“For you have been bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:20)
The Christian tradition of which we are inheritors is centered on the Incarnation, the revelation of the Trinity through Christ. And what makes the Incarnation so central is that it is in Christ that heaven and earth are united as one. When we confess that Jesus is fully God and fully man, we are confessing that the future new creation where heaven and earth are forever conjoined together, has already become a reality in Christ. And thus if we are in Christ by faith through the Spirit, we are in a very real way already participating in the new creation.
And so because of the centrality of the Incarnation for the Christian faith, the Christian tradition has been very interested in training both the body as well as the soul. Because heaven and earth have come together in Christ, we can never pit body and soul against each other, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans and in Eastern religions, and as is the case today with homosexuality and the LGBT gender identity movement.
The particular way in which the church cultivated the body is what has been called the ‘redemption of the senses.’
Briefly, the redemption of the senses involves a re-directing or re-training of the senses away from the carnal and the sensual and toward the eternally True, Good, and Beautiful, and thus prepares the body for its resurrection. Christians believed that it was not just our souls that fell with the first sin in the garden, but our bodily senses were disordered as well.
We have to remember that in the Christian tradition, Paradise is not a mere sentiment or therapeutic fable; rather, Paradise is intrinsic to our humanity. As our first habitation, the essence of what it means to be human is inseparable from an environment wherein every square inch constitutes tangible expressions of love and delight. It is in the primeval Garden that Adam was created to grow, to blossom, together with the flowers and the trees, to cultivate and to be cultivated in an everlasting communion with God. Centered on the mystical Tree of Life, Paradise is that place wherein we are most fully human.
When Adam is expelled from the Garden, an indispensable part of our humanity was lost. The Tree of Life was replaced with thorns and thistles, indicating a cosmos characterized by death and decay.
And what’s very important here is that it’s not just our souls that have fallen; our senses in turn fell as well, are senses begin to reflect the cursed environment, they are rendered dissonant, discordant, and our imaginations shriveled up into a parody of our true selves, characterized by an infatuated love of the self.
And yet, while we have fallen from Paradise, the Garden in a very real sense has never left us. The created order that was to serve as the habitat that shaped and sanctified the human person has now been restored in the Incarnation of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. Just as God formed Adam from the earth, so now the eternal Son of God, in the words of the Gospel of John, ‘became flesh and dwelt among us,’ a New Adam, the unblemished embodiment of Paradise restored. Indeed, this is the classical significance of the Eucharistic meal, where the grain and fruit of the third day of creation are transformed into the bread and wine identified with the body and blood of Christ, such that creation and Incarnation come together to restore our communion with God and one another.
Therefore, just as our humanity cannot be understood apart from Paradise, so our true humanity is comparably incomprehensible apart from the cross, for it is in the cross that the Tree of Life is restored. The cross is where God and humanity confront each other in the deepest and starkest of terms. It is on the cross that humanity is revealed for what we have become: when truth appears into a world marked by self-centered dissolution and estrangement, it can only appear as crucified. And in that crucified figure, we see the very heart of God revealed, we see a love that knows no bounds, no depths too low; we see a love that reaches out with nail marked hands to welcome us back into his infinite embrace.
And it is this love, unconquerable and inextinguishable, that bursts forth from the tomb the Eternal Spring of resurrection glory, infinite in its abundance and eternal in its life; which in turn awakens a comparable love within us, reorienting our senses and restoring us back to Paradise, our true and everlasting home.
So, this is why I begin my theology class every year with a field trip to Longwood Gardens. I want students to experience the redemption of their senses in an environment akin to our original garden paradise that is restored in Christ.
One of my favorite meditations from Scripture is the fact that Jesus was buried with myrrh, aloes. and fragrant spices. The implication here is that when the disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus, he smelled like a garden. Remember, Mary Magdalene, when she encountered the resurrected Christ for the first time, thought he was a gardener.
And this is why we in the classical Christian tradition focus so much on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We focus on these cosmic values because we are a people of paradise. Paradise is our first and our everlasting home. And we are brought back to paradise through paradise. Have you ever noticed in the Christmas narratives in Luke all the paradise imagery associated with Christ’s birth? We have a stable, animals, Adam and Eve figures (Mary and Joseph), surrounded by angelic hosts, with a child placed in a manger to be food for the world. And so when Christ is on the cross, which is the Tree of Life restored, what does he say to the thief that comes to him in faith? ‘You will be with me in Paradise.’ Why can Jesus say that? Because Jesus Christ is Paradise.
Therefore if we are in Christ we are a new creation, born anew, sons and daughters of Adam restored.
To learn more about the redemption of the senses, see my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.