Does The Spirit Wrestle With The Flesh Anymore?
Consider the following passage from the prologue of Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial novel, The Last Temptation of Christ:
My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God -- and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.
How many of us today would express our inner struggles and conflicts in these terms? Does anyone today, even true believers, experience anything remotely similar to what Kazantzakis describes? In a culture so secularized, so influenced by worldly and pecuniary values, what can "the battle between the spirit and the flesh" mean, if anything at all?
(Is it merely facetious to say that the battle against the flesh has been supplanted by the battle against bodily fat, and that the quest for the salvation of one's soul has been supplanted by the quest for career success?)
"It seems impossible any longer to believe in the permanent greatness of man, or to give life a meaning that cannot be annulled by death," Will Durant wrote some 70 years ago. Nor does our epoch seem to venerate the spiritual realm of human existence. The good life is confounded with affluence; mental anguish is unthinkingly remedied by antidepressant pills or their equivalents; persons are looked upon by industry as "human resources" whose energies must be harnessed for the greater good of the company bottom line; writers and intellectuals aren't drifters or wanderers in search of the meaning of existence, but entrepreneurs toiling to promote themselves and their work (indeed some are media whores). A person "comes into his/her own" by rising to the top of a crowded marketplace, not by discovering some esoteric truth or living a serene or monastic life.
Durant attributed the problem to the growth of knowledge itself, to the startling discoveries of science. Let me quote him at length here:
"The astronomers reported that the earth, which had been the footstool of God and the home of the atoning Christ, was a minor planet circling about a minor sun; that it had had its birth in a violent disruption, and would end in collision and conflagration, leaving not a shadow of man's work to tell his tale. The geologists reported that life was tolerated transiently upon the earth at the pleasure of ice and heat, at the mercy of falling lava and falling rain...that great continents had been destroyed by earthquakes and would be again. The paleontologists reported that a million species of animals had lived on the earth for a paltry eon or two and had disappeared without leaving anything more than a few bones and imprints in the rocks. The biologists reported that all life lives at the expense of other life, that big things eat little things and are eaten in turn; that strong organisms use and abuse weak organisms in a hundred thousand ways forever; that the ability to kill is the ultimate test of survial; that reproduction is suicide, and that love is the prelude to replacement and death."
Is there any way back to spiritual naivete -- or, out of this ever-sophisticated scientific, secular, and technological world, is it possible to exalt anything deeper and greater than momentary pleasures and evanescent triumphs? Perhaps this is the question for the ages.