The political philosopher Eric Voegelin long argued that Modernity was marked by an undercurrent of Gnosticism. Put simply, Gnosticism in most of its manifestations is marked by a deep unhappiness with the present life, and finds wisdom and enlightenment only to the extent that the self is stricken from its tainted body. We find exemplars of this Gnosticism even in postmodernity, particularly in cyber-enthusiasts such as Carnegie Mellon University’s Hans Moravec, who once talked about the promise of progressing to a new stage of evolution and leaving behind one’s carbon based shell with the help of robotics.
Gnostic currents persist even within the Christian fold. There are those who equate all bodily interactions with “the flesh”, and as a result prioritise the care of the soul as the primary, if not the only, task of Christian discipleship, and forgetting about the resurrection of the dead they confess at the end of the Nicene creed – a resurrection that implicates both the soul and the body, as prefigured in the rising of the dead from the tombs at the moment of the Crucifixion. Thus marriage, the care for the poor, socioeconomic concern and hospitality are all regarded as falling within the domain of “the flesh” which, drawing on St. Paul’s phraseology for scriptural succour, “has nothing to offer” for our salvation.
By contrast St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), one of the champions of the ancient theological school of Alexandria (which many argue was responsible for nurturing the Gnostic movement) and one of the leading figures in the Council of Ephesus, had this to say
Only if it is one and the same Christ who is consubstantial with the Father and with men can He save us, for the meeting ground between God and man is Flesh and Christ.
The flesh, far from being hopelessly under the reign of Satan, has been redeemed by Christ through his Passion, death and resurrection. And because the flesh is redeemed by Christ, it also becomes the site of our salvation. It is the redemption of the flesh by Christ and thus by extension, one’s redemption via
the flesh in Christ, that makes virtue possible. It is what makes Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body possible. Most importantly, it is what makes the sacraments possible.
This then reveals consumer culture to be but a parody of the divinised Flesh of Christ. At one level, consumer culture always makes deliberate attempts to rebel against and cut itself from Christ, in its reversal of the economy of giving of oneself to one of the taking of others for oneself. In so doing, it shifts the locus of divinity in the material product as a self-sufficient, enclosed entity (the “religious fog” that Karl Marx identified in his critiques on Capitalism’s drive to create commodities for sale). In post-modernity, as the French entrepreneur Herve Juvin remarked, this locating of divinity in the self-contained flesh of the human body is encapsulated in locating the soul on the surface of the skin. Thus it is not the flesh per se, but the flesh cut off from the divinised Body of Christ that leads to futility.
While the flesh may have nothing to offer on its own, our bodies nonetheless can participate in the divinised Flesh of Christ, for is only through this divinised Flesh that our souls get saved.We cleave to this divinised Flesh at the reception of the Eucharistic host. We then bring this glorified Flesh to others through our own flesh, as implied by the Mass’ concluding call by the Presbyter to “glorify God by our lives”. The encounter of human flesh cleaved to the Flesh of Christ then, as Cyril reminds us, becomes the site whereby we can experience our salvation, rather than the perdition that many uber-spiritual grim reapers presume.