to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Friday, March 02, 2012

Lent, day 9: "Buying the Stairway to Heaven," part 3

Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20c-23, RSV)

Hercules (?) from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, photo by RRC
We’ve focused thus far on the spiritually powerful forces “above” the Colossians, the rulers and authorities/stoicheia tou kosmou that stand between them and heavenly bliss, as well as on those who offer to broker the way past those forces by stressing dietary restrictions, keeping of holy days, and attaining ‘angelic’ worship. I call this spiritual approach ‘religion from below’ since the focus seems to be on how we get from here to there.

There is one more substantial component to these religion from below that we’ve yet to address, namely what’s wrong with the “below” in the first place? Why is it we want to leave here to get there? And why do these spiritual forces have such power over us? The answers to these questions boil down to the same thing: The inadequacy of your body. Well, not yours only but all human bodies, and really, the material world in general. It was a staple of the Greco-Roman world that our bodies, being the locus of passions, appetites, diseases, suffering, change, deterioration, etc., were at best a neutral but more usually a negative force in our lives. What made humans most susceptible to the influence of rulers and authorities were their bodies prone to weakness and wickedness.

It must be worries over the weakness of their bodies that made the Colossians susceptible to the regulations “Touch not! Taste not! Handle not!” And why the brokers of their spirituality were imposing ‘home-made religious remedies’ of self-humiliation and severe treatment of the body. For them, the body interfered with, or even worked against, spiritual achievement.

For us, this type of message about asceticism probably seems a little out of place. We don’t really have a problem now days with religious groups advocating self-humiliation or severe treatment of the body (at most we get modest calls for self-control such as pre-marital abstinence. If anything, the strongest calls for self-denial come now in forms like government funded anti-obesity campaigns.)  But I wonder if, in spite of claims to have been liberated from ‘medieval’ religious restrictions and taboos, the body still doesn’t play the part of spiritual bane for us. We certainly are fixated on the body; Eliot and I were just at the grocery store today and, as usual, while waiting to purchase food there was the potential to learn how to slim down my waist, 99 new moves to achieve ultimate sexual ecstasy, and the latest Kardashian curves (which is, to my surprise, not a Star Trek terminus technus).

But our fixation on the body has its dark side as evidenced by the proliferation of surgical augmentations, eating disorders, self-mutilation (like cutting), pornography, sex-trafficking, etc. (Writing that list makes me think that the super market tabloids aren’t that poor of a spiritual barometer.) And while we as a culture may no longer aspire to heaven, we still invest tremendous effort (whether physically or psychologically) on our bodies, at times buffeting them and at other times succumbing to them, but at all times locked into their gravitational pull.

 The irony for the Colossians was, according to Paul, the more they fought the body the more they succumbed to it (their self-denial could not check their self-indulgence, 2:23). Indeed, their very efforts to flee the body were the product of a ‘fleshly mind’ (2:18). The irony for us is we have all the same problems without any of the heavenly motivations.

Obviously a great attribute of the Lenten season is its reminder that we are only ashes, and Lenten fasts play a potentially powerful role in how we understand our embodied existence. The body is after all a locus for all those things mentioned above and does have considerable power over our spiritual lives. Yet we must be careful not to fall prey to the Colossian mistake of thinking that severe treatment of our bodies brings us closer to heaven or that self-indulgence only looks like self-indulgence.

Next week we’ll start looking at how Paul responds to the religion from below. We will see that his response is, , Jesus. Yet the Jesus that Paul puts forward in his letter to the Colossians is truly breath-taking as are the implications of that Jesus for our lives.

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