All ancient religious tradition maintain that humans are composed of both material and spiritual elements; but the correlation between the two has been understood in different ways. The dualistic religions view matter as originally evil and hostile towards humanity: the Manichaeans even believed that Satan was the maker of the material world. Classical philosophy regards the body as a prison in which the soul is kept captive or incarcerated. Indeed Plato deduces the word soma (body) from sema (tombstone, tomb): ‘Many people believe that the body is like a tombstone concealing the soul buried beneath it in this life... The soul endures punishment... while the flesh does duty as its fortress so that it can be healed, while located in the body as in a torture chamber’.
The ancient Indian philosophies speak of the transmigration of souls from one body to another, even from a human being to an animal (and vice versa). The doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation) was rejected by early church tradition as incompatible with divine revelation. It was proclaimed senseless and erroneous on the basis of the assertion that a human being, who possesses reason and free will, cannot be transformed into an unintelligible animal, since all intelligible being is immortal and cannot disappear. Moreover, what is the point of someone’s being punished for sins committed in an earlier life if he does not know why he has to endure it (after all, it is impossible to recollect one’s previous ‘existence’)?
The church Fathers, basing themselves on Scripture, teach that the soul and the body are not foreign elements united temporarily in the individual, but are bestowed simultaneously and for all time in the very act of creation: the soul is ‘betrothed’ to the body and is inseparable from it. Only the totality of soul and body together comprises a complete personality, a hypostasis. St. Gregory of Nyssa calls the unbreakable link between soul and body an ‘inclination of affection’, ‘commixture’, ‘community’, ‘attraction’ and ‘acquaintance’, which are preserved even after death. Such a concept is far removed from Platonic and Eastern dualism.
Christianity is quite falsely accused of preaching that the flesh should be despised and the body be treated with contempt. A contempt for the flesh was held by a number of heretics (the Gnostics, Montanists, Manichaeans), as well as by some Greek philosophers, the views of whom were subjected to rigorous criticism by church Fathers.
In Christian ascetical literature, whenever we encounter questions of enmity between flesh and spirit — beginning with St. Paul: ‘For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh’ (Gal.5:17) — they concern sinful flesh as the totality of passions and vices and not the body in general. Also, when we read in monastic sources of the ‘mortification of the flesh’, this is about the putting to death of sinful proclivities and ‘lusts of the flesh’, not contempt for the body as such. The Christian ideal is not to debase the flesh, but to purify it and transfigure it, to liberate it from the consequences of the Fall, to return it to its primordial purity and make it worthy of assimilation to God.
Christian tradition has always held an exceptionally elevated view of the human person. What is a human being from the point of view of an atheist? An ape, only with more developed abilities. What is a human being as perceived by a Buddhist? One of the reincarnations of the soul, which before its abode in a human body could have existed in a dog or a pig, and which following bodily death could again find itself within an animal. Buddhist teaching denies the very concept of personal existence: the human being is regarded not as the totality of body and soul, but as a type of transient stage in the wandering of the soul from body to body.
Christianity alone presents an exalted image of the human being. In Christianity each of us is regarded as a personality, a person created in the image of God, an icon of the Creator.
When God created human nature, He created it not only for us but also for Himself, since He knew that one day He would Himself become a human being. Thus, He fashioned something adequate to Himself, something possessing an infinite potential. St. Gregory Nazianzen calls the human person a ‘created god’. The human person is called to become god. In his potential man is a god-man.