The body has been seen as a source of evil and sin at different times all throughout Man’s history. The philosophical phrase for the struggle between the sensual body and the mind, or soul, is dualism. While there are many different types of dualism, the type that has been often associated with Christianity is the belief that the body, with its receptiveness of the senses, is in direct conflict with the mind or soul and its ability to feel and communicate with God.
Fornication, gluttony and violence, for example, are all sins related to the body. It is the indulgence of, and giving in to, the physical pleasures of the body in a sexual way which leads to things like adultery, pornography and masturbation. Seeking to please the body through good food can lead to gluttony. Violence, rather than trying to please the body through its senses, attempts to punish or harm another person through their bodily senses.
The examples above serve to show why the body can and has been seen as the greatest source of evil, as perhaps the biggest thing standing between God and us. This dualistic view has led many of various faiths and ideologies to deny and punish the body as a way of showing their devotion to what it is that they believe in. From the self-flagellation of medieval Roman Catholic monks and modern Shi’a Muslims, to the extreme fasting of Siddhartha and Hindu gurus, it has been thought throughout history that the body must be subdued and overcome in order grow closer to the divine.
This is the incorrect view to have however. While it is true that it is through the body that we commit many of our sins, it is not because of the body. Sexual pleasure is not a sin in of itself; when shared with a spouse it can be an expression of the love shared between the two, a way of growing closer to the other, and the means of bringing new life into the world. Good food is not a sin; it can be used by the chef to express their affection for those they are cooking for, a desire to share something they enjoy with others, and, for those eating good food, it can be a way of spending time with others and enjoying the pleasures which God has given to us.
I find it telling that these things, when shared with other people, can often be considered “good,” yet it is when they are used to satisfy the individual only that they become “bad.” To use sex and food again as an example, when a person seeks after sexual pleasure solely for themselves and for no other reason than to make themselves feel good, or if food is frequently sought out not to satisfy hunger but to satisfy and indulge in the desire of good tastes, it is then that these things cause us to stop focusing on others and God and to instead of focus on ourselves. This after all, the focus and reliance on the ego and self in place of God, is what caused humanity to fall in the first place and what continues to separate us from Him.
In Greek, the word used for sin is αμαρτία (amartia). This translates literally as “missing the mark.” A good image to conjure is an arrow on the outer rings of a target. The arrow has missed the mark which it is intended for, the bulls eye. With this understanding, an action is considered a sin if it causes us to “miss the mark” of glorifying and growing closer to God.
God created us with a soul and a body as a harmonious whole. He created us as sensory creatures, made to enjoy the things around us, and in doing so to thank and glorify Him for these things. We believe that at the final resurrection it is not only our souls, but our bodies as well that will be brought back to life. In Orthodox worship our body is a key tool used to help us connect to God: we smell the incense, hear the chanting and bells, make prostrations, see the beautiful icons and vestments and taste the wine and bread of the Eucharist.
The body is not evil, and holding such a dualistic view is not compatible with Orthodox theology. We do need to be mindful of our body and its senses though, and to make sure that we do not let the desire to indulge them alter our aim and cause us to miss the mark.
We should always be mindful of God and watchful over our passions, and when these two things are kept, then we can enjoy the body and its senses that God has given us, and as He intended. Glory to you, our God!
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