Body and soul. The way in which the relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of mankind has been perceived over the centuries creates something of a tangle. Western thought tends to see these two entities as separate, or in the case of materialists, as body without soul. To the latter, soul describes at most a feeling or perception in an otherwise solely physical being. It no more describes a reality than saying someone has “heart” can be connected with the physical organ of the same name.
This in many ways is simply the logical outcome of a worldview which separated all material and spiritual existence. The West, from the Middle Ages on, drank heavily of the Greek pagan philosophers of yore, whose dualism became pervasive. Thus, because spiritual was seen as “higher” or better than physical, celibacy was considered better than marriage, priests better than merchants, theology better than engineering, etc. The dualism also resulted in a division between the spiritual in life and the material. The results of this are still with us, in the belief that your spiritual side can be roped off from the material side. In this view, the church rules Sunday and politics and economics rules the rest of your week, God gets 10% of your income and you can spend the rest on material things. It results not only in the separation of various religious institutions from government support, but of all connection with God himself from his earth and our society. It leads to the ultimate conclusion that, at death, the soul flees from its imprisonment in the body to live immortally, snatched from the inferior body and profane world and saved for spiritual heights.
Paul is having none of this in his letter to the Colossians. You are reconciled to God through Christ’s physical body, salvation gained through his blood shed on the cross (1:20-22). One of the main victims of the concept of a spiritual/physical dualism is the notion that salvation is for human souls, not for the world. Paul refutes that idea: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [i.e. Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19, my italics).
Salvation is thus a process of restoration for all creation, not a rescuing of humans from an evil world. The evil from which we are rescued is not resident in the world but in us (see verse 21). Since time itself is a creation of God, and thus for God, all life is concurrent, the plan of restoration is put in place in the same moment that man’s evil behavior is making it necessary. “[A]ll things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church” (1:16-18).
God has created the earth, in which humans were placed as stewards and as recipients of a material and spiritual paradise provided by the love of God. The cross is central to history because it is the action by which God implements the restoration of that creation, which man’s disobedience and rebellion has desecrated.
“This is the gospel you have heard” and in which you hope, says Paul. Further, it has been proclaimed, not only to us, but “to every creature under heaven” (1:23). This makes our stewardship of the earth of great importance, because it is not a piece of throwaway junk, nor are its creatures mindless and soulless beings. Rather, the earth itself, the priceless creation of love, with all its inhabitants, is reconciled in peace by the act of the cross. The earth and all creatures are gathered into the peace of God, and this is being proclaimed to all creatures by whatever means of communication is effective.
This means your dog can go to heaven. Much wider than that, it means heaven is not just about us, but for all of God’s creatures, wild and tame, big and small. As we are transformed, so are they, as a reading of John’s description of heaven’s creatures in Revelation makes clear. But they are there, because the ultimate goal is the new creation achieved through Christ. Those who see life as anthropocentric will find no comfort in Colossians. The point is that creation is intended to be theocentric. When humanity rebelled from that and decided it’s all about us, God concurrently initiated Plan B.
We are not told how frogs, robins, or bears access this. But Paul tells us we access it through faith, holding firm in the hope which has been proclaimed to us. The Eucharist is the clear access point for those with the eyes of faith. Paul notes it is the mystery “now disclosed to the saints”(1:26), keeping in mind that mysterion, the Greek term for sacrament, is that which links us to Christ. “To them [i.e. the saints] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27). “He is the head of the body, the church” (1:18), into which we are incorporated through baptism. The Eucharistic mystery is Christ in you, just as you are in him, in the body. The completeness of this union is far beyond the banal statement that one is a “member of the church.” It is instead mutual incorporation of Christ and the baptized. The completeness of the incorporation means being joined with all others in the body as well as the head, and it means that the totality of whatever is “you” is included, just as the reconciliation has been by “Christ’s physical body,”(1:22) transformed in the mystery, mysterion,” of the faith.
In the pressure of the present crisis, which attempts to divide us into racial, ethnic, national, political, and religious factions, and which attempts to remove us from our connection to all of creation, and the need to steward it and its creatures (his creatures, actually), we are enticed away from “the peace through his blood shed on the cross” and towards alienation and enmity among God’s creatures and to God himself (1:21). Especially now in this age, we need to hear Paul’s call to “continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (1:23). The Eucharistic communion gathers us together into the body and away from the pressures, the mystery of creation’s unity made known to the saints, Christ in you to heal the enmity and confirm the hope, sharing the joy of creation restored with every creature under heaven.