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Starting Point

Role of flesh in universe


In our times a new creation story and a new cosmology have vastly expanded the meaning of flesh. No previous generation has been taught that the universe is hundreds of billions of galaxies large and still expanding. Ernesto Cardenal, in his poem on the new cosmology, celebrates the news of the expanding universe as the “most important discovery of the 20th century.”

If the universe is expanding, so, too, is flesh, for the universe is fleshy. Flesh is matter, and matter is flesh. This insight is implicit in Einstein’s establishing the interchangeability of matter and energy (isn’t flesh energetic matter?), just as it is explicit in Thomas Aquinas’ definition of spirit as elán or vitality.

The news from today’s physics is not just that matter expands but that matter is intrinsically energetic, vital, organized and organizing, busy, dancing, vibrating, seeking, moving, and finding order in the midst of chaos. All things in motion -- isn’t this Aristotle’s definition of soul as that which produces locomotion from within?

The boundary between animate and inanimate, like so many other boundaries today, is rapidly fading. Medical doctor and scientist James Lovelock writes that “there is no clear distinction anywhere on the earth’s surface between living and nonliving matter. There is merely a hierarchy of intensity going from the ‘material’ environment of the rocks and the atmosphere to the living cells.”

Recently a car mechanic told me this story: He was depressed at work but stuck with his job because of family responsibilities. Then he encountered a Sufi teacher who said to him, “Each time you turn the ratchet as you repair a vehicle, speak the word Allah.” The mechanic did so, and his whole life changed, the whole relation with his work changed. “Now,” he said, “I love my work. I love cars. They are alive. It is a mistake to think of animate versus inanimate. A car will tell you, if you listen deeply enough, whether it wants to be repaired or whether it wants simply to be left alone to die.”

In the context of evolution, all things have animate-like qualities. Mountains grow and shrink in the context of eons of time. Soil breathes and rises and falls, as do entire continents and the sea with its tides.

Context is so important. Text is not adequate for expressing wonder and awe. Indeed, a case could be made that the sacred has faded proportionate to the use of the printing press invented five centuries ago. As humans withdraw their senses from the larger context around them, the possibilities for awe diminish -- and for gratitude, and for reverence.

The earth context -- the animals and plants, the flowers and forests, the fauna and landscapes, the birds and fishes, the creepy-crawly things that burrow in our gardens and compost piles -- fascinate us and bless us. They, too, reveal something to us about failures, about our sins and about our capacity for beauty and blessing.

Our own bodies, with their 15-billion-year histories (they carry hydrogen atoms that were birthed 14 billion years ago), with their stunning achievements of eye and ear, of heart and lung, of bladder and liver, of sexual organs and larynx -- our bodies, too, have something to reveal to us about beauty and reverence, gratitude and awe, and their opposites.

The proper context for talking about sin is cosmology, the evolution of our world, indeed the evolution of flesh. For the evolution of the world is the evolution of flesh. Flesh, we now know, has a history. (Not long ago we were taught, à la Aristotle, that species were eternal). For most people, the blessing that flesh is and has been constitutes the ordinary entry into wisdom and into the temple of the sacred. As Riceour puts it, humanity “first reads the sacred on the world, on some elements or aspects of the world, on the heavens, on the sun and moon, on the waters and vegetation. Spoken symbolism thus refers back to manifestations of the sacred, to hierophanies, where the sacred is shown in a fragment of the cosmos. ... First of all, then, it is the sun, the moon, the waters -- that is to say, cosmic realities -- that are symbols.”

As our biblical ancestors knew well, the universe is God’s temple, and the temple is a microcosm of the universe depicted in cosmic terms that recall the language of creation. “He built his sanctuary like the heavens, like the earth that he established forever” (Psalms 78, 69). Our bodies are also temples, as Paul insists. Through the temple of the body celebrating in the body of the temple, chaos becomes creation, and evil is transformed into order.

This universe so deserving of praise comes in at least three layers: The cosmic flesh, the eco-flesh and the human flesh.

It is striking that Psalm 104, so full of praise of the fleshy creation of God, in celebrating the same for 34 verses, only at the 35th verse, and only in the context of praise and joy, raises the question of human sin:

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live,
all my life I will sing psalms to my God.
May my meditation please the Lord,
as I show my joy in him (her)!
Away with all sinners from the earth
and may the wicked be no more!
Bless the Lord, my soul.
O praise the Lord.

In putting praise before sin and blessing before curse and flesh before sins of the spirit, we are following in this ancient tradition.

Matthew Fox is a former Dominican priest and founder of the University of Creation Spritituality in Oakland, Calif. This is an excerpt from his new book, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for Transforming Evil in Soul and Society (Harmony Books).

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999