I’ll admit that I’m not sure what to do with some parts of the Bible. I try always, when I teach Christians and when I have conversations with folks who are not believers, to emphasize that loathing of the human body does indeed show up in some of the Christian tradition’s texts (it’s hard to deny in some monastic texts) but that at the core of the tradition is a continuation of Elohim‘s declaration, upon creating human bodies in Genesis 1, that bodies are, to quote a bit of King James English, “very good.” But then I get to a passage like Romans 7, and I see Paul pointing to his limbs or members as the sites of evil and begging God for rescue from “this body of death,” and I’m just not sure what to do with it.
My own main temptation is to play the “whatever is going on here” game, something that I despise when I hear other preachers do it. (I often despise most those vices that come most easily to me.) That homiletical move says, “Whatever is going on here, it can’t be the plain meaning of the text.” There are several places where I could make this dodge, some of which I’ve heard in sermons and some which a bit of deconstructionist reading could open up for me. I could cook up a shaky historical referent for “body of death” which makes it something other than Paul’s physical arms and legs and… other members. I could say that Paul is speaking in some sort of dialogical persona, that the next several verses of the epistle are a response to “sub-Paul” rather than an expansion on this thought. I could go even further and say that this section is a paraphrase of wrong-headed people that Paul then answers in Romans 8.
I can understand those impulses, especially when so much of the world of Biblical studies seems dedicated to playing “gotcha” with the Bible. Do we catch the Bible being too harsh for modern tastes? Gotcha! Now we can ignore whatever passages are inconvenient! Do we catch the Bible speaking to a rhetorical moment that differs from our own? Gotcha! Now we can say, whenever it suits us, that the Bible knows nothing about our moment and therefore does not bind us in any moment! And so on. I’ve heard more than one sermon that attempts to do an end-run around these sorts of things by leaning so hard on historical and structural details that the reading becomes stunted and unbelievable, the “whatever is going on here” sort of reading that makes me think that the preacher has become afraid of the Bible or uneasy with it at best. (I’ve probably done the same in some of my own sermons, but a short memory of my own shortcomings is one of my signature vices.)
So if I were to read this passage truthfully, knowing that the sophisticated modern audience might find (another) occasion to reject the Bible as a whole yet remaining unabashed in reading the text truthfully, perhaps this is what I’d find: Paul does indeed name his own limbs as a site of evil, but at the same time he holds that his will and his mind are “within,” not somehow disconnected from the limbs but also some place that he can locate spatially, some place that calls for the gesturing hand to point to the body. The war, in other words, is a war between the parts of his own self rather than a battle between non-local, non-embodied realities and the body. So folks are right to see in this warfare an echo of Platonic traditions, but this is the real Plato, the one who wrote the Phaedrus and the Symposium, the one who sees desire as powerful and perhaps even rebellious but certainly never “external” to the person. (Those who think that embodied desires stop affecting things at death in Plato have not studied the reincarnation passages of Phaedrus and Republic closely enough.) Paul, who’s never afraid to use the intellectual tools at hand to understand the grand cosmic miracles of Christ, is noting that, while the core of desire has necessarily shifted now that Christ has indeed established Himself as Lord, nonetheless the dynamics of desire are still at work. The difference, for Paul, is that unlike in Plato’s world, in which a strict regimen of philosophical training can only promise a lower probability of indulging the desires of the limbs, Paul asserts a distinctly Christian (and therefore Jewish) answer to Plato’s question of warring desires: the resurrection of the Messiah does not merely corral eternal chaotic desires. Christ exposes sin as rebellion rather than origin and sentences those desires that refuse divine rule to death. In the tension between already and not-yet that runs through the whole of the Bible, the disordered desires of the limbs remains potent for the time being, but they cannot make claims of originality (they come into the world because of what we Christians call the Fall) or security (they will pass away when the Kingdom of God comes into its fullness).
So even for a mediocre preacher like myself, there’s no real need to run away from the Scriptures. Those inclined to play “Gotcha” will keep on doing so (I’ve got Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” playing in my mind right now), but those who are faithful will keep on believin’.
Praise be to Christ Jesus, who allows us to tell a story of redemption that reaches to the utmost of creation and to the inmost darkness of our own souls.