Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

  View Cart

Subtotal:

Checkout
Detail from Wanjin Gim, Encounter in a Liquid Dream, Watercolor and colored pencil

What’s a Body For?

Angela Franks

2 Comments
2 Comments
2 Comments
    Submit
  • Roy Donkin

    I would argue that the “problem” that is solved by transgender surgery is more complicated than the article implies. We live in a world where X gender must be expressed by an X body. There is no room for one being X while the other is Y. The transgendered person is told that either the body or the self must change in order to make them match. That technology makes it easier to change the body than the self being expressed simply means there is only one solution to the problem being presented. Perhaps there will be a time when gender is understood to be more fluid and individuals will not be forced to make everything “match” according to societal norms. Until then, transgendered folk are often left with the choice of changing what can be changed or living in a society that tells them there is something wrong with them as they are.

  • James R. Johnson

    Thank you for Angela Franks’ helpful summary of the theology of the body. I think it is worth pointing out, though, that until we understand genetic influences on personality inclinations we need to be careful how dogmatically we speak about transgenderism and other deviations from traditional norms that have been coming into public view for some time now. Romans chapter 1 describes how people began rejecting what could be known of God naturally. Verse 18 on describes how they stubbornly rejected the sense of morality which had been given to them and God judged them by just letting the natural consequences happen. This has obviously been going on for a very, very long time. Here we gain a theological insight into our inherited gene pools and negative family, tribal and territorial character traits. Who an individual “is” is not completely in their own control: we are the product of our heredity, our environment, and the choices we make.* These choices have effects on our descendants, individually and collectively. To claim that transgenderism “requires that there be no intrinsic link between the body and the person” is a theoretical construct and not necessarily the perspective of every individual involved. It would probably be more accurate to say that “for many trans persons the body needs to be modified to enable them to express who they really are.” This grants a much more realistic recognition to the human heritage we have inherited based on biblical teaching. Why not accept that if this perspective can be recognized, as Franks does for other redesign surgeries, that trans surgery in these cases could help enhance the body’s ability to express a person’s self-gift? Franks believes that objectifying the body for use as we please is a pivotal issue for medical ethics: “If the body is simply clay in our hands, why not make it differently gendered? Or make our children as smart and blond as possible through genetic engineering? Or upload our minds to computer databases and discard the body altogether? All of these approaches make the body a problem to be fixed or eliminated.” [emphasis added] She points to a significant basic issue for medical ethics and she has raised valid questions. But she seems to think that those questions can only be answered one way when, actually, there are nuanced affirmative answers to at least some of these questions which address the concerns she raises. For example, the one regarding transgenderism was suggested above. And genetic engineering that would prevent disabling genetic conditions from occurring in newborns, along with gene therapy for diseases in adults, would also seem to have the possibility of “enhancing the body’s ability to express a person’s self-gift,” which seems to be the primary criteria for judging when technological manipulation of the body may be justified in the position espoused by Franks. Each individual’s situation should be evaluated on its own merits, and I would hope that Christian counselors who assist those with questions would take this approach. *This “formula” was used by Dr. Robertson McQuilkin while I was a student in one of his classes in what is now the Seminary of Columbia International University

Item 1: a cover story in Christianity Today about evangelical Christians who rent out their wombs as reproductive surrogates, in order to help those who cannot conceive;

Item 2: an essay in First Things by an evangelical professor lamenting the heterodoxy of her Christian students, who cheerfully call their bodies “meat suits” while doubting the resurrection of the flesh;

Item 3: an article in The Wall Street Journal by a biologist decrying the evolutionary “botch” that is the human body.

Each of these items crossed my field of vision in the space of a few weeks this spring. And I’m not even counting the continuing drip of #MeToo fallout. Clearly, the body is a vexed site of controversy.

What is the body for, anyway? The materialist has one answer: for nothing in particular. It’s just an accidental confluence of DNA, fluky environmental factors, and the inexorable march of time, in which change is the only constant. Don’t get too attached to this iteration of humanity, because it won’t last.

Many of today’s Christians have another answer: it’s for getting me to heaven. The evangelical surrogates use their bodies as a useful tool of ministry to infertile couples. The students negotiate the body’s demands through spiritual damage-control. In both cases, the body is a potential minefield of desire and use-values.

But mastered by whom? Who is the “I” that is going to heaven? The disbelief in the resurrection of the flesh reveals that many Christians do not think that their “I” includes their bodies. The “I” is the soul, some kind of ghostly substance that stands over and above the body. And yet, as Pope Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est, “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.”

Clearly, the body is a vexed site of controversy.

