"A Strange Hybrid Monster": The Foundational Christian View of Humanity
Paul's struggle with his sinful nature
Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul had been instrumental in persecuting early Christians, and afterwards, he found himself in constant conflict with the apostles and those he sought to convert.
Paul’s series of clashes with others seems to have been a reflection of even more severe struggles within himself, conflicts that have since become intrinsic to the very structure of Christian theology. Already steeped in the dualistic creeds of his time, Paul seems to have taken the divisions inherent in their thinking as the basis for his new Christian cosmology.
He writes bitterly about the Law of God forcing him to acknowledge his own sinful nature. “Nay, I had not known sin,” he says, “but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” “All who rely on observing the law,” he declares, “are under a curse.”
With his acceptance of the Law of God, Paul experiences an inner battle. His consciousness is split apart like two antagonistic personalities fighting each other. He describes his inner anguish:
I do not understand what I do, for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. . . . For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
In this passage and others like it, Paul seems to experience himself as a split personality, using words fraught with self-loathing.
Paul repeatedly describes his inner conflict as a battle to the death. Either his appetites will win and his soul will end up in eternal torment, or his soul will win and put his appetites to death. There is no room for compromise. “The wages of sin is death,” he writes, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Of all the physical appetites Paul was battling, sexual desire seems to have been his greatest enemy. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit,” he writes, “and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other; that ye may not do the things that ye would.” He never married, and was especially scornful of the “degrading passions” that cause either sex to commit homosexual acts. “Sex,” he tells the Corinthians, “is always a danger.”
Paul’s hatred of sexuality became a clarion call for ensuing generations of Christian theologians who made sexual renunciation a central part of their faith.
The human as a "strange hybrid monster"
The inner struggles of the Church Fathers would set the stage for how virtually every European for the next thousand years tried to make sense of their internal experience and their place in the cosmos.
In his influential book, The Great Chain of Being, historian Arthur O. Lovejoy traces how the conception of a dualistic universe forced people to view their own humanness as fundamentally split. If the cosmos consisted of an eternal and a worldly dimension, where did that leave humans, who incorporated both body and soul?
The disturbing answer was straddling the two. This position in the cosmos, Lovejoy observes, gives man “a kind of uniqueness in nature; but it is an unhappy uniqueness. He is, in a sense . . . a strange hybrid monster.”
The universal enforcement of Christian values on society caused this inner conflict to impinge, often with drastic effect, on the lives of virtually everyone. Paul’s tormented hatred of sexuality energized a particularly vicious view of women, elevating the value of virginity.
Women who accepted their own sexuality were seen as temptresses like Eve, who caused the downfall of the human race. “Do you not realize that Eve is you?” snarled one of the more implacable Church Fathers, Tertullian. “The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. . . . You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force.”
The Christian aspiration for the soul’s eternal life led inevitably to a war against one’s physical nature. Living one’s life in harmony with the intrinsic needs of the human organism meant condemning one’s soul to eternal damnation. The Gospel of John aptly sums up the awful dilemma of this dualistic cosmos: “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The Christian model in the modern world
As the scientific revolution gained steam in Europe, a split emerged between religious and rationalist thinkers, but in neither case did the dualistic presumption ever get questioned. The one fundamental truth everyone could agree on was the sanctity of the mind/soul in contrast to the rest of nature.
Faithful Christians, meanwhile, continued to be tormented by their loathing of the body. New England clergyman Cotton Mather wrote in his diary how debased he felt by the need to urinate, which puts man “on the same level with the very dogs” and resolved to think only noble and divine thoughts during this “beastly” practice.
The Protestant movement put its own unique stamp on the split between reason and emotion by emphasizing the importance of cognitive control as proof of God’s favor. The Puritans believed that the “natural state” of humanity was impulsive and untamed; those who were successful in restraining their passions demonstrated they were God’s chosen, predestined for heaven. This formed the foundation of the so-called “Protestant ethic” which created the moral underpinning for modern American society with its emphasis on systematic rationalization and goal orientation.
In much of today’s world, the beliefs of Christian dualism remain strong. Polls in America show nearly 90 percent of respondents believing in God, with 84 percent believing in the survival of the soul after death and 82 percent in the existence of heaven. The split in human consciousness that the Christian Fathers inherited from the ancient Greeks remains a central part of our modern reality.