Friday, August 06, 2004
What I am about to say will probably be blindingly obvious to many of you, but it struck me anew this afternoon, so I will inflict it upon you all. The degree to which the Bible associates sin with the members of the body is interesting. Of course, the members of the body are not sinful per se, but the Bible does seem to speak of our sin in a manner that aligns it more closely with the members of the body than we might naturally do. For example, in Matthew 6:22-23 the eye is spoken of as the ‘lamp of the body’ and is said to be that which determines whether the whole body is filled of darkness or light. The Bible also frequently makes powerful statements about the tongue and the ear. The tongue is ‘so set among our members that it defiles the whole body’ (James 3:6); ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (Proverbs 18:21). The spoken word is uttered from the core of man’s being and reveals his heart more than anything else. The sins of the people of God are also frequently described in terms of stiff necks, closed ears, dull eyes and unclean lips. Catalogues of sin such as Romans 3:10-20 are interesting in the focus that they place upon members of the body, particularly the tongue. What especially interests me is the relationship between the members of man’s body and his heart that seems to be suggested by Scripture. The heart is frequently spoken of in parallel with members of the body — eyes (Psalm 19:8; 131:1; Proverbs 23:26), ears (Proverbs 2:2; 18:15; 23:12), tongues (Proverbs 10:20-21; 17:20; Matthew 15:11, 18-20). The sin ascribed to the eyes, the ears and the tongue in Scripture is particularly intriguing because we would be far more prone to situate this sin in the heart and avoid associating it with body members. Most of us would not naturally say of the tongue what James says of it in chapter 3 of his epistle, or say of the eye what Christ says of it in Matthew 6. We would not naturally think in terms of it being our words that defile us (Matthew 15:11), nor that it would be our words by which we would finally be judged (Matthew 12:37). Even when the Bible speaks about the heart, it appears to be quite happy to speak in terms of a heart that shouts or a heart that listens (Psalm 84:2; 1 Kings 3:9). When Christ preaches the Sermon on the Mount His focus does not appear to be upon some nineteenth century contrast between ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ keeping of the Law (as Wright observes — JVG, p.290), but upon a ‘totally integrated loyalty of heart and act’ as opposed to continually ‘defining ever more closely the outward actions necessary for the keeping of Torah.’ Bodily actions and bodily members play a very prominent role, whether in the form of angry speech (5:22), lustful looking (5:28), the cutting off body members (5:29-30), etc. Far from some disincarnate ‘heart religion’, the Sermon on the Mount clearly teaches a very embodied form of righteousness. The heart is never severed from the body. In the light of the above, a few initial observations spring to mind: Firstly, it suggests a view of man that differs radically from that of such thinkers as Descartes. If man’s heart is so closely aligned to his tongue, his eyes and his ears, the body can never be marginalized. The man it presents us with is one who is integrated into an external world. The body reveals the heart, rather than concealing it. Man is not created as a solipsistic soul. Man only becomes a solipsist as by his sin he closes his eyes and ears, stiffens his neck and hardens his heart against God. As man turns his back on God he becomes curved in on himself and gradually becomes more and more like a corpse. Secondly, whilst the Bible certainly ‘internalizes’ the conscience and leads us to feel guilt and not merely shame, the Bible clearly does not present us with a conscience that can be so internalized as to become disembodied. Our awareness of sin should involve an awareness of the members of our body and not just of disembodied desires. Lust is a sin that embodies itself in a way of looking; anger is a sin that embodies itself in a way of speaking; rebelliousness is a sin that embodies itself in a way of hearing. If we are to tackle these sins we ought to tackle them as embodied sins and not merely as disincarnate desires. If we try to tackle sin merely by probing deep into the swirling mass of our disembodied desires I believe that we disobey the biblical pattern. Sins are, in some sense, rooted in our bodily members and if we are to tackle our sins we must learn to harness these bodily members and not act as if they do not exist (cf. Romans 6:13). We are to rob sin of our service of our members. This means that when we are called to self-examination we must pay careful attention to the way that we are looking, hearing and speaking and not merely seek to discover disembodied desires. Introspection should not isolate us from our surroundings; rather it depends upon our memory of particular positions in which we have found ourselves, or our consideration of our behaviour within some hypothetical situation. In either case we are ‘observing our own reactions’, as Wittgenstein put it and not looking at desires as if they were objects in our mind's eye. Finally, if the heart is so aligned to the members of the body, we need to teach a far more incarnate form of faith. Faith is not some secret ethereal substance lurking in the individual’s soul, although this understanding of faith is suggested by some of the forms of introspection that are advocated by Christians today. Rather, faith is a particular way of relating to the world outside of us. Faith is a way of seeing, a way of hearing, a way of speaking, a way of eating and drinking. Faith is, consequently, far more visible than many have allowed for. Just as joy and pain are essentially visible — particularly in the case of younger children — so, we might argue, faith is essentially visible. Faith is not essentially private. Indeed on occasions it may be possible to see that a person has faith even when they do not see it themselves. The apostle Paul speaks of the faith of the churches he wrote to in a manner that makes it quite clear that he does not regard their faith as essentially hidden and private to be agnostic about (e.g. Romans 1:8; Colossians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 3:5-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Philemon 5). A visible faith is a communal faith. It is a faith heard in the spoken confession (1 Corinthians 12:3) and a faith seen in works (James 2:18). The idea of a ‘community of faith’ is quite natural. Only when faith is detached from the human body will this idea seems strange. This also has bearing upon such issues as the faith of infants and young children, in my opinion. Those who think of faith in disincarnate categories find it hard to posit any form of faith of young children and infants. However, I believe that a recognition of public, communal, visible and external faith can help to address this problem. The child raised in the church setting is raised as a true member of the faithful people of God. Their identity is formed within the matrix of this believing community. In the process of growing up they are expected to internalize the faith that surrounds them. As they learn to speak with their mouths, perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, think with their minds, and feel in their hearts, so they are taught to do all of these things in a Christian manner. Of course, all of this is only possible through the work of the Spirit in the community. I don’t have time to say anything more just now, but I would appreciate hearing other people’s thoughts on some of these issues.