The Gnosticism of many contemporary Christians is only the latest iteration of the heresy that has parasitically attached itself to Christianity from the very beginning. Gnosticism has many permutations, but one common thread is the conviction that the material world has its source in some evil power. Contrary to the Gnostics of the second century AD, who “represent all material substance to be formed from three passions, namely, fear, grief, and perplexity,” and “deny that He [Christ] assumed anything material, since indeed [they believed that] matter is incapable of salvation,” Irenaeus argued that the material world has its source in one good God.

The Gnostic ideas that Irenaeus battled were challenged already in the Johannine writings, which emphasized – to the point of uncouthness – the raw physicality of Jesus’ body and commands: the eating of his body (John 6), the holes in his hands and side (John 20), the breakfast he solicitously cooks (John 21), and the insistence that the beloved disciple has seen and touched Jesus (1 John 1).

The delicate approach John takes with the word “flesh” ( sarx) indicates the balancing act Christianity had to achieve vis-à-vis the body. On the one hand, as 1 John 2:16 emphasizes, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” The flesh has its lusts, and these are “of the world.” Both “flesh” and “world” can be morally neutral terms in the New Testament, referring simply to the body and to the whole of creation respectively. But they can also, as here, refer to the desires of the human being when cut off from God. These desires lead man to try to make his home in the “world” – that is, without God.

On the other hand, the Johannine literature also emphasizes that Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The denial of the Incarnation (“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”) is equated to the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 4). Flesh is not an evil principle but rather, incomplete. It requires God and his grace to become what it should be. As with the flesh, so too with the world: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God … because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:19, 21).

As Irenaeus said against the Gnostics of the second century, salvation centers around the flesh: God created the flesh of man, which the Son assumes in the Incarnation, all so that he might save the flesh of man. Tertullian states this idea straightforwardly: caro salutis cardo, the flesh is the hinge of salvation.

First Corinthians 6:19–20 develops this anthropology by giving it a pneumatological angle: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” This language restates the earlier exhortation at 1 Corinthians 3:16–17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” Note how easily Paul moves between “your body” and “you.”

We don’t owe our bodies mere toleration; we owe them reverence.

But more can be said on this point. The holy things of God are owed reverence, and this includes the body-temple (1 Thess. 4:4; 1 Cor. 12:22–25). The proper attitude toward the body, as a temple of the Spirit, is that of “piety,” traditionally one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit taken from Isaiah 11:1–3 (“the Spirit of the fear of the Lord”). We don’t owe our body mere toleration; we owe it reverence.

All well and good. But still the question remains: Why do we have bodies in the first place? The compelling simplicity of contemporary Gnosticism provides one answer: because a rival and evil god is in control of the material world. As one Vatican document recently summarized Pope Francis’s warnings, neo-Gnosticism “presumes to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe, in which traces of the provident hand of the Creator are no longer found, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man.” Against such contemporary Gnosticism, John Paul II provided another answer: the body expresses the person.

This answer was spelled out in a series of remarkable talks from 1979–1984 and popularized as the “theology of the body.” In it, John Paul II argues that we have bodies in order to make visible what is invisible: namely, our persons. My “I” is not separable from my body, but neither is it reducible to it. My body is the exterior expression of that interior personal reality that Scripture names the “heart,” the most common anthropological term in the Old Testament, according to one scholar. When Jesus says that “everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28), he is reminding us that the body’s look reveals the person. As John Paul II puts it, the “look” is the “threshold of the person.”

This proposal is dramatically countercultural. Take, for example, transgenderism, which requires that there be no intrinsic link between the body and the person. For the trans person, the body first needs to be modified technologically in order to be capable of personal expressiveness. This process often coopts the medical profession, which exists to heal sick bodies. Transgenderism instead demands that it surgically manipulate healthy bodies, often by the removal of healthy organs. Likewise, the reproductive surrogate views her womb as a detachable tool, such that she need not be the mother of whatever child happens to be residing in it temporarily.

The body’s job of expressing the person is nonsense to a materialist, who refuses the very idea of an interior to man. It’s matter all the way down. The earnest Christian Gnostic believes there is an interior, but it is the real “I,” and hence the body is somehow detachable from it. Both positions cannot integrate body and soul; at best, the two move on parallel tracks, never to meet, like train tracks stretching into infinity. But John Paul II insists that God designed us as an integrated whole, precisely so that we – the only embodied spirits – could make visible his love to the world through our loving.

The weight of the body expresses a truth: namely that we are made for love and fruitfulness.

