The Trouble with being Spiritual

There’s nothing wrong with being spiritual, but there is something wrong with being solely spiritual since we are created as a combination of body and spirit.

Nevertheless, Christians throughout history have been tempted to turn the Christian faith into a purely spiritual religion. The earliest example is the Gnostic heresy which arose during the first century A.D. In two recent pieces (see here and here) I discuss ancient Gnosticism along with some modern temptations to succumb to that heresy.

Since Gnostics looked upon the material world as evil, they emphasized the spiritual, invisible side of Christianity. They looked upon the Church as a spiritual body and saw no need to meet physically in a definite place in order to worship God. Rather, each individual was free to commune directly with God “in the Spirit.”

In a sense, the Protestant Reformation was a form of Gnosticism. The Reformation was, in part, a movement to purify the Church of the “unnecessary” physical accretions that had developed in Catholicism—the smells and bells, statues and stained-glass windows which were seen by many as a distraction from true, spiritual worship.

In many Protestant denominations, the sacraments also became problematic. They were too physical and, in the case of the Eucharist, too fleshy. The idea that the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ seemed incompatible with the idea that religion was meant to be a spiritual affair.

Catholics, however, stuck with the belief that since God created us as physical beings, it makes sense that we should worship him in both physical and spiritual ways. To Catholics, it seemed natural to kneel in prayer, to make the sign of the cross, and to receive Christ’s body and blood in communion.

Until recently, that is. An increasing number of modern-day Catholics seem to be developing a more Gnostic outlook.

 As with many of Jesus’ early followers, the physical nature of Christianity is a stumbling block for many of today’s Catholics. Many of Christ’s disciples turned away after hearing the hard saying that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6: 54). Likewise, many of today’s Catholics seem uncomfortable with the teaching that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. According to a Pew survey, approximately 43 % of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are only symbolic.

Other polls reveal what might be called a gnostic mindset in regard to sex and marriage. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 69 % of Catholics support recognition of same-sex marriage in opposition to Church teaching. Indeed, support for same-sex marriage is stronger among Catholics than among the American population as a whole.

Meanwhile, a 2022 AP-NORC poll showed that 64 % of U.S. Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases—a figure that matched the view of all adult Americans.

What the polls seem to suggest is that Catholics have become much more permissive about sexual matters. This, of course, is consistent with the gnostic view that the body is relatively unimportant. From this other-worldly point of view, what you do with your body doesn’t matter as long as your soul is in the right place.

Although the Catholic Church is officially opposed to this lax attitude toward sexual sins, many in the hierarchy seem to wink at sexual permissiveness. Pope Francis, for example, has on more than one occasion called sexual sins “the lightest of sins.”

It seems that many in the Church have succumbed to the new Gnosticism. The question is what can Catholics and other Christians do to counter this recent eruption of an old heresy? Perhaps the most important thing is to reassert the Christian belief that God looks upon the physical world as good not evil. And so should we.

After all, as John tells us, Christ was born of the flesh into a human family. He was circumcised, “grew and became strong,” cut and nailed wood in his foster father’s carpenter shop, was baptized in the Jordan River, gathered disciples around him, turned jars of water into wine, healed twisted limbs and sightless eyes and ate meals with his disciples. Furthermore, Jesus often called attention to his physical nature. He insisted on being baptized, he drove the money changers out of the temple, he shed his blood at the whipping post and on the cross. He said “I thirst,” and after his resurrection he invited doubting Thomas to put his hand into his side.

At every turn, Jesus blessed and sanctified the physical and countered the Gnostic notion that the spirit is all that matters.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a streak of Gnosticism in most of us which is difficult to overcome. Take the scene in St. John’s Gospel where the risen Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in the wound in his palm and to place his hand in his side.

I would guess that for many, like myself, the passage is a bit shocking, a bit too physical. I would also guess that Caravaggio’s famous painting of the same scene (“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”) has a similar effect on many. In the painting, Saint Thomas seems quite reluctant to touch the wounds. The artist gives the impression that, except for the powerful guiding grip of Christ’s hand on his wrist, Thomas would have begged off.

It’s noteworthy, by the way, that the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin criticized Caravaggio for his “vulgarity” and “impiety.” It seems obvious, however, that Christ did not consider it either vulgar or impious to call attention to his wounded body.

It is because of that wounded body that we are redeemed. And the realization that, in the person of Christ, even God can suffer physical pain, helps to make sense of our physical suffering which, in purely human terms makes very little sense. Thus, throughout the Epistles we are encouraged to join our own sufferings to the suffering of Christ. God foresaw all this pain—both physical and spiritual—yet decided to create us as embodied souls, not pure spirits. Thanks be to God.

One final point: The Catholic Catechism teaches that at the Final Judgment our soul will be reunited with our body. This might not sound like good news to those who are old, fragile, and suffering from various painful maladies. At that stage of life, many would be glad to shed their bodies altogether. The good news, however, is that your heavenly body will be a changed body. According to The Catechism, “the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul” (1042). According to scripture, our bodies won’t pass away; rather they will be transformed in Christ and become part of a “new creation.” Thus, in the heavenly Jerusalem “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21: 4).

Pictured above: Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

Picture credit: Pixabay