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February 8, 2014. The Human Body: Ascesis and Exercise

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos


1. The Human Body according to Ancient Greek Philosophy

From ancient times, the mystery of man engaged philosophers who, as expected, studied man in relation to the He who Is, God. The questions of what man is, what the body is and what motivates the body are questions of utmost significance and importance.

According to one interpretation, in Greek the word body sōma derives from the word sēma meaning, “sign”. Among many other meanings, the latter word, sēma means a pointer showing a grave. Therefore, in this sense, the word sōma refers to ancient Greek philosophy, which viewed the body as a sēma -­‐‑ the grave of the soul.

Indeed, in ancient Greek tradition, there was a prevalent view of a naturally immortal soul and a naturally mortal body. This mean’s that several ancient philosophers believed that man’s soul is unborn and previously belonged to the impersonal world of ideas, but when it moved from this prosperous world, God punished it and enclosed it within the body, which has constituted the prison, the grave of the soul ever since. Thus, according to this view, the salvation of the soul consists in its release from this prison and its return to the unborn world of ideas, from whence it fell, so that it would return to the prosperity of the ideal world.

In the myth of the cave, Plato demonstrates that the entire perceptible world is a bondage house, a prison, in which human souls perceive the shadows of the archetypes as reality per se. Thus, the souls have to escape the bondage house and return to the light. This is Platonic Eros. Plato himself describes the drama of the Fall of naturally eternal souls to bodies1.

The middle Platonic and the Neo-­Platonic philosophers, as well as other ancient systems, were influenced to varying degrees by these theories and for this reason denigrate the body. There were also other systems that overrated the beauty of the body, disregarding the value of the soul.

Many views and theories have been articulated about the world, in relation with God and man, by various philosophical and religious systems. His Eminence the Metropolitan of Pergamon John summarizes the basic teachings of ancient philosophers and of some Christians that were influenced by philosophy and sorts them to five views.

The first set of teachings is the theories of Gnosticism, according to which the world we live in is permeated with evil, and therefore, it is not possible for God to be its creator. Between God the Father and the world there is a hierarchy of “ages”, of which the last is the creator of the world. The second view contains the ideas of the Neo-­Platonist, Plautinus, according to which God had the world within him and at some point brought it out to the surface. The ideas exist in God and, based on them, he creates the world from pre-­existing matter. But the world created by God is not perfect, because matter and space oppose what God wished to create. The perfect world is the world of ideas.

A third view is the ideas of Philo, a Jew, who tried to combine his biblical faith with Plato. According to him, God created matter, implying that matter did not preexist. But the ideas are the thoughts of God. This view influenced Neo-­Platonism, which believed that the world is an emanation from the One God, i.e. it is an extension of the thoughts of the One.

Fourth, are the theories of Origen, who was influenced by Platonic views: According to the teaching of Origen, there are two Creations: one is the eternal Creation, which includes the creation of souls, the other is Creation in time, when this eternally present world takes material form. Origen considers this creation as a fall2.

It is clear that Plato’s views influenced, to varying degrees, the Gnostics, the Neo-Platonists, Jewish and Christian theologians and those theories that diverged from Orthodox teaching on the creation of the world and of man.

The doctrine of reincarnation is conjoined to the creation of the world. According to doctrine of reincarnation, souls belonged to the eternal and unborn world of ideas, but afterwards, either through sin or through emanation from this world they were enclosed in the body for punishment and prison. Hence, if man is unable to purify himself and be liberated from the body, he must come back anew in other successive bodies, even animal bodies, until his soul is completely rid of sin and returns to the eternal world of ideas. Such a view denigrates the body, by not considering man as a single psychosomatic unity.

2. Orthodox Christianity concerning the Body

Christian teaching on the body, and on man in general differs from all metaphysical theories. However, we are not going to proceed to a full analysis of this point, because the objective of this review is not theological and is not addressed towards experts; rather it is informative and of course pastoral.

The creation of man is discussed in the first books of the Bible. It writes: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:26-­28).

Some basic truths are manifested in this passage. First, it can be seen that God who created man is a Person (three Persons), not an ideal nor impersonal. He is not an assemblage of impersonal ideas.

Then it declares that man is created according to the image and likeness of God. If this passage is linked with another passage, which mentions that God formed the body from the dust of the ground and then breathed into him and thus, the soul was created, it is clear that man was directly created by God in a positive way. This means that the soul did not previously live in an eternal and unborn world of ideas, but was created by God at that moment. It also means that the body is not the prison of the soul, but was formed by God at that moment, and man was formed in this way in a unity of soul and body. That is to say, the body did not exist before the soul, and the soul did not exist before the body. Man is not simply a soul or simply a body. The soul is the soul of a human person and the body is the body of a human person, i.e. man is always both, because he consists of both soul and body.

Furthermore, this passage shows the truth that man was created by God to be king, the ruler of all creation.

Therefore, the body is not the prison of the soul, but was created together with the soul in a positive way by God. Both soul and body must have a common course towards God.

However, in studying the human body from a Christian point of view we can look at five phases.

