By Julia Meszaros
Is Christianity tied to a dualism of body and soul? A recent Anthropos seminar with ethnologist Maria Schnitter indicated that this question gets to the heart of a whole range of theological anthropological themes, including the status of the created world, the nature of sin, and the relation between self and other.
Bathing practices and salvation of the soul
According to Schnitter, who spoke on the differences between Christian, Muslim and pagan attitudes towards ritual bathing, the spread of Christianity among the Southern Slavs led to the gradual disappearance of their traditional bathing practices. As Schnitter argued, Christianity’s emphasis on the care of the soul and its call for the sacrifice of the body meant that Christians viewed the weekly bodily hygiene rituals of both pagans (or ancient Romans) and Muslims either as an idolatrous pleasure detracting from salvation or as indicative of a person’s spiritual impurity. Regular bathing, so the Christian authorities maintained in response to the prevailing Slavic customs, was acceptable only so long as it was required by the body itself; it was immaterial (if not damaging) to the salvation of the soul.
Whether rightly or wrongly, the separation, or even opposition, of body and soul that is at play in such arguments is often traced back to St Paul’s negative view of the flesh, or to the inheritance of a Greek dualism between body and soul (although it must be noted that Christianity has regularly condemned a strict anti-body stance, such as found in Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Such an opposition is often seen to be indicative of a wider-reaching binary logic that has fundamentally shaped the Western imagination and that is increasingly found to be incapable of adequately capturing reality. Traditional Christian practices geared towards the ‘salvation of souls’ or the ‘mortification of the flesh’ are thus being replaced by Eastern practices of yogic mindfulness and contemplation. The pursuit of ‘inner balance and centredness’, ‘self-acceptance’, and ‘groundedness’ is typically seen to represent a more holistic spirituality, which in turn helps underpin many of postmodernity’s most pressing concerns, such as the environmentalist movement, new perspectives on diet and health, or the development of pedagogical approaches more suited to integrating body, mind and soul. In short, Christianity’s association with a dualism between body and soul appears to be one of the reasons for the contemporary backlash against Christianity.
Yet despite these trends, it remains far from certain that the dechristianisation of society really provides new resources for the integration of body and soul. The contemporary concern to give greater importance to the body often takes on the form both of a fetish with the body, and of a heightened puritanism about the body: we are obsessed with the sexual body but afraid of the ageing, ugly, dying body. Thus, far from seeing a new willingness to engage in anything akin to the traditional communal bathing practices as were discussed in the seminar, we live in a society which accepts only the display of the ‘fit’ (and typically photo-shopped) body, and which is increasingly skeptical towards communal locker rooms (to name but one everyday example).
Christianity as resource for body-soul integration
These tensions and contradictions should give us pause. Did/does the Christian paradigm really entail a binary between body and soul and, in effect, devalue the body? The doctrine of the Incarnation and the sacraments would seem to suggest otherwise. As Schnitter moreover noted, Christian baptism is in many ways analogous to Muslim bathing practices. Here, too, an act of bodily washing has a spiritual effect and helps the soul onto the path of salvation.
How, then, can we articulate the difference between Christian and other perspectives on the relation between body and soul? It is true that Christianity does not consider the regular cleansing of the body relevant to the cleansing of the soul. In Christianity, the conditions for salvation have largely been internalised, such that baptism—though an efficacious and externally visible sign of an invisible grace—requires only a symbolic cleansing of the body, and that the internal purity effected by this ‘washing’ can only be tarnished by sin (as opposed to, say, natural bodily processes). It is the internal act of faith which is distinctive for salvation, such that bodily purity may coincide with spiritual impurity, and vice versa (cf. Jn 9).
At the same time, the suggestion that Christianity simply dismisses the body’s role in the salvific life seems inadequate. This is indicated, not only by Christian practices such as fasting, liturgical postures, etc. but also by the extent to which the Gospels view bodily healing as a sign of faith. The point here, however, is that the leper does not obtain salvation through bodily purification but obtains bodily health through his faith (Mt 8:1-4).
This suggests that, more than undoing it, Christianity reverses the relationship between body and soul. Salvation begins with the soul, even though its effects may become manifest also in the body. Implied in this, I would contend, is both a more humble and a more elevated vision of the human body. For, while the body’s salvific powers are limited, even the physically tainted body can serve as a ‘temple’ of the Holy Spirit.