Faith in the Flesh (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

I intended to speak to you today about my work as a neuropsychologist and about the patients whose struggles and courage have taught me so much about life and religion. However, in the past week, as I became aware of the extent of the devastation in the coastal areas of the Gulf, I felt the need to rewrite my sermon. Though I will talk some about my patients, I want to reflect more broadly on what has just occurred. But I still want to begin with the Song of Solomon.

The Song of Solomon forms a unique and controversial part of the Bible. Two lovers speak of their longing for one another. They describe in poetic, but still graphic, terms the sensual pleasure they have found in each other. The male lover tells how he relishes every part of his partner’s body and the woman speaks frankly of her own sensual pleasure in terms we just don’t associate with Biblical females. Hear the woman’s voice:

I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called to him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. Have you seen him whom my soul loves? Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go.

My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand. His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set. His cheeks are like beds of spices yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh. His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires. His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend.

We covered a lot of the Bible when I was a child in Sunday school, but I don’t recall us ever getting to those particular verses. I’m sure I would have remembered, and probably paid far more attention.

Where is God in all of this? God is, in fact, never mentioned. What other book of the Bible fails to include any reference to a deity? Where is the conventional morality that we associate with the Judeo-Christian tradition? These two people clearly know one another intimately outside of the rituals and customs that define marriage. Such behavior certainly occurs elsewhere in the Bible, but it usually leads to dire consequences. In the Song of Solomon, these two people not only get away with it, but they celebrate their passion. What’s going on here? Can this be your grandmother’s Bible?

So controversial is this book of the Bible that for centuries Jewish and Christian scholars debated whether it should be included in the body of the sacred text. Those who argued for its inclusion offered the not very convincing notion that the Song of Solomon is an allegory. Sensual love is but a metaphor for spiritual love. The passion that is spoken of is not so much between the two lovers as between God and the church. The lovers long not for earthly pleasure but for spiritual salvation.

Well, perhaps I am being overly concrete, but I find it difficult to swallow a strictly spiritual interpretation of so frankly sensual a love poem. And why should we strive to make the Song of Solomon anything but what it so obviously is-a celebration of the gift of sensuality? A confirmation that this, too, is a part of what it means to be alive and to be human.

I don’t think the Song of Solomon is an allegory at all. I think it is just what it seems: a demand for admission of the sensual to the body of religious belief…an acknowledgment that body and spirit are one…that things of the body are also things of the spirit. If you have been to New Orleans, you may have perceived a similar merging of body and spirit in the local culture.

Whoever first characterized the South as a place of excess and eccentricity could have easily been standing on Bourbon Street. But if you get past the titillation, the drunken revelry, the places that exist mainly for the tourists, if you manage to get to the soul of what was New Orleans and I pray will one day be New Orleans again, you find that union of body and spirit, of sensuality and spirituality. It was there in the food. It was there in the liveliness. It was certainly there in the music. If blues and jazz were king and queen anywhere, they were in New Orleans, where body and spirit became one.

But it’s easy to understand why there is resistance to a wedding of body and spirit. The body is vulnerable. What are we doing to the indomitable human spirit if we give it flesh and bone? Do we not make it vulnerable too? What are we doing to the noble human spirit if we allow it the same weakness, the same carnality, the same longings that grip our flesh? Do we not rob it of its divinity?

These are especially important questions to ask in a week like this, when nature has reminded us of both our physical and spiritual vulnerability-a week when we are acutely aware of our capacity for suffering, and when we are forced to face yet again the worst, alongside the best, in human nature-a week when we have seen an unselfish outpouring of care, aid, and support right alongside looting, aggression, and disorder. The best and worst of human nature, and, I would say, the best and worst of the human spirit.

As tragic as the past week has been, the record will show that such events are not so unusual. You may not recall, but 1999 was a particularly disastrous year. Floods and mud slides claimed 50,000 lives that year in Venezuela. Earthquakes killed 19,000 in Turkey, 3400 in Taiwan, and 1100 people in Columbia. A single cyclone that year took away 15,000 people in India. My “New Age” oriented friends assure me that there is no reason to fret and worry because the universe ultimately will take care of you. But looking at 1999, or looking at last week, any reasonable person would have to wonder about whether the universe is out to get us.

But if we are honest with ourselves, I think we have to acknowledge the vestigial nature of such viewpoints. Finding conscious intent behind natural phenomena is a vestige of an earlier epoch of human civilization. When we say that the universe is looking out for us, or conversely is out to get us, we are only substituting one word for another. Replacing “God” with the “universe.”

Regardless of which we look to-God or universe-to explain good and ill fortune, the act of seeking intent behind natural occurrences is itself a throwback to a more primitive time…a time when we didn’t know any better…a time when, like a young child, we imagined everything centered around us…when we thought that if we behaved ourselves, only good would come to us, and if we misbehaved, then punishment would swiftly follow. But by now, we should have grown up as civilized beings. By now, we should know better. No intent, evil or otherwise, lies behind the forces of nature. The universe neither loves nor hates us. Nor is it indifferent to us. These are all human emotions, not states of nature. It is we who feel, we who love, we who hate, and we who behave with indifference or caring. The universe merely is.

