“Are magazines getting trashier and trashier, or am I just becoming a grumpy old fart?” I asked the cashier in a St. Paul, Minnesota convenience store, gesturing toward the racks of periodicals.
“Well, sir,” she deadpanned, “both of those things could be true.”
Those of us with Incarnational, or “God with skin on” religions–Christians, Vaishnavas, anyone who organizes life around the idea that God could appear in a form at once divine and human– shouldn’t, theoretically, be in the business of setting up false dichotomies. At very least, we ought to be comfortable with paradox. We should be both/and people in an either/or world.
But because the urge to parse distinctions–to say “this, but not that”–is as strong in us as in everyone else, we get sucked into the either-or-ness of it all. And so doing, we lose the subversive power of putting things together that the world wants to keep separate.
Saints and sinners, for example. “Good people” expect other “good people” to give “bad people” a wide berth.
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees and Torah scribes asked Jesus’ disciples.[i] Whom one sat down to eat with was very serious business in ancient Israel.
Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.[ii]
Nevertheless, I suspect Jesus knew there was no right answer with these people.
John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him–a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’[iii]
So not only did Jesus hang out with undesirables, He also liked to eat and drink, apparently. And while this fact offended the scribes and Pharisees, it positively scandalized later generations of theologians. Origen (c. 185–254 CE) for instance–who in many ways is one of my heroes–only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, while insisting that He did it in a way unique to Himself, in which the food “did not pass from His body.”
The idea that the incarnate God didn’t poop brings us to another false dichotomy: the “spirit” vs. “the flesh.”
The idea that the two are at war simply does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, and the few New Testament passages on which the idea is based are generally misunderstood.
For instance, Paul’s famous instruction to the Roman church to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”[iv] must be understood in the context of a movement that believed the end of the world was imminent. Paul therefore encouraged Christians to remain single and celibate, in the belief that there was no future in founding a family (or anything else.)
It is with later theologians like Origen and Augustine, mostly North African and under the influence of Plato, who began the long process of driving a wedge between “the spirit” and “the flesh”–a process that continues to this day.
Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to…see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine […] The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine.
Christianity certainly does distinguish between “spirit” and “flesh.” “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,”[v] said Jesus, explaining why spiritual rebirth is not contingent on physical rebirth.
Yoga makes this body/spirit distinction also; the purusha, or “in-dweller,” who looks out through our eyes and is identical with the Atman, is eternal, while the body is temporal. But where I believe the Yogic tradition trumps the Christian tradition is in its recognition of the sacramentality of the body–the ability of the body to raise our God-consciousness.
The supreme irony is that the whole of the Gospel faith is predicated on God becoming flesh. Jesus not only affirmed the holiness of the body, He seemed to revel in fleshly existence. “Eat for me and drink for me,” He told St. Teresa of Avila, because she could do things for Him in the body that He could no longer do for Himself. (The similarity here to the practice, recommended in the Bhagavad Gita, of “sacrificing sense objects in the fires of renunciation”[vi] is striking.)
Jesus affirmed and cherished the flesh at every turn, feeding people, healing their physical illnesses, eating and drinking with them. He even restored human bodies to life after physical death had occurred, sealing His sovereignty over death by rising from the dead Himself. Whatever the meaning, interpretation or historicity of these events, they plainly emphasize the high value God places on our physical being.
So is the baby in the manger “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” or the rabbi who, at his first meeting with his disciples after His resurrection, made them breakfast?
Does He “dwell in the high and holy place,” or “with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite”?[vii]
Is this Jewish avatara a physical being destined to death, or an immortal spirit Who is beyond the limitations of time, space and the body?
Does the unseemly and all-too-human birth narrative of Jesus (whatever its historical truth) proclaim the humbling of God, or the divine reality of human life behind the maya of earthly existence?
All of these questions, says the Christmas story, pose false dilemmas, and to each one the God-baby offers the same answer:
Well, both of those things could be true.
[i] Mark 2:16
[ii] Mark 2:17
[iii] Luke 7:33-34
[iv] Romans 13:14
[v] John 3:6
[vi] Bhagavad Gita 4:26
[vii] See Isaiah 57:15