Body Theology

“It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.”

(David Bentley Hart, Anti-Theology of the Body / view full text here )

In his studies on bioethics, Hart points out a persistent theme that runs through all of the modernist ideologies: they all view human nature as a technology.

Irrespective of the variants of ideological tendency – to the capitalist humanity is homo economicus; to the Marxists humanity is a social technology; to the entho-nationalistic fascist humanity is a genetic technology, etc – the theme of technology pervades all modernist discourses on what is human life. Technology is god of transhumanism, a presupposition of a fallen god aiming to exploit the fallen light (of matter). As a neo-Darwinist enframing where humanity ought in Nietzschea-like hubris to “take control of its own evolution,” it combines all of the aforementioned ideological modernisms. It sums up succinctly in the spirit of the Mephistopheles, as it does not come to corrupt but instead to collect the souls that are already damned.

In Hart’s assessment of the transhumanists,

We must seek, that is to say, to become gods. Many of the more deliriously visionary of the transhumanists envisage a day when we will be free to alter and enhance ourselves at will, unconstrained by law or shame or anything resembling good taste: by willfully transgressing the genetic boundaries between species (something that we are already learning how to do), we may be able to design new strains of hybrid life, or even to produce an endlessly proliferating variety of new breeds of the post-human that may no longer even have the capacity to reproduce one with the other. (For those whose curiosity runs to the macabre, Wesley Smith’s recent Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World provides a good synopsis of the transhumanist creed.)

He follows,

“Obviously one is dealing here with a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought. Ludicrous as it seems, though, transhumanism is merely one logical consequence (if a particularly childish one) of the surprising reviviscence of eugenic ideology in the academic, scientific, and medical worlds. Most of the new eugenists, admittedly, see their solicitude for the greater wellbeing of the species as suffering from none of the distasteful authoritarianism of the old racialist eugenics, since all they advocate (they say) is a kind of elective genetic engineering — a bit of planned parenthood here, the odd reluctant act of infanticide there, a soupçon of judicious genetic tinkering everywhere, and a great deal of prudent reflection upon the suitability of certain kinds of embryos — but clearly they are deluding themselves or trying to deceive us. Far more intellectually honest are those — like the late, almost comically vile Joseph Fletcher of Harvard — who openly acknowledge that any earnest attempt to improve the human stock must necessarily involve some measures of legal coercion. Fletcher, of course, was infamously unabashed in castigating modern medicine for “polluting” our gene pool with inferior specimens and in rhapsodizing upon the benefits the race would reap from instituting a regime of genetic invigilation that would allow society to eliminate “idiots” and “cripples” and other genetic defectives before they could burden us with their worthless lives. It was he who famously declared that reproduction is a privilege, not a right, and suggested that perhaps mothers should be forced by the state to abort “diseased” babies if they refused to do so of their own free will. Needless to say, state-imposed sterilization struck him as a reasonable policy; and he agreed with Linus Pauling that it might be wise to consider segregating genetic inferiors into a recognizable caste, marked out by indelible brands impressed upon their brows. And, striking a few minor transhumanist chords of his own, he even advocated — in a deranged and hideous passage from his book The Ethics of Genetic Control — the creation of “chimeras or parahumans…to do dangerous or demeaning jobs” of the sort that are now “shoved off on moronic or retarded individuals” — which, apparently, was how he viewed janitors, construction workers, firefighters, miners, and persons of that ilk.”

Such a world would be the world of the antichrist – an aesthetics of acquisition and domination and its form is a pitiless art.

There is no concept of a space within humanity that withdrawals, that diffuses out of perspectival space so as to contain in its vanishing point the possibility or potentiality of a hidden glory.

In contrast, there is the “theology of the body.”

“For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us — even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will — waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.”

“…the vision of the “transhuman” to which the still nascent technology of genetic manipulation has given rise are divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds — at the last, two gods. And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake. If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice. And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, “man” is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.”


Published by fldwrk

I am a painter.

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