Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Theology of the Body #4: Scripture and Metaphysics

This is #4 in an occasional series on John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.

One of the distinctive features of John Paul II's theology of the body is the way he combines philosophical sophistication in both contemporary phenomenology and also Thomism with expertise in biblical theology. John Paul II occasionally engages in detailed exegesis in TOB but he constantly engages with the text of Scripture; his method is more synthetic than analytical.

He is doing biblical theology by interpreting texts in the context of Scripture as a whole, rather than focusing on placing the text against the backdrop of the historical situation in which it was written (or edited). He is not against historical exegesis, the literal meaning or the historical-critical method, but his goal is to understand the canonical witness as a whole in terms of what it says about human sexuality and marriage. In this respect he stands very clearly in a tradition that extends back through Barth, Calvin, Luther, Thomas, Augustine and Athanasius.

Genesis 1-2 as Basis for a Philosophical Anthropology
In Part I, John Paul begins with Christ's words in Matt. 19 in reply to the Pharisees' question about divorce in which he directed them back to Gen. 1-2 to discern the truest and deepest intention of God concerning marriage. In this post, I want to examine how he grounds a Thomistic metaphysical doctrine of the human person in Gen. 1-2. Protestants may not be used to using biblical theology to under gird a metaphysics, and certainly not a Thomistic one, but that is the Pope's project here.

The second (older) creation narrative is the Yahwist account (named thus because it uses the covenant name for God revealed to Moses in Ex. 3:14)
“One can say that this depth is above all subjective in nature & thus in some way psychological. . . When we compare the two accounts, we reach the conviction that this subjectivity corresponds to the objective reality of man created ‘in the image of God’” (TOB, p. 137)
So JP II is saying that Gen 2 explains what Gen 1 means by our having been created in God’s image. What JP II is doing here is seeking to root his Christian anthropology in metaphysical reality, rather than in human reason or will. The truth about marriage is thus rooted in the ontological nature of man as created in God’s image. He is saying that Jesus, in appealing to ‘the beginning’ was rooting the truth of historical man (i.e. our experience of fallenness) in the boundary between primeval innocence and historical man’s consciousness of sin. Gen. 2 deals with the boundary (and connection) between original innocence & original sin, the state of integral nature and the state of fallen nature.

Modern Subjectivity

In his penetrating study of Wojtyla, Kenneth Schmitz argues that the most significant challenge to which Wojtyla’s personalism responds is a certain understanding of personal subjectivity and interiority that gained wide currency in the modern age. A particular emphasis on subjectivity, Schmitz shows, emerged from the sixteenth century onward together with the rise of a mechanistic account of nature.” (At the Center of the Human Drama, p. 131-7) Schmitz writes:
“The mechanistic account of human nature in the wake of Bacon & Descartes denied the interiority of material beings and 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 qua consciousness; 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)
JP II versus Modern Subjectivity
He is saying 2 things in response to modern subjectivity:

1. That metaphysics cannot be rejected so easily as modernity thinks because man is a being whose historical existence is rooted in revealed, pre-historical theological truth

2. That the metaphysical truth of who man is is rooted in Genesis, (i.e. in the Word of God), not in mere philosophical speculation, which means that Christians cannot accept modern subjectivity with its starting point in the autonomous subject. This is so because Jesus drew a normative conclusion about our historical existence from our original state.

So we have a biblical-theological basis for a philosophical anthropology which is identical with the Thomist view of man. John Paul II rejects the modern dualism of mind and body and roots his understanding of subjectivity, not in the mind as opposed to the body as modern Cartesian philosophy does, but in the body itself, which speaks a language of its own and is not merely the tool of the person, but is the person.

This rooting of anthropology in biblical theology allows John Paul II to transcend the modern dualism and yet, at the same time, to give a personalist account of the human being that incorporates what is good about the modern emphasis on subjectivity and what we could call the integrated personhood of the human person.

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