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).

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

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.”