The first phase refers to how the body functioned before man’s fall. Right after man’s creation, the body had the grace and energy of God. That is, the soul was in communion with God and this brightened, gave glory, to the body as well, and through the body this brilliance was extended to the whole of nature. Nicholas Cabasilas says that the soul is a looking glass or mirror. Since the soul received the energies of the light of God, it radiated this through the body to the whole of creation. This is why Adam and Eve felt no shame even though they were naked. This is an indication that the body is not to blame for what followed.

The second phase is what took place after man’s Fall. As soon as man lost his communion with God, the mirror was shattered, and as a result great darkness fell upon all creation. Then Adam and Eve saw that they were naked and felt ashamed, so they tried to cover their nakedness. The body became untamed, because of sin, and all bodily passions appeared, and this means that death entered into man. The body suffered a great catastrophe, diseases appeared, and it became weak and needed more food and clothing to be protected from changes in the weather. The body that we know today is not the body received at creation. It is not the same body as that which was created by God; rather it is the body that accepted the consequences and the results of sin, that is, death.

The third phase of the body starts with Christ’s Incarnation. The Word of God assumed the human body, indeed, a mortal body, in order to bring it back to its former glory and raise it beyond where it was in the person of Adam. The Transfiguration of Christ, when His face shone like the sun and his tunic turned as white as light, shows the glorification of the human body. So, our God is not simply an idea, He is not just a person, but the Theanthropos, both God and man, the God-­man. The human body acquired great glory in the Person of the Word. We also have the opportunity to live within the Body of Christ. We are reborn through the holy Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, the holy Baptism, the holy Chrismation (Unction), and we give glory to the body through Holy Communion. With asceticism, that is, with fasting, abstinence, etc., we do not hate and underrate the body, rather we try, with God’s help, to restore it to that original condition of Adam and Eve and to raise it up even further. As the holy Fathers say, with ascesis we become killers of the passions not killers of the body, that is, we mortify the passions.

The fourth phase of the body begins with the soul’s exit from it. Despite the separation of the soul, man’s unity remains intact, the person, the hypostasis, remains. If someone manages with God’s Grace to balance the relationship between soul and body, then his/her body becomes a holy relic. In the Orthodox Church we have several holy relics, namely bodies, which remain incorruptible, give off fragrance, and make miracles. This mean’s that these bodies, without undergoing any chemical process, without being in certain, suitable, climate conditions, are maintained incorruptible, an indication that God’s Grace is within them. Such incorruptible whole relics can be found in Corfu (St. Spyridon), Cephallonia (St. Gerasimos), Zakynthos (St. Dionysios) and in many of our Church’s Monasteries. Their incorruptibility is shown by the fact that the cells in the saint’s body, remain incorruptible, the saint’s body has not decayed and disintegrated.

The fifth phase of the body will start with the Second Coming of Christ, when the bodies of all human beings will be resurrected. Ancient Greek philosophy did not believe in the resurrection of the body, because, as we saw before, it taught the distinction between a naturally immortal soul and a naturally mortal body. Therefore, according to this philosophy, man’s salvation is the exodus of the immortal soul from the mortal body, which will disappear afterwards. However, Christianity does not accept this. Christianity’s basic teaching is that bodies will be resurrected through the energy of God, the souls will enter their bodies and man will live eternally having both body and soul in a single unity. Of course, the bodies will be different from our present ones, i.e. they will not have corruption, mortality, or diseases, they will have a better form than the body that they had in Paradise after the Creation. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. (1 Cor. 15:42-­‐‑45).

Therefore, in the Christian tradition, the body becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul teaches: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own “(1 Cor. 6:19)

The main philosophical and religious views on the creation of the world, the interpretation of evil existing within the world and, of course, the human body, were presented in the previous chapter. However, the teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed by the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church, is very different.

Orthodox Theology talks about the difference and distinction between what is created and what is uncreated. God is uncreated and the whole of nature, including man, is created.

God is not simply the Creator but also the Maker of the world. This is said because the word “create” mean’s to construct and beautify something from pre-­existing matter. But the whole of creation was made from non-­existing matter. God did not make the heavens and the earth out of pre-­existing matter, but “He spoke and they were born, He commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148 LXX). The evil that exists in the world does not originate from its own nature and its creation. It originates from its separation from God through the Fall of man.

As we saw above, the Orthodox Church does not believe in the distinction between a naturally eternal soul and a naturally mortal body. In other words, it does not believe that the soul used to belong to the unborn and eternal world of ideas and that the body is the prison of the soul. Instead, it believes that God created the soul and the body simultaneously and thus the whole of man was formed. The soul did not exist before the body, nor did the body exist before the soul. Therefore, man’s body was created in a positive way by God and was joined with the soul. The soul is not located in a specific part of the body but is throughout the entire body as energy.

From this perspective, the Orthodox Church rejects the theory of reincarnation, because man constitutes a unity of soul and body. There is a psychosomatic unity in man from the creation of Adam and Eve and from each man’s birth. Man constitutes a person, a hypostasis, which means that the body does not vanish and that it is not the garment of the soul, which the soul has to throw away in order to assume something else. After man’s death, that is, the exodus of the soul from the body, the hypostasis, and the person is maintained, yet at the future resurrection of bodies, each soul will return to its own body. This is a true scandal for ancient (pagan) philosophy.

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