This difference between us and everything else, the fact that we feel but nature does not, reinforces our sense that we must be more than nature, more than flesh, blood, and bone. That “more than,” that subjective quality that accompanies our physical existence, is what we have called spirit in a religious context, or mind in a secular context. We can roll down a hill like a rock, but the rock will not suffer in the process. We will.

Our tendency as a culture is to make hay with this distinction, to take convenient advantage of this apparent dualism. The tendency of our culture has been to ascribe all we detest about humankind to flesh, and all that we admire to spirit. The spirit is willing, we’ve been known to say, but the flesh is weak. I think such a dualism of body and spirit does not ennoble us with a spark of the divine, but rather it obscures and diminishes what it really means to be human.

We understand the natural world far better than we understand ourselves. We may have grown up enough, advanced enough in our knowledge, to no longer look for conscious intent in the natural world. But we are nowhere near that far along in our understanding of ourselves. And so our tendency has been to wall off the part of ourselves that is conscious and most alive, to view this part of ourselves as separate from nature, separate from flesh.-to view this part of ourselves as disembodied spirit, only temporarily subject to the pangs and pleasures of the flesh, but ultimately destined to transcend any such sensate limitation.

My work as a neuropsychologist makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to separate flesh from spirit. I am often a witness to human suffering, though on a much smaller scale than what we saw last week. Human beings share the capacity to suffer, to feel pain, with the entire animal kingdom. Primates, and humans in particular, are adept at suffering. It’s one thing to witness pain in a laboratory rat. That’s unpleasant, but it’s not going to keep most of us up at night. It’s another thing entirely to watch pain in more intelligent animals-dogs or horses, for example. And it is even worse to witness suffering in our closest animal cousins-chimpanzees and gorillas. We are not alone in our ability to sense and feel and we know that with increasing brain capacity, there is a corresponding increase in the capacity to feel pain. These are facts that link the outer physical world to our subjective experience and that place us more within nature than separate and apart from it.

It is one of the ironies of human physiology that our brain is itself without pain receptors. One of the examinations that I do involves delivering tiny electric shocks directly to the surface of the brain of an awake patient who is about to undergo surgery. I do this to stimulate various behaviors and to map out the part of the brain that controls those behaviors. This helps the neurosurgeon identify critical parts of the brain to avoid as he or she cuts so that the patient is not left blind, paralyzed, or unable to talk. The absence of pain receptors in the brain makes it possible for me to do this examination. Though a sometimes frightening and uncomfortable experience, patients can undergo this procedure without any direct sensation of pain. The brain senses the sharp stab of a needle or knife anywhere on the body, except within its own native tissues.

Our highly evolved, highly encephalized brain gives us our most cherished of human traits: our capacity to look ahead, to anticipate and imagine. This capacity arguably is at the heart of human advancement. We create implements because we can imagine the tool in an unshaped piece of steel. We farm because we can anticipate what a seed will become. But this capacity to look ahead also leads to our most acute anxiety and dread. We see ahead to our own demise. We can imagine our own suffering. It is this capacity to look ahead that makes the brain, even in the absence of receptors for pain, the organ of human suffering and the agent of human dread. And it is this dread that provides the most powerful motive for our attempt to divorce spirit from flesh. For if such a divorce is successful, then we can escape our deepest fear. If spirit can be cleaved from flesh, then it can survive flesh. We can survive the death of our bodies, because we are not our bodies. Perhaps there is good reason to disembody spirit. But, I would argue, there is also great cost in doing so.

We arrive at strange places when we divorce religion from whole aspects of human existence. We develop odd notions of what it means to be religious, of what it is that is required if we are to serve what we regard as divine or of deepest worth. Religious traditions around the world, the Judeo-Christian tradition included, have at various times endorsed everything from self-denial to self-flagellation. We have denied the body, hidden or disguised the body, abused the body, even mutilated the body, all supposedly in the interest of bettering the spirit, but always I would say to the ultimate degradation of that very religious spirit that we cherish.

Wedding flesh and spirit means we acknowledge our vulnerability and our ultimate mortality. It means we accept suffering and dread as an inevitable part of our existence. And that’s a difficult thing to do. But failing to do so leaves us in a far worse condition.

The most difficult patients that I work with are those who have no awareness of their own suffering. Part of the reason I can assert that the brain is the organ of suffering is because I have seen brain damage take away the capacity to suffer. This condition, called anosognosia, or unawareness of one’s own disability, can take extreme forms. Anton’s Syndrome, a rare form of anosognosia caused by damage to the most posterior parts of the brain, robs a person of his or her sight, yet leaves the person still believing that he or she can see. It leaves people with no awareness of their own blindness.

Another form of anosognosia, called hemineglect, is caused by damage just a little bit more forward in the brain. This condition can leave a person completely unaware of having a paralyzed limb. You would be amazed at the lengths to which these patients will go to explain away their paralysis. They will claim that the immovable limb belongs to someone else and will complain about this useless arm being left in bed with them. They will even take their good hand and attempt to fling the paralyzed arm out of the bed.

