Manichaeanism was a Gnostic-like religion in the third century of the common era. It was based on the teachings of Mani (216-274 AD) and viewed Jesus as one of several prophets. Like some forms of Gnosticism, Manichaeanism repudiated everything physical, including nature and human bodies, and embraced a stark form of asceticism. The flesh was seen as evil. Eating, drinking, sex should be avoided as much as possible. That view carried over into Augustine’s teaching that the only legitimate purpose of sex was procreation, and the only reason to eat or drink was to stay alive. Nature, being evil, is to be used and subdued, rather than cared for.
Zeno of Citium (c. 336 – 265 BC) founded Stoicism in Athens. Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy that taught that virtue, which is based on knowledge, is the highest good. The wise live in harmony with divine Reason, which is identified with Fate. Fate, or Providence, governs nature. Fate, divine Reason, Providence, is indifferent to pleasure or pain. Every mountaineer will tell you the mountain doesn’t care. To be stoic is to live in your head, to rise above pleasure and pain. Stiff upper lip. Don’t admit any emotions.
Having most likely been seduced by the power of the Roman Empire and its embrace of Nicaean Christianity, Augustine proposed that one could simultaneously love and kill one’s enemy. He was correct as far as that goes. Humans are highly complex creatures capable of, for example, both loving and betraying someone; so, it may be technically possible to love and kill as well. That, however, misses the point. One should not, a Christian must not, kill or betray.
All of this has left its fingerprints on some forms of Christian theology. The Sermon on the Mount is explained away by quoting Moses or King David. The environment is raped for its resources and justified by misquoting Genesis. Faith and stoicism are regularly conflated. Someone said I lacked faith because I was crying at my son’s funeral. Election sounds a lot like Fate. The gods are arbitrary.
A healthy reading of scripture makes clear that because God is good, everything God creates is good. Humans are essentially good. Our bodies are good. Sex is meant for pleasure as well as for making babies. Food and drink are to be enjoyed beyond mere sustenance. The natural universe is good. Instead of original sin, we need to speak of original blessing. God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17b NRSVUE)
Followers of Jesus are called to avoid Manichaean repudiation of the physical, Stoic superiority over the physical, and Augustinian destruction of the physical.
Creation is good. It flows from the artistry of God who is Love; it is overflow from the perichoresis, the Trinitarian dance of love. You are in essence good. You bear the imago Dei. Your body is good. Other people are good. Every person you meet has unsurpassable worth. Nature is good. The cosmos is good.
Good does not mean perfect. Creation is tainted with the stain of human (and apparently angelic) sin. The biblical creation stories depict a good creation surrounded by chaos waters and desert places east of Eden. Each time a person kills another person, for any reason and in any circumstance, they have moved east of Eden. Every polluting industry moves us east from Eden. To renounce the physical like a Manichaean or detach from it like a Stoic moves us east of Eden. We are commissioned to heal. Jesus taught us to love all others, including enemies.
We humans bear God’s image and are invited to join God in making all things new, in spreading the goodness of Eden to the rest of creation, making the whole world into a garden of peace and harmony. Creation should be lovingly guided, stewarded, cared for, corrected, and the evil within it (especially within us) must be mortified.
We are part of nature. Nature is us. We are created to love. We were redeemed by Christ and enabled to love. The Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity, is Love. We are temples of divine love. We are called to love.