In the last post, we began building our elevator pitch about theology of the body. An elevator pitch has to be short enough to deliver in the space of an elevator ride; let’s call it two minutes. And in that two minutes, the pitch has to engage the other person, so they exit the elevator, already Googling “theology of the body” for more!
George Weigel, St. John Paul’s biographer, once called theology of the body a “theological time bomb” set to go off sometime in the new millennium (in other words, now). So our elevator pitch is what we’ll use to help light the fuse. By the end of this series, we’ll have a short, pithy explanation we can try out at dinner parties, after church over donuts, in the bleachers of football games, anywhere we meet other people who share our yearning for a culture of life and love.
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People tend to be intrigued by the phrase “theology of the body.” It’s kind of charming, isn’t it? I went to my first TOB conference back in the 90’s, knowing nothing about it, but drawn by the puzzling nature of the title.
Theology? Of the body??
Well, what’s so strange about it? Why do we do a double-take?
We live in a culture that assumes a split between body and spirit, that’s why.
Just this morning, I was reading what is, in most ways, a very good book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” by evangelical pastor Rick Warren. This book has had a huge circulation; one study showed that about ¼ of all American adults had read it. With that kind of exposure, it’s a good meter of mainstream thinking.
In it, the author says, “You are a spirit that resides in a body.”
That’s a one-line summation of the problem. We are not spirits residing in a body; we’re spirit-bodies. The body and the spirit are not two separate things.
It’s not just wordplay; there’s an important distinction. If we were just spirits temporarily occupying a body, then what we do with our bodies wouldn’t necessarily affect our spirits, and vice versa.
So I can act with my body, and my spirit isn’t affected?
Check it against your own experience. Have you ever fallen into a bad habit or environment? Think about the drinking culture at many colleges. Freshman slip into the party culture, and gradually begin to de-value prayer, stop calling home, skip church, speak carelessly, and generally lose their “shine.”
Then they take their first round of tests and the failing marks catapult them out of the party culture (hopefully). Later they will say they didn’t even realize how much the drinking was affecting them until they cleared it out of their system.
The drinking was just a physical act, but it also had consequences in the spirit.
A man may commit a sin and never be discovered, and yet it will eat away at his soul. In the classic novel Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits the “perfect crime,” without detection, and yet the knowledge of what he has done possesses him and drives him to obsession.
The crime was a physical act, but it has enormous consequences in the spirit.
When a person is engaged in habitual sin, he or she becomes short-tempered, critical, prickly, and underneath it all, self-despising. The sin is physical; the consequences are spiritual.
Well, of course they are! Instinctively, we know this.
Body and soul are one. “Spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 365)
We aren’t spirits renting space in this anonymous body for the duration of our earthly lives. God is not a bubble gum machine that sends a soul down the chute to be randomly matched with a body, as though the soul preceded the body. No, the body and the soul together are the person. My body is me. And so whatever affects the body, necessarily affects the soul.
Dualistic thinking leads to bizarre conclusions. If body and soul are separate, then a person can arrive at the notion that their body doesn’t match their inner self, that they’ve been stuck inside the “wrong” kind of body. Or we could decide that a very tiny body doesn’t possess a soul, so discarding that body is permissible.
As with every heresy that seems like nitpicking at first, a wrong conception of the human person eventually leads to lives gone wildly astray. The Church has been defending the truth about the human person, body and soul, since the first century when the Gnostics first came up with the idea that the physical body is just a shell for the spirit.
The idea of a split between body and soul is strangely persistent, though, so here we go again. God has given us the words of Pope John Paul for just this time.
Here’s how St. John Paul expressed it: “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (TOB 19:4).
In other words, the body makes visible the soul. In some way, the body is like a “code” for the mystery of the divine.
What is the code telling us?
That’s the subject of the next part in the series.
To recap our bullet points so far:
- TOB is great news, because it answers the deepest desires of the human heart.
- The soul and body are one. So we can know something about the soul by “reading” the body.