Monday, August 27, 2007

The Body as an Obstacle to Human Freedom

Over the last 13 years I have enjoyed a close friendship with Lutheran Pastor Adam Cooper. Apart from the similarity of our age and cultural background, one of the things that has bonded us as friends is the similarity of the questions that we bring to the Lutheran Confessions. In particular, we have enjoyed hours of conversation thinking through the role of the human body in salvation, and how the reality of the salvation of human beings as embodied creatures is addressed (or left unaddressed – because not a point of contention in the 16th century) in the Lutheran Confessions. While Adam has pursued theological questions regarding the body in an academically rigorous way (see, for example I’ve plodded along in my own rather undisciplined (and less intellectually powerful) way, reading a fair range of theology, history, and philosophy, and dragging into conversation whomsoever I can on the role of body in our destiny as human beings.

Now I’ve just this afternoon finished talking through with Adam a draft of a paper that he is preparing for our next district pastors’ conference. We’ve gone over a number of familiar issues, and one in particular that I want to blog about is the way that, in our contemporary culture, the body seems to be seen as an obstacle to human freedom.

It seems to me that in western society there has for the past two millennia been a basic (although waning) assumption that bodily existence is a given, and that human flourishing and happiness (and even beatitude) is the result of submitting to the bodily limitations that we enjoy as created beings. From the point of view of theology, confessing the reality of the resurrection of the body has been a way of understanding that our existence as creatures with bodies is not an obstacle to us seeing the face of God – to us finding our eternal completion in the gracious presence of the holy angels around the throne of the Lord of hosts. In fact, Lutherans have confessed (with the whole of catholic Christianity) that our salvation will not happen without our bodies, and that our bodies, that are the result of God’s creative power, that are baptized into Christ, that feed on the body and blood of the Lord, will somehow be resurrected in glory.

But it seems that something has been happening in our culture so that this understanding of the destiny of embodied humanity has receded into obscurity, and that the human body, so far from being seen as the place in which our salvation is worked out with fear and trembling, is seen as an obstacle to the desires the human spirit.

I’ll give one example of what I’m talking about. Consider discussion on the meaning of marriage. Catholic Christianity would see the given-ness of the distinction between the sexes as the foundation to what makes marriage what it is – a lifelong union between a man and a woman established by God through which God, in addition to giving his human creatures comfort and love, desires to transmit new human life. In a catholic Christian understanding of marriage sexual differentiation is not an imposition on human freedom, but the very way in which human beings, created as men or women, freely find a significant (even sacramental) completion of their statuses as human beings made male or female.

In our contemporary western society, however, there seems to be a repudiation of the given-ness of human beings as male and female. Rather than reading the language that God, the author of the body, has inscribed upon it, postmodern western people seem to read the body as a text without any meaning except that which the disembodied human spirit gives it. The body, though the means by which the human spirit exerts its will, is also an obstacle to the limitless desires that are part of the human spirit. In terms of marriage, this attitude plays itself out in an apparent variety of ways: male to male and female to female ‘marriage’; ‘marriage’ between three and more persons; ‘marriage’ between siblings; ‘marriage’ between humans and non-humans (I don’t know of any actual legally binding cases of the last form of ‘marriage’ on this list, but presumably it’s only a matter of time). In all this there seems to be a desire somehow to escape the limitations of embodied life, or at the very least to treat bodily existence as presenting a problem to be overcome by the application of new techniques say, for example, in this context, of a lesbian couple using technology to create a child (or, in the future, of a cross species pair creating a hybrid).

Of course much of this way of seeing contemporary western society will be familiar to readers of C S Lewis. Back in mid 40s Lewis was able to discern the very different way of viewing reality that began to emerge in western society during the renaissance. In the Abolition of Man, he wrote: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…”

But Lewis, the professor of English, didn’t live to see Derrida. As far as I can tell, Derrida did a Nietzsche on texts, insofar as he presented a way of reading literature in which authorial intention recedes, and interpretation is all (Roger Scruton, as it happens, sees this as a form of idolatry, and I think he is right). It seems to me that our contemporary culture as a whole is now in the throes of ‘doing a Nietzsche’ on the ‘text’ of the body – in talking, legislating, and acting with the understanding that there is no authoritative intention for the body (that there is no God who gives salvation to embodied human beings).

(I could also add that it seems to me that western culture is slowly coming to terms with its‘doing a Nietzsche’ on creation, but that it is trying to overcome this apparent disaster by deifying creation. This does not bode well, I fear. The gods, traditionally, desire human sacrifice, and Moloch desires child sacrifice.)

In my opinion widespread acceptance of the supposed obstacle of bodily existence reveals itself bodily in the form of tyranny by the bodies of the powerful over the bodies of the weak. I think that it was at work already in the ‘Total War’ of (especially) the Eastern front in WWII, and I can’t help thinking that it was at work in -a powerful irony here - the dialectical materialism that found political expression in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and is still alive and sick in North Korea. These days, it seems to have a specially technological twist: Embryo experimentation, abortion, cloning, contraception; creating hybrids; sex-selection; a renewed eugenic enterprise not dissimilar in spirit – but far more sophisticated in technique - to that of the Nazis; all this seem to me to be the fruit of an exaltation of the disembodied spirit. And it seems to be working itself out in a willed sterility that is apparently sweeping across most of the western world.

Well…this is a bit far from interpreting the role of the body in salvation in a Lutheran Confessional context, I grant. But what else is a Blog for, if not to express such opinions!

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