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Theology of the Body, Theology of Human Nature

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection—or, one might almost say, ignorance—of any dualism between flesh and spirit. ~David Hart, The New Atlantis

For bioethics, this key concept is important because it leads to a serious affirmation of the psychosomatic unity of human life. “Body” and “soul” are the constituents of human existence; the Orthodox emphasis on the Resurrection confirms its view that human life and human fulfillment are inextricably bound to both the physical and the spiritual dimensions of human existence. In more contemporary terms, body and personhood are essential for the fulfillment of human potential (Antoniades, 1:204-208). ~Stanley Harakas, “For the Health of Soul and Body: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics”

The integral unity of body and soul is fundamental in Orthodox anthropology. To the extent that David Hart and I agree on that, there is no difficulty, and he is to be commended for making short work of transhumanist nonsense in the rest of his article. But something in Mr. Hart’s theology that continues to bother me is his insistence, bordering on the strange, that our psychosomatic unity is such that there is effectively no difference between body and soul.

Thus he could say of Terri Schiavo: “Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored.” However strongly convinced many Christians have been about the injustice of Mrs. Schiavo’s treatment, it is still more than a little strange to claim that we are obliged to believe either that someone in Mrs. Schiavo’s state was a “living soul” (which seems to me to diminish that definition to the point of insignificance) or, more incredibly, that her flesh and spirit are one and the same. Granting Mr. Hart some license for rhetorical effect, this is a confused statement that simply does not agree with what the Church teaches about the body and soul. Perhaps if modern Orthodox theologians in general were less allergic to the extensive Platonic and Neoplatonic elements in Christian theology they would find this “dualism” less troubling.

To say that John Paul II denied or ignored any sort of dualism of flesh and spirit is, in all likelihood, an exaggeration, but if he did make such a claim I would expect Orthodox theologians to be troubled and not delighted. My main problem therefore is with Hart’s excited response to this “rejection” of dualism that he sees in the text. Because just as Orthodox anthropology stresses very strongly the unity of body and soul and the Fathers understand human nature as the union of the two, the stress on that unity presupposes and requires us to believe in a kind of dualism.

We might dispute over how we make sense of our experience in light of that dualism, but we cannot wish it away if, at the same time, we contend that it is the rational soul in the body that distinguishes us in a unique way as the summit of creation and original mediator of the extremes of the cosmos. Of course, soul and body are “coextensive” to the extent that the soul cannot be “located” in a particular place, but neither must we pretend that the rational soul persists in a body deeply and irreparably injured in its most vital organs. The more closely theologians tie body and soul conceptually and refuse to acknowledge the necessary implication that severe changes in the body must also affect the state of the soul and its relation to the body, the more vulnerable they are to the charge of sheer fideism, as it must still be remotely possible for a living soul to express itself in an empirically verifiable way if we are to say that it still dwells here below.

It is precisely in the syzygy (union) of matter and spirit in man that makes him the only creature of God suited for the vocation of mediating between God and creation as king and priest, roles that the Lord took upon Himself and magnified immeasurably when He assumed our nature (which, incidentally, the Fathers repeatedly described variously as “ensouled flesh” or “flesh and a rational soul”). Our own syzygy anticipates the ultimate reconciliation of all things, all opposites and all pairings in the Cosmic Man, Jesus Christ. Ignoring one side or merging the two together either detaches man from his connection to the intelligible or sensible realms or muddles the created order itself by neglecting the distinction between the intelligible and sensible.

Dualism is nonetheless a troublesome word, not least because it is not patristic and so largely foreign to any traditional Orthodox discussion of the problem. It is a concept that philosophers use to describe Platonic and Cartesian anthropology, and it gets applied willy-nilly in modern theological contexts in no small part to make theological discussions sound more like modern philosophical ones. (Theologians, like many conservatives in political arguments, often feel the nagging need to make themselves seem relevant by using terminology and ideas, even if only to belittle them, that will appear more fashionable to people who have no interest in theology.) It is also a concept that can be thrown around with tremendous ease: thus from a Christian standpoint, Manicheans are dualists, which means they regard matter as evil and spirit as good, from an Aristotelian perspective Platonists are dualists and from a materialist perspective Christians are dualists.

There is, of course, a legitimate Christian dualism, and it has existed for as long as Christians have meditated on disciplining the body (which means as long as there have been Christians). I’m sure Mr. Hart would have no difficulty granting that there is a real distinction between body and soul that is not only intellectual, and we could agree that distinctions do not have to imply division or separation. He should also have no objections that true theology is prayer and fasting, the building blocks of all ascetic life to which all Christians are called in varying degrees. As we on the Old Calendar are presently in the midst of the Dormition Fast, this consideration is most timely.

The very practice of asceticism in its more extreme forms presupposes and embraces the truth that flesh is corruptible and intimately connected to sin in this world, yet not bad in itself, while continuing to acknowledge that body and soul must be profoundly unified if the mortification of the body will achieve the control and redirection of the passions. The purpose of human life, and so of ascetic practice, is deification, which transforms man by God’s energy and grace into God to the extent that God became man, and this deification transforms the whole man, but the road to that blessed state is one that requires us to recognise and indeed widen the ‘gap’, if you will, between body and soul by disciplining the flesh, starving the passions of their nourishment in the flesh and living a spiritual life, yes, through the flesh but according to the natural purpose for which the body was created. The body only fulfills that purpose when the real distinction between it and the soul is amplified and magnified.

As important as it is to recognise the significance of the human body as a creation of God, bearer of the image of God, good and integrally united to the soul, it is equally important to stress that unity only exists between two things and in this case two substantially dissimilar things. To neglect that difference and distinction is to become a sort of anthropological monophysite, so to speak, and ultimately to confuse the passible, corruptible and mortal properties of the body with their opposite properties in the soul. Mr. Hart no doubt intends to force his audience to understand the importance and sacrality of the body as a creation of God, and as something that possesses moral and existential significance, but his excessive emphasis on the unity of body and soul risks creating another kind of monism every bit as wrong and potentially dangerous as the monism of materialists and transhumanists he rightly deplores.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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