Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#128. Body & Soul, Flesh & Spirit, Sarx and Pneuma

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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

If you have questions and think I might help, you're welcome to send me a note:

Post #128 is a review I wrote for a friend of an extremely important book by the liturgist Cipriano Vagaggini; he is described very positively by the monks in the recorded conversations reviewed in post #127.


Dear D:

This is another book review. The author is referred to in the earlier review I sent you [of Belonging to the Universe] where I mention that both of the monks involved in the new paradigms conversations "have very good things to say about Cipriano Vagaggini's work in promoting the paradigm shift."

They call Vagaggini "a key person in our theology, who influenced hundreds, even thousands, of students" (apparently at the international Benedictine college in Rome).

The context in which his name came up was David Steindl-Rast's comments about the contemporary rebirth of focus on inner experience, where he stresses that "much that is new is in fact a recovery of the older gnosis-wisdom perspective: a whole-person centered focus on transformative experience."

This book is even older than Belonging and is, I think, even more important. Its affirmation of the central significance of matter to a religious perspective is essential to Sophiology, the New Cosmology and the whole "immense transition." -Sam


The Flesh, Instrument of Salvation: A Theology of the Human Body, by Cipriano Vagaginni, OSB (Alba House, 1969).

Somewhere in The Good Wine Bruno Barnhart has very positive things to say about this book (as do Br. David and Fr. Thomas in Belonging to the Universe), so I thought it was worth getting a look at, even though it's a half-century old.

I remember the author's name from way back, in connection with the "liturgical movement" of the 1950s and 60s, but I don't think I ever read anything of his.

This book was published after Vatican II but clearly was written earlier. It is just about unreadable; the language is that of a stilted English translation of a Latin document from the Council of Trent! The book even contains a nihil obstat.

But it's got some very good ideas in it. It is, in fact, a great treasure!

Its main point is something which the Christian world still needs to grasp, and which is essential to the perspectives of both the New Cosmology and Sophiology: that matter (the flesh, the human body, the physical universe) counts; that a material body is no less significant than a spiritual soul.

The author's key idea is that from a Christian perspective, the dichotomy between body and soul, which we inherited from Hellenistic matter-spirit dualism, simply has no validity.

He repeats over and over, in numerous contexts and in many different ways, the Latin dictum (which was not previously familiar to me and was the Italian title of the book: caro salutis est cardo).

Cardo is "hinge." So the dictum says that caro (flesh/matter) is the hinge, the cardinal or pivotal point, of our understanding of salvation.

Whatever "salvation" or "redemption" means, the body (matter, flesh) is central to it.

In The Good Wine Bruno talks about the apparent absence of a sense of reversal, paradox, irony in Christianity. That absence is strongly evident in Christianity's history: for almost its entire history, the flesh was considered the instrument of damnation.

Here it is seen as nothing less than the key, the cardo/hinge, the very means by which the cosmo-the-andric unity is achieved, so that the fullness of God may be in everything.

The copyright on the original Italian text isn't given; the English copyright is 1969. So he was certainly on the forefront of thinking back then.

And since the computer advances of the 1980s, allowing for the study of self-organizing systems, we can express his point even better: Because we can see that the self-organizing principle of the cosmos results in personal consciousness, we can also see clearly the non-validity of the body-soul distinction.

The author wants to take it even further, however. Although he doesn't use Eastern terms like "unitive" or "non-duality," his thought is rooted in the Christian idea of divinization.

His point is that flesh is no less divinized than spirit.

In different words: there is no dichotomy between theos and our real lives in the real world. As Karl Rahner says, "there is no dichotomy between grace and everyday life."

Vagaggini supports these views with texts from the Old and New Testaments and familiar early Church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons and Cyril of Alexandria. He works his way up to Thomas Aquinas (of whom he is quite critical on several important points: "The learned doctor ought to know better," he says).

A good positive summary of Vagaggini's view might be: Our non-duality is "whole person." I.e., we experience our non-duality with God by being a whole, healthy, human being: a person in right relatedness with all things.

To paraphrase St. Cyril: A physically and psychologically healthy human being is the fundamental way the divine glory shows itself.


So. If the matter-spirit dichotomy isn't valid, how can we understand the bible's and church fathers' clear distinction between flesh and spirit?

Vagaggini says the biblical and patristic distinction between sarx and pneuma is in fact the distinction between the developmental nature of matter/body/person (sarx) in contrast to its having arrived at the telos of the developmental process (pneuma).

This view is obviously coming from a dynamic rather than a static perspective; and with his emphasis on person and dynamis, Vagaggini is clearly in the post-patriarchal, post-rationalistic world of the New Cosmology and Sophiology.

Calling sarx "movement toward the fullness of non-duality," and pneuma "the attainment of the goal to which the process is moving," is new to me. It's very helpful.

That Vagaggini shows that it's both biblically and patristically based is a breakthrough.

He acknowledges that sarx is usually identified with death, decay, corruptibility, but he makes the point that those are, in fact, aspects of the developmental process (of change and transformation).

Thus pneuma is not the opposite of the temporal process (i.e., not just in-corruptibility) but precisely the telos of that process: transformation to glory, new person, new creation.

In this context, he gives a seemingly simplistic definition of the Christian life which I especially like: participation in the movement toward the goal (the pleroma of non-duality) in order to reach it. A fascinating way to put it!


Although, as I've mentioned, the book was written in Italian about five decades ago and in a style that might have come from five centuries earlier, newly familiar words and ideas keep popping up: importance of matter, centrality of person, dynamic cosmos, participatory process. A new, contemporary translation of this book would be a gift to the world.

Of special interest is his comments on (what else?) Romans 8: "the cosmos groans with us in wanting our bodies to be saved." I never really understood that text so clearly before.

In this context (i.e., that caro salutis est cardo), it is a tremendously powerful statement of the centrality of person in cosmic evolution.

If we keep in mind that "body" here simply means the material aspect of a person, so that from the beginning matter (living matter, human life) is oriented toward its persistence beyond all that threatens it, then the fulfillment of this built-in tendency of the material cosmos to persist depends on the non-duality of anthropos with theos.

What an affirmation of all that is represented by both the New Cosmology and Sophiology!


Vagaggini was primarily a liturgist, so he wants to emphasize the implications of this insight for liturgy and sacraments.

He says that "the full cosmic value of the laws of the incarnation and sacramentality are derived from the human body." (Sounds like Bulgakov again!)

Unfortunately, it will probably take another generation or two before we can deal well with the liturgical implications of caro salutis est cardo. But once again the ultimate identity of eucharist, church and transfigured cosmos comes through clearly.


Vagaggini has another, related idea, to which we can give our immediate attention: "The body appears as the result of a labor of tension which pervades the whole of material creation into the very vitals of its being."

This brings together the anthropos-cosmos link in terms of the labor of childbirth, the public work of the liturgy, and those aspects of endurance and burden connected with Sophia that modern Gnosticism seems to be especially concerned with.

This book is indeed a great treasure. Not only does the theological perspective on the ultimate identity of eucharist, church and transfigured cosmos come through clearly. With its biblical and patristic analysis of sarx and pneuma, the matter-spirit dichotomy of the past is resolved, and affirmed in our scientific understanding that the human person is at the core of the cosmos.

This book is a buried treasure!


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