What makes these patients difficult to work with is their total lack of awareness. Healing can never occur without some awareness of the need to be healed. A disability that is never experienced cannot be accommodated, adjusted to, compensated for, or overcome. These patients won’t work with their therapists because they are convinced that nothing is wrong with them. And so these patients continue to drive and get in car wreck after car wreck, ignoring the admonitions that they are no longer safe to be behind the wheel. They try to work, despite no longer being competent to do their jobs, until they are fired or forced into retirement. They drive their loved ones to distraction, or simply drive them away, by their refusal to face the reality of how they have changed.

Hence, I would argue that pain and suffering, even in their most existential guise, are absolutely essential for our survival. We need our capacity to suffer and our capacity to learn from that suffering. Pain and dread are not always enemies to be defeated or forces to be abated. My task with these anosognosic or unaware patients is to put them in touch with their own suffering, because failing to experience it ultimately dooms them to even greater pain and loss. In this at least limited sense, suffering is a good thing because it teaches us how we must live.

However, my work isn’t just about inflicting discomfort or witnessing suffering. I have the good fortune to be able follow my patients for many years. This gives me the opportunity to witness healing-to witness, time and again, the strength of the human spirit-to witness a damaged spirit find its way through adversity. From this witness has grown my faith in the spirit, and in the flesh, of human beings.

One of my favorite patients was a dedicated educator whose brain aneurysm made it unlikely that he would ever teach in a classroom again. In any description that I might put into words, I will fail to do justice to the deep spiritual devastation that resulted from his losing a part of his life that was at the very core of his identity and purpose as a human being. After months of debilitating depression, unalleviated by medication, what was healing for him was my suggestion that he had a tremendously important spiritual lesson that only he could teach his own young sons.

I asked this patient to consider what compassionate human beings his sons would grow to be, having witnessed first hand their father’s struggle with disability. And I marveled at what strong young men they would one day become having had the example of their father coping with a life-changing disability. This perspective was healing for my patient because it made his suffering into something of spiritual import. He became an educator once more and his suffering became the curriculum from which he would prepare his sons for what may lie ahead in their lives. But the healing would never have been accomplished had he not been aware of his own suffering.

As Unitarian Universalists we have choices to make at all points along our religious journeys. We will not all make the same choices. I make the choice to view body and spirit as one. I put my faith into flesh. By so doing, I acknowledge the weakness and vulnerability inherent in being human and I accept the certainty of suffering in my life. But also by putting flesh to my faith, I lay claim to the Song of Solomon. If body and spirit are one, the Song of Solomon belongs in a place of honor within the world’s sacred literature. There is no reason to push such texts aside; no reason to wall off such powerful parts of our experience, in fact there is every reason to admit passion and physical love into our lives as spiritual beings. If some measure of suffering is our lot, so too are ample helpings of joy.

In making the choice to put flesh upon my faith I acknowledge the best and worst of human nature: the anguished cries last week of the truly needy and the thuggery and looting of the criminal and the greedy; the generosity that led some of us to open our homes, our businesses, our churches, our stadiums, our cities, to the displaced and the homeless; the misplaced priorities that led others of us to hike up the price of gasoline and to threaten to shoot looters on sight; the courage of the Tulane Hospital medical staff who remained behind to care for critically ill children until they could be evacuated; and the depravity that led others to rape women and children huddling for shelter in the New Orleans Superdome.

Wedding body to spirit, putting flesh into faith, means we lose the luxury of consigning what is ignoble in human nature to the one, while ascribing what is virtuous to the other. It means that we squarely face our limitations, that we confront our iniquities with clear eyes, and that we trust that the same nature which sometimes gives way to depravity will more often lead us to glory. It means that while we acknowledge our vulnerability to pain and suffering, we reinforce our certainty that we shall find the strength to bear suffering together and the wisdom to learn from what we have endured.

What do I hope we learn from the suffering brought by Hurricane Katrina? When we look at the faces of those who were affected in greatest number, I hope we learn that race is still the primary determinant of one’s fate in America. When we look at the fact that income formed the dividing line between those who escaped Katrina and those forced to ride it out, I hope we learn what it truly means to be poor in America. When we look at the chaos and utter unpreparedness of our government when faced with a real crisis on our shores, rather than a manufactured threat overseas, I hope we learn the true meaning of homeland security. When we look at the delays and unfulfilled promises of our elected officials, when we look at the budget cuts, diverted resources, and misplaced priorities, I hope we learn the difference between real leadership and mere pandering to stay in office.

When we see the willingness of other countries to still come to our aid in a time of crisis, I hope we learn to stop bullying the rest of the world, and to accept with humble gratitude the help that’s offered. And as we start to clear away the devastation left by this hurricane, I hope we will learn to do what should have been done long before, to build our cities to withstand the next Katrina.

May the spirit and the flesh be one in their willingness to learn. Amen.