicked thoughts – but what sinful bliss the pain of the whip could excite.’ (Christy)
The Church ‘did everything it could to decry and degrade sex.’ Christian attitudes to sex are ‘morbid and unnatural.’ (Bertrand Russell)
The alleged repression of sexuality has particularly serious consequences for women, who tend to be regarded as either innocent virgins or promiscuous whores.
Rosemary Radford Ruether quotes a 13th-century Dominican preacher, John Broomyard, who decribed woman as ‘a painted tombstone that conceals a rotting corpse’, which is regarded by Ruether as characteristic of both the medieval mind of of Puritanism.
In Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter the heroine, Dorothy, hated cold baths and ‘for that very reason made it a rule to take all her baths cold.’ And ‘she made it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to her prayers, to prick her arm hard enough the make blood come.’
It is alleged that the story of ‘Eve’s curse’ explains why the church opposed the introduction, by James Simpson in 1847, of anaesthesia in labour. According to McGrew, ‘preachers argued that God intended birth to be painful.’ Porter says that ‘Some thought it was unnatural and wrong to alleviate the suffering inflicted on mankind as a retribution for his sins.’
In ‘that compendium of misleading tales’, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, Andrew White states: ‘From pulpit after pulpit Simpson’s use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abundantly, the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was “to avoid one part of the primeval curse on women”.’ However, in his 1983 paper on ‘Religious opposition to obstetric anaesthesia: a myth’, published in Annals of Science, science historian A.D. Farr consulted the medical and religious literature of the period. He found that opposition to Simpson’s use of anaesthesia on religious grounds was ‘virtually non-existent’. The only significant work which dealt with the matter from a biblical point of view was by an evangelical Anglican, who defended the use of anaesthesia in childbirth. Simpson, of course, was a Christian himself.
Of course, examples can be found of misogyny and dualism, from the Catholic tradition of scourging the body to 19th-century Protestant prudery. But these are less authentic expressions of Judaeo-Christian tradition, more distortions needing reform. These distortions can be traced back to the influence of Greek thought on Christian theologians, including some of the early Fathers, Aquinas (who attempted a synthesis of Aristotle with the Bible in the 13th century, and the Neoplatonists of the Renaissance. Greek dualism was constantly read back into the Bible, with serious consequences. Plato, for example, view the soul as imprisoned in the body, and said that ‘if we would have true knowledge of anything, we must be quit of the body.’
The Body in Christian Teaching
An authentic Christian approach takes it cue from the resurrection not the freeing of the spirit from its bodily imprisonment but the resurrection of the physical body to a new life on a restored earth. Christology has rightly rejected docetism.
‘Christianity is the most materialistic of all great religions. The others hope to achieve spiritual relaity by ignoring matter – calling it illusion (maya) or saying that it does not exist…Christianity, based as it is on the Incarnation, regards matter as destined to be the vehicle and instrument of spirit.’ (William Temple)
Paul’s teaching on ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ (Gal 5:17 Rom 7 1 Cor 15:44ff) does not imply dualism. ‘When Paul uses the term flesh figuratively it refers, not to the human body as distinct from the soul or spirit, but to the whole of the life of the non-Christian…as that life is lived in neglect of God.’ (Paul Helm) Similarly, ‘spirit’ (as contrasted with ‘flesh’) refers to a person who seeks to lve a life in obedience to the will of God and is dependent on God’s grade.
Neither does Paul’s distinction in 1 Cor 15:44-45 between the ‘natural body’ and the ‘spiritual body’ imply dualism. Paul has just informed us that if resurrection were not physical, we would still be in our sins. For Paul, the body can be the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’, 1 Cor 6:19.
Biblical teaching is that God made human beings out of dust and in his own image. Adam welcomed Eve as ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’.
‘There is a good principle, which has created order, light, and man; and a bad principle, which has created chaos, darkness and woman.’ (Pythagoras, 6th cent BC)
Plato believed in re-incarnation: ‘He who lived well during his appointed rime was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have ablessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman…If she persists in evil, she would become an animal.’
Aristotle regard women as inferior: ‘For the female is, as it were, a mutilated male…for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.’ Women symbolised the realm of matter, body and imperfection; man represented spirit, sould and the divine.
This Greek view of womanhood has influenced the early Christian church and Western culture generally. But it does not represent authentic biblical teaching. God made human beings in his own image, ‘male and female’. Gendered creativity is affirmed in the first blessing we received from God: ‘be fruitful and multiply’, Gen 1:28. Sexuality is integral to our shared life before God.
Sin affects relationships between men and women. But the effects of the fall cannot be made the norm.
An unholy alliance
Greek dualism was prominent in 2nd-century gnosticism, in which salvation entailed escape from the prison of the body into the realm of the spirit. Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas were somewhat influence by these ideas.
Medieval and early modern society is assumed to have been overwhelmingly patriarchal, and women have been marginalised in historical accounts. But the authentic biblical vision helped to sustain a relatively positive view of the body, and of women.
The return to the Bible at the time of the Reformation engendered a rich vision of the place of the body within creation.
Calvin affirmed the physical nature of the resurrection. Commenting on 1 Cor 15, he says, ‘The substance of the body is the same…This is the simple and genuine meaning of the Apostle; and no one may, bu philosophising farther, indulge in airy speculations, as those do, who suppose that the substance of the body will be spiritual, while there is no mention here of substance, and no change will be made upon it.’
The Puritan Richard Sibbes celebrated the redeemed body as perfect, beautiful, glorious, immortal, powerful and vigorous.
Matthew Henry comments: ‘There is a glory reserved for the bodies of the saints, which they will be instated in at the resurrection.’
This vision was caught by the 17th-century Dutch artists, who depict, not insubstantial figures engaged in ‘spiritual’ matters, but people engaged in everyday life in the home, the tavern and the street.
Calvin was not opposed to pleasure and did not believe in mere functional necessity: ‘Now then, if we consider for what end God created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight…In herbs, fruits and trees, besides the various uses, he created gracefulness of appearance and sweetness of smell…Shall it be unlawful to enjoy that beauty and this odour? In short, has he not given many things a value without having only necessary use?’
Calvin rejected devaluation of sexuality, and the association of sex with original sin. Human sexuality had been a apart of the original perfection of Adam and Eve and ‘conjugal intercourse is pure, honourable and holy, because it is a pure institution of God, allowing husband and wife to give each other delight.’ This mutuality extended to divorce: equal rights in this respect were accorded in Geneva from the mid-1540s.
The reformers opposed the indignity of adultery (for both men and women) and also opposed prostitution. In this latter case, they differed from Aquinas, whose defence of prostitution ‘by analogy to a cesspit for a palace’ had been used to sanction public brothels as outlets for uncontrolled male behaviour.
Philip J Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, 113-129