Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Theology of the Body #2: The Rejection of Modern Dualism

One of the main themes running through John Paul II's TOB (Theology of the Body) is the rejection of modern gnostic tendencies that are enshrined in modern philosophy, twisted in Romanticism, implemented in technology and finally worshiped in liberal theology. It is, after all, a theology of the body. But why does John Paul II put it this way? Why call it a theology of the body? I think there are many reasons one could point to in answer to this question, but let me just suggest two in the space of this blog post.

The Biblical Doctrine of Creation as the Foundation of Biblical Theology
First, John Paul II's project is a theological anthropology grounded in the doctrine of creation. God created man as a body-soul complex and the body is neither incidental to our true nature nor dispensable. We are our bodies. So John Paul II can speak of the "language of the body" as if the body was a person - because it is. I am my body and I speak through my body; this is what is behind the common phrase "body language." How if fidget, whether I make eye contact, what I do with my hands - all these things are part of the way "I" communicate. The person who is Craig Carter is a body and this fact is the reason why physical death is so unnatural and so fearsome; we rightly fear death because we fear the disintegration of the person as the body dies. We do not take lightly the loss of our bodies for the very good reason that we are our bodies and we are therefore talking about the loss of self.

For John Paul II, the Bible is a unified revelation that speaks to the way we are, what is wrong with us and how we can become what we were created to become. He finds a teleological understanding of human being not only in reason, but in Divine revelation. The Bible begins with the marriage of Adam and Eve and ends with the marriage supper of the Lamb. The heart of the Bible is the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the OT the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is compared to that between a bride and her husband and in the NT the relationship between Christ and the Church is compared to that of a bridegroom and bride. Near the physical center of Scripture is the Song of Songs, about which John Paul II thinks everybody is right. He thinks that the Fathers and the mystics who treated it as an allegory of the relationship of the soul to God were right on one level. But he also has sympathy for modern Evangelical literalists who interpret it as Middle Eastern love poetry and argue that God must not be embarrassed by sexual joy. John Paul II thinks it is about that too. And those who, like Barth, see it as linking the old and new covenants by foreshadowing the relationship between Christ and the Church in the context of the prophetic teaching on marriage as the relationship between the LORD and Israel are also right. Bodies do just fine, John Paul II thinks, as analogies for the Divine human relationship.

The point is that the Bible has an awful lot to say about bodies. Those who think it is a "spiritual" book are not wrong but bodies have spiritual significance and any sort of body-spirit dualism that says that one has little or nothing to do with the other does not understand biblical spirituality. For John Paul II, our bodies are at the center of God's creative activity, they are fallen as a result of sin, yet the image of God is not destroyed by sin and God is at work to redeem our bodies, a process which one day will culminate in the resurrection of the body into a glorious new divinized, spiritualized, glorified order of existence. The Bible, one might say with little exaggeration, for John Paul II, is all about bodies.

The Biblical Doctrine of Creation as the Basis for the Rejection of Modern Philosophical Anthropology
The second reason it is called a theology of the body is that John Paul II is here attempting to provide an alternative to the modern philosophical anthropology that has become dominant since Descartes.

For early modern philosophers like Bacon and Descartes the quest for power over nature was extremely important and a new concept of subjectivity was developed in which a dualism was created between the self, the consciousness, which was exalted to a divine status, and, on the other hand, the body, which was regarded as part of a mechanistic nature subject to the mechanical laws of nature described by Newton. So humans are, in this dualistic understanding, immaterial centers of consciousness, which are free, and bodies, which are subject to impersonal laws of physics. Here is an extended quote from philosopher Kenneth Schmitz, describing the situation that John Paul II faced:
"The mechanistic account of human nature in the wake of Bacon and Descartes denied the interiority of material beings & consequently the kinship of the human person with the subrational natural cosmos. Alone in an inhospitable world that had been deprived of inner meaning, the freedom of the conscious subject becomes ‘absolute,’ detached from sources of meaning: ‘This, then, is the genesis of the modern sense of self as subjectivity. We might say that subjectivity is the self-defense by which consciousness fends off a world either hostile to its inhabitation or at least without companionate room for it, even while consciousness subverts the integrity of that world by its imperious demands. The modern shift gave to the human subject an absolute status precisely in its character quaconsciousness; for human consciousness not only sets its own terms but the terms for reality itself.” (Kenneth Schmitz, At the Center of the Human Drama, pp. 135-6)

So, in modernity, the non-material center of consciousness is sovereign, rational and free but the body is not.

John Paul II's TOB is an attempt to put the human creature back together on the basis of the biblical doctrine of creation. Man is a body-soul complex, not a dualistic mind somehow connected to a physical body (the mind-body problem of modern philosophy). John Paul II is a Thomist so he does not accept modern philosophy, but in TOB he is not concerned to replace modern philosophical anthropology with a Thomist anthropology; rather, he is concerned to appeal to the doctrine of creation as discovered through biblical exegesis. John Paul II has this weird idea that Thomism is actually biblical and that God has created the world and revealed truth about the world that actually cohere! (See Veritatis Splendor, Par. 44-45 and the work of Matthew Levering, especially his recent Biblical Natural Law (Oxford, 2008).

So for John Paul II, unlike modern dualism, the body is as much an aspect of the person as the mind is. We are as much bodies as we are minds. Of course, the account of sin given in Scripture reveals that we experience a lack of cohesion as persons under the conditions of the fall, and modern dualism is a reflection of that sinful disintegration (which is one reason sin and death are so closely related in Pauline theology, for example). But we were created as unified, coherent beings and our redemptive destiny is reintegration. So Christian theology cannot follow modern philosophy into a dualism in which the body becomes basically as tool of the self, a means by which the self acts in the world but not really the true self. Christian theology, in order to be biblical and reform modern distortions, must therefore be a theology of the body.

For moderns, it is easy to see how the body becomes a despised tool of the self; modern use their bodies to achieve their goals but the body is just ultimately a part of nature. For John Paul II, on the other hand, the body has all the dignity of the person. We should respect our bodies and express ourselves through our bodies rather than using our bodies. The modern tendency for people to "use" each other's bodies for fleeting pleasure is thus preceded by the habit of using their own bodies in that manner. In the TOB bodies are too important to use as tools, manipulate with technology and treat impersonally as means rather than as ends.

How all this relates to personhood will be the subject of a following post.

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