Paul on "living according to the flesh"

[Note: It has occurred to me that, if I pursued my previous plan of providing background information prior to my reflections on Paul, I would take a long time to actually get to Paul himself. Instead, I'm going to jump right into what I think needs to be recovered from Paul, and I'll provide background information along the way, as necessary.]

One of Paul's most important terms is sarx, "flesh." He uses it some 72 times in his undisputed letters, and some of the time he means what you would probably think he means. But often he means something quite different.

For example, he frequently contrasts living "according to the flesh" (kata sarka) with living "according to the Spirit" (kata pneuma):
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8.5-8)
It's not difficult to see why Paul is often interpreted dualistically, as if Paul was privileging the immaterial "Spirit" over the material "flesh." But this is not what he has in mind.

Living "according to the flesh" means living according to merely human standards. Indeed, the phrase kata sarka is often translated "according to human standards," or something similar (see how the NRSV translates 1 Cor 1.26; 2 Cor 1.17, 10.2-3, and 11.18). He is referring to how much of what we do in life is geared toward living up to other people's expectations, or living according to merely human inclinations. We easily get caught up in this, and lose sight of what is truly of value. Why does this happen? And why are merely human inclinations deficient?

Paul's answer is "sin." But he does not simply mean that people do bad things, or violate divine commandments. Paul's understanding of sin is quite distinctive. When he says "both Jews and Greeks," by which he means everyone, "are under the power of sin" (Rom 3.9), it becomes apparent that he thinks of sin as something more than a wrong action.

It might be difficult for us to hear that we "are under the power of sin" without hearing that as a moral judgment, but that is not what Paul means at all. Sin, for Paul, is simply part of the human condition.

It seems to me that what Paul understands as "Adam's sin" effects us in two ways. One is external, and pertains to the broken human world we are born into and in which we are socialised. We are "conformed to this age," as Paul puts it (Rom 12.2).1

The other is internal, and refers to our individual human weaknesses: our minds are "darkened" (Rom 1.21), obscuring our vision of what is true and good; and even when we know what is good, we often fail to do it (Rom 7.15ff.).

When you think about it, these external and internal factors are mutually reinforcing. The social world in which we live, being the product of human weakness, sells us a false vision of what life is about, of what is true, and of what is good. And, being weak ourselves, we buy into it. Having bought into it, we pass this on through our participation in the socialisation of others, not least our children.

We see this today in modern consumerist culture, which is a particularly stark example of "living according to the flesh," when that phrase is correctly understood. The values that drive consumerism are not enlightened values. Most people will agree with this, but it doesn't mean they haven't bought into it.

But it would be a mistake to think that this applies only in the secular world. Religion, too, is easily corrupted when minds are "set on the flesh." Those in positions of power will conceive of and promulgate doctrines that support their power rather than lead others to truth, and those subject to them will fail to recognise this, because it's more comfortable to avoid thinking about it. So the blind lead the blind, as Jesus said (cf. Matt 15.14).

Paul's critique of some of his fellow Jewish Christians' understanding of the law will shed some further light on this.

I'll probably write about that next.


[1] The NRSV translates tō aiōni "world" rather than "age." James D.G. Dunn says this verse "indicates recognition of a power or force which molds character and conduct and which “this age” exercises; Paul in effect recognizes the power of social groups, cultural norms, institutions, and traditions to mold patterns of individual behavior" (Romans, WBC 38B, 712).

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Blogger crystal said...

I'm enjoying your posts about Paul. I know so little about him, so this is enlightening. Maybe I'll actually come to like him :)

12:49 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Thanks, Crystal.

I've been a little busy getting ready for the school year, so I haven't been able to blog as much as I had hoped about Paul. I have a little bit more to say, though.

12:32 p.m.  

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