A corollary of this truth is that the body is never the problem, in the deepest sense of the word. Transgenderism implies that the body’s “wrongness” is the problem. For John Paul II, the buck doesn’t stop with the body, because the body simply expresses what is in the heart. If the ultimate problem is the body, the solution is technological manipulation of it. If the ultimate problem is the heart, then the solution is conversion. Hence, as John Paul II writes in the theology of the body, the pretense that the body is simply matter to be dominated “threatens the human person for whom the method of ‘self-mastery’ is and remains specific.”

Wanjin Gim, Encounter in a Liquid Dream, Watercolor and colored pencil

Wanjin Gim, Encounter in a Liquid Dream, watercolor and colored pencil View Full Painting
Artwork used by permission of the artist

How might this look in real life? Technology can be of service to the body, of course, when it enhances its ability to express a person’s self-gift. For example, the birth of my fourth child required an emergency caesarean section, because of placenta previa. Without the C-section, I could have bled to death. Because of that surgical intervention, I was able to continue as a mother to my children. Similarly, my father has a pacemaker, which he needs to keep his heart rhythms regular. Because of that device, he can continue to be a loving husband, father, and grandfather.

The kind of technological manipulation that John Paul II decries is the kind that treats the body as distinct from the person. If the body is simply clay in our hands, why not make it differently gendered? Or make our children as smart and blond as possible through genetic engineering? Or upload our minds to computer databases and discard the body altogether? All of these approaches make the body a problem to be fixed or eliminated.

Why do we make the body into the problem? In part, because of our resentment against its intransigence. Our bodies, when they resist us by getting sick, old, and tired, constantly remind us that the world is not plastic matter responsive to the whims of our freedom. We yearn for a freedom that is not tied to embodiment. “A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design,” John Paul II writes in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. We want to be “light,” untrammeled by any limitations outside of our own will.

This worldview harms everyone, but it particularly denigrates women, who have traditionally been connected with what is bodily. It’s no accident that myths proposed “Mother Earth,” in contrast to the male gods, who were often gods of the air and lightning. Women have always been connected to the earth, to the physical, because of the earth’s fruitfulness. As the earth brings forth fruit, likewise women bear the fruit of children.

This primitive view had to be supplemented with a deeper anthropology in Judeo-Christianity, but the basic insight was not denied. A woman’s body intrudes into her thoughts; she cannot ignore it as easily as a man can ignore his. Simone de Beauvoir lamented this intrinsic materiality, the fact that a woman’s body is inevitably impacted through childbearing. She envied the airy lightness of the man, “a being who is not given, who makes himself what he is.”

As a result, when a culture turns against embodiment, women feel the bite first. Theologian Margaret Harper McCarthy summarizes: “It is the woman’s body that opposes her existence as a person. It is therefore ultimately her own body that the woman must resist.” The modern age has furthered the interior fracture women sense between themselves and their bodies.

Our bodies are not merely clusters of atoms that will disintegrate and disappear. 

Against this fracture, we can insist that the body’s materiality serves a purpose: the body expresses the person. The weight of the body expresses a truth that we might like to forget: namely, that we are made for love and fruitfulness. Because we are made in the image of God, this truth about ourselves is a pale echo of who God is: “He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Women’s bodies, tied as obviously as they are to fruitfulness, have a special role in testifying to the fruitful creativity that is intrinsic to the human person.

The embodied person can testify to this truth in a profound way. In fact, God delights in using matter to express his invisible mystery. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” writes poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and in water, bread, wine, oil, and the bodies and words of persons, God expresses and communicates that grandeur in particularly efficacious ways. The visibility of the body is a kind of “primordial sacrament,” according to John Paul II, the very foundation of the sacramental order. (Angels don’t have sacraments.)

Through the faith and hope bestowed by the sacraments, “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:23–24). The redemption wrought by Christ penetrates all the way down, even into our bodies. This is an intrinsic part of the Good News we have been commissioned to share. Ultimately, our bodies are for the new heaven and the new earth – that is, for Christ and his kingdom.

As the Second Vatican Council taught, “When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise … according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom.” Right now we love and labor by means of our bodies, but these things have eternal weight.

Thus, our bodies are not meat-suits to be discarded or clusters of atoms that will disintegrate and disappear. They are made to last, because God’s kingdom will last, taking up from this world all that is good and preserving it. All that is made in and through Christ – including the body – will find its ultimate meaning in him. “My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:2).

Wanjin Gim, Coincidental Hands, watercolor and colored pencil

Wanjin Gim, Coincidental Hands, watercolor and colored pencil View Full Painting
Artwork used by permission of the artist

three Plough Quarterly covers
Like what you’re reading? Sign up for a free trial issue of Plough Quarterly.
Contributed By

Angela Franks, PhD, is a theologian, speaker, writer, and mother of six. She is a professor of theology at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston.

2 Comments