This essay appeared in ABC’s La Tercera on Easter Sunday. The original can be found here.
Our society is haunted by the dream of the beautiful body. Wherever we look, round about us or on our phones, those digital extensions of consciousness, we see advertisements featuring sleek bodies. Gyms, popping up like mushrooms, draw us in with alluring promises that ours could be one such. If the rest of our life is amorphous and drooping, at least we might press our bodies into shape.
In Sam Mendes’s cult film from 1999, American Beauty, the middle-aged male protagonist declares defiance against bored, suburban mediocrity on the day when he declares, ‘I want to look good naked!’, and starts pumping iron. One need not be a psychoanalyst to locate the roots of his yearning. We all want to shed our fig leaves and look at ourselves in the mirror as we are, entire, without blushing.
Shame clings to us, though, and unease. A study published in 2021 by Norway’s Department for Health found that 61% of adolescents were displeased with their looks. I dare say this percentage is not much different in other western countries. A grave phenomenon present in societal debate regards more essential dissatisfaction. The number of youngsters reporting gender dysphoria, finding there is not space for them as they find themselves to be within their bodies, is increasing.
These are anguished situations. They deserve, as does any human pain, to be met with respect. Yet there are questions to be asked. What do these trends — for trends they are — reveal about our world and its gender roles? What do they say about our view of the significance of the embodied self? Is my body an envelope wrapping a ‘me’ of a supposedly higher order? Or is it, in fact, an expression of ‘me’?
When the Church tries to speak of these matters, it is booed. The reason is clear. The global unravelling of clerical abuse evidencing institutional ignorance, revealing unconscionable hurt, is like an open wound in the ecclesial body. Any hierarch is conscious of this. I can see why people get enraged if the Church is perceived to pour forth, on matters of the body, discourse that is merely prescriptive and proscriptive. In the eyes of observers, the Church has forfeited credibility. Clerics have committed outrage against the physical integrity of children, yet the clergy parade as moral guardians of others? Where undisputed Catholic loyalty is no longer axiomatic, there spreads an atmosphere of indignant disbelief.
What is the Church anyway? Perplexity is rife even within Catholic ranks. Different churchmen, for holding the same office, say very different things. Dogma appears, here and there, to surrender wholesale to sociology. Certain accounts of ‘reform’ (a crucial term — the Church is semper reformanda) effectively discount established notions of the Church’s personhood, finding it quaint to call her ‘Mother’ and thinking it symbolical excess to present her as a body whose head is Christ, though this is a solidly Pauline view, not the lah-di-dah invention of a sacramentally maximalist premodernity. There are Catholics impatient to redefine the Church in institutional terms. They canvass for a new, parliamentarian model of government, never mind the parlous state of many a secular parliament these days.
Faced with such many-layered unsettlement, it is tempting to keep quiet about the body and to repackage Christianity as spiritism. This, though, is no option.
The body is key to the Christian kerygma. Christians believe in a God who assumed human flesh, not just to subsist there as a lodger for a time, but to renew our physical nature from within. Why go to the trouble? Because our body is vital to the realisation in us of our God-given potential. God’s likeness in man, the likeness in view of which we were made in God’s image, left its imprint on our faculties spiritual and corporal. Often enough we have a hunch that our body points beyond itself. Each apparent satisfaction of desire is so achingly provisional. The Biblical view of man, far from being simplistic, makes sense of such provisionality.
This sense shines through the Gospel. Christ, ‘God from God, Light from Light’, who was ‘in the beginning’, was conceived in the body of a woman, gestating wondrously as any human embryo. Grown to manhood, he showed a singular lack of defiance with regard to matters of the body. With reverence, yet freely, he touched and healed disfigured bodies and bodies regarded as unclean. He displayed the meaning of spiritual salus by restoring sick bodies to health. To let his friends see what his life and death accomplished, he left them, in the form of bread, a sacrament, so an abiding presence, of his body. In his body, sings the Church on Good Friday, Christ carried all that which, in our nature as we know it, is out of sorts. He revealed the trampling-underfoot of death in his risen body, glorious, yet carrying the wounds of violation, having no need to facilely dissimulate the pain intrinsic to existence in our world full of loveliness, but also of tears.
For Christians, faith in the resurrection is concrete. What our bodies will be like in eternity we cannot yet imagine. But we do hold on biblical authority, grounded in tradition, that our complex of mind, soul, and body is to last everlastingly. We shall, in eternity, remain knowable as who we are now, but the conflicts now preventing the free unfolding of our self will have been resolved. For now we groan inwardly, as Paul wrote, awaiting the redemption, that is, the beautiful fulfilment, of our bodies.
The good news of the body’s significance and of the realisable, death-defying scope for human wholeness was entrusted to a ragged dozen people in a collective state of post-traumatic stress, not especially brilliant humanly speaking, but shorn by stark humiliation of presumption, so freed to proclaim a message that surpassed them. Through their unlikely mediation, this message renewed a civilisation in crepuscular decline. It revitalised the body politic. It restored hope, enabled prospect. It might do such a thing again.