by Father Mike Stubbs
Zombies and vampires lurk in the dark recesses of the popular imagination, as a casual glance at the latest films and books will confirm.
These fantastic figures operate with only a semblance of life, deprived of the fullness of humanity. While zombies generally look quite gruesome, and vampires considerably more refined, they both lack something essential to humanity. They are monsters which scare us for our entertainment. But they also allow us to explore the question of what it means to be a human being.
That is the same question which St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Romans, although in a far less dramatic and sensational way. Most importantly, St. Paul approaches this question from the viewpoint of faith in Jesus Christ. For example, in Sunday’s second reading — Rom 8:9, 11-13 — he writes: “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit.”
On the surface, it might appear as though St. Paul is claiming that we are disembodied spirits, having little connection to this world and its concerns. At times, these words have confused certain Christians. They have thought that St. Paul was advocating a disdain for the created world, the world of flesh and blood. They have believed that St. Paul was promoting an otherworldly piety which despised the material world.
In its extreme version, this interpretation led to the heresy called Manichaeism, which maintained that Satan, not God, had created the physical world. That idea obviously does not fit in with our Christian faith.
In interpreting this passage, it is important to realize that often St. Paul is not speaking literally. Instead, he will frequently use “flesh” as a metaphor to mean “that which is opposed to God.”
In this passage, St. Paul draws out a sharp contrast between the flesh and the spirit. This contrast between flesh and spirit resembles in some ways the contrast between light and darkness. It is the contrast between two attitudes of heart, two ways of life. St. Paul describes the respective consequences of following these paths. One leads toward life; the other, toward death.
In addition to this metaphorical language, St. Paul also speaks literally at times, for example, when he writes: “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.”
Because St. Paul switches back and forth between metaphorical language and literal language, he can be a bit confusing. After all, he is dealing both with the life that will come to our physical bodies through resurrection from the dead and with the life of grace that comes to our souls when we are in good relationship with God: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
St. Paul is pointing toward the life which comes from Jesus Christ, the life which makes us fully human.