Part I- This Body of Death
Recently I have read some rather interesting articles on the supposed belittling of the body in the modern world. One article in particular, The Theology of the Bawdy by Richard & Elizabeth Gerbracht in the most recent issue of the New Oxford Review (you know, the magazine that is like, "we're so reactionary it's cute and hip") puts it in rather drastic and dare I say apocalyptic terms. There is a sense the the human body is being devalued, that we are on the verge of an anti-human age. I have heard this from many circles, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and while I agree with many of their concerns, I cannot condone some of their errors in thinking and rhetorical exaggerations.
I guess this article in particular struck a nerve since it laid part of the blame on the divine Plato. And since Plato is the shot caller in my philosophical belief system, it is almost a knee-jerk reaction on my part to raise an objection. For according to this article, the genius of the Peripatetic system is the distinction between matter and form that Aristotle formulated supposedly against the Platonic idea that the material world is nothing but a shadow of the spiritual one. To put it bluntly, with some Christian corrections the Aristotilian system is seen as more incarnational and Platonists and we wannabe Platonists are seen as crypto-Gnostics(though Plotinus fought against the Gnostics in the Enneads)since we think that the body is all but dross.
To the extent that this intersects with that "theological time-bomb" set to go off any second now called the theology of the body, I don't know. Truth be told, I started reading John Paul II's talks on this, got about half way through, and all I could think before I finally stopped was, "where is he getting this from?" Granted, these were less than formal catechetical talks, but Patristic citations were few and far between, and I found the prose far too muddled to get any definitive answers out of it. I am willing to concede that I may just be a poor reader in this regard.
When I passed on the above article to someone much more intelligent, this is the response I got:
The author is missing a further explanation here - we are of course not united (at the final Resurrection) to our bodies as they are now, but to some "perfected" version of our bodies, whatever that may be. That again does suggest some separation (perhaps permanent) between our souls and bodies here on earth, even if after the Fall, we now have a bad copy of our bodies...
If I were him, this is not the way I would have argued for this point - there are two major problems. Problem 1): He contends "we will have these bodies after the resurrection, in order to perfectly see God, therefore we cannot separate mind from body" and yet we can safely say we do not have THESE bodies to do that. I'm probably not going to need to breathe oxygen, have sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals, etc, to keep my resurrected body functioning properly. And if my body isn't going to be made up of cells as we know it, then what is it? Christ's resurrected body certainly seemed to have strange properties unknown to our earthly, human bodies. One can too easily argue the gnostic point with his statements. Problem 2): He is ignoring the multitude of choices that can be made about artificially extending the life of the body. E.g., Schiavo would have been dead a long time ago if not for modern medicine. What does it mean that the body can go on without conscious control/a soul?
So when the authors blame Platonism for somehow denigrating the body, I think it is an acceptable criticism precisely because the body is a less than pleasant thing in this fallen world. There is a theology when it comes to "flesh", but there is nothing theological about warts or mucus, other than the fact that they are results of a fallen world.
I guess my main problem is that of privileging one metaphor about union with God without greatly nuancing that metaphor. It is true that in the Patristic and medieval mind the Song of Songs, an erotic book, was the song of union with God par excellence. But notice how every classical Christian author is quick to allegorize everything in that book, from breasts, to hair, to eyes, etc. Marriage is and is not a symbol of our union with God, precisely because, in the Dionysian tradition, all things participate in God's glory but not in His Being. Everything is an imperfect symbol, and to think that the actual carnal act that we do in our bedrooms has a lot to do with the mystery of the Trinity is slightly off in my opinion. Even Aquinas in the Summa said that we would procreate and defecate in the same way we would not if there had been no Fall, but all of the unpleasantness would have been taken out of it.
What seems most unsettling to me about the theology of the body as advocated by some, however, is not any of its theoretical components, but rather its attitude on the necessity of "re-packaging" the Christian message for the postmodern man. Christianity does not need a "sexy makeover". In my opinion, what made Christianity triumph in the first place was the conquering of the body, that is, the witness of martyrdom. From my own experience with the texts of the Byzantine liturgy, the fact that women and children could stand up to torture and be triumphant, or that everyday men could live without sexual intercourse profoundly astounded many of the ancients. I remember an anecdote we were told about the life of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as a missionary in Africa, where men and women of the villages would try to sneak up on the missionary priest's hut thinking that they were finally going to see the wife that he was hiding. They were astounded by the fact that she never materialized.
While it is important to point out that the sexuality of the twenty-first century is greatly disordered, I don't think it very believable for us Catholics to tell this society how to be "authentically sexual". I think what has worked in the past will work again. The problem is inherently supernatural: Christianity will not be proven right by rational or utilitarian arguments, but rather by the showing of its other-worldly nature. Christianity is neither useful, nor better, nor necessary for a society. True, if everyone behaved like Christians, things would be a lot better. At the core of our beliefs, however, is one which says that such a thing will never happen. Only the Parousia, the coming of Christ in glory, will solve all of our problems. This does not mean that we can have no social doctrine in the Catholic Church, but it does mean that we can't expect a whole lot from the application of that doctrine. The world is fallen, and it will continue to be so.
(I must say here that even the dreaded "same-sex marriage" is not a new thing. As another article in the New Oxford Review put it, such things occurred in Rome under Nero. Cabeza de Vaca witnessed it among American Indians during his years wandering through what is now the southern United States. And of course there is that rather odd ceremony in the Orthodox Church's liturgical books called the Adelphopoiia Rite, which Nicodemos the Hagiorite in the Pedalion implied was used as a rite of same-sex carnal union.)
But back to the real issue at hand: what then are we to think of the body? Is the Platonic tradition really that denigrating of the body? And what is the real meaning, the real symbolism behind our fallen carnality? That is the subject of Part II of this post.