The Goodness of the Human Body

Jeffrey Kirby FAITH Magazine March - April 2008

The Human Person as a Source of Unity

 In his first celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Benedict XVI preached on the culture of life. Officiating at the baptism of ten children, the Pope exposed the lies of the culture of death, which makes the human being a “thing”. It does not recognise him as “person”, but only as “merchandise”.[1] The culture of death denies the fundamental dignity of the human person

. Rather than mere merchandise, the human person stands as a wonderful existent. He is the most admirable being in contingent reality, because in him are joined the depths of matter and the transcendence of spirit. Interestingly, he is not at the summit of the created order, but he holds the mysterious centre-place in the hierarchy of being. Through him, the various levels of existence can be found in personal unity, when they would otherwise exist only separately. The unity of things so distinct in nature arouses a profound sense of awe in the human person. How does the human person benefit from such an existence?

 As a source of unity for contingent reality, the human person is not estranged from the world, but has an innate openness to each part of it, as a portion of his own existence. He not only possesses in his own nature the organic and intelligible realities, but also shares in the particular perfections of each of these different dimensions of being. The human person, as an embodied spirit, exists as a type of bridge, a source of authentic unity, between spiritual and material ways of existence. This unique position provides the human person the opportunity to express the two great dimensions of reality, matter and spirit, as complementary elements which enrich each other and form a single whole.

 The human person is not a stranger to the realms of being around and within him. As a being consisting of matter and spirit, he has the sole privilege of consciously existing both here and now. Living in time and space through his body, he can surpass these realities through the functions of his spiritual soul. The angelic persons must marvel at the peculiarity of the human person, of a spirit wedded to a body. Christian angelology provides an example of this marvel-turned-rebellion. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that Lucifer, who was the guardian angel of earth, revolted because he saw that the human person, who was a part of the physical world, would one day surpass him in greatness.[2] What effect does this union of matter and spirit have onthe human person himself?

 The Gnostic Attack on the Dignity of the Body

 For the human person, the union of his body and soul has been a source of bewilderment and sanctification since the Fall, which introduced a clashing discord into the harmony of the human person. The Fall introduced the paradox of a being with both a body subject to death and an immortal, spiritual soul. Before the Fall, there existed no such paradox. The human person’s body and soul were harmoniously united and his body would have naturally shared in the immortality of his soul. How has the human person attempted to resolve the tension, caused by the Fall, within himself and the world around him?

 The human being, and various cultures of death created by him, have unrealistically sought to solve this paradox through an attack on the dignity of the body. Rather than discovering the goodness of the body and thus seeing it as a part of his redemption, Man has attempted to disgrace this essential dimension of his own existence, thereby epitomising the effects of the Fall. This indignity, which has been termed gnosticism, has expressed itself in human history in two major campaigns against the human body.

 The Gnostic Attempt to Escape through Spiritualism

 The first expression of gnosticism hid in the spiritual nature of the human person and focused on meditation and sacrifice. It sought to elevate the human person to the exclusion of his body, renouncing it and denying its value through neglect and abnegation. This was the view of Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius. They overly emphasised the spiritual and refused the co-existing material reality of the person. In the century before Christ Lucretius wrote: “Of course, to think that mortal and immortal could live, sense, act, in mutual partnership is nonsense”.[3]

 This approach expresses a desire for escapist deliverance or extinction. It can be observed in eastern mysticism. Buddha taught a man who was suffering: “If you make for yourself an island of the True Self ... though the body may be sick, the True Self is never sick, and you may take refuge in that, an island amid the storms of life’s suffering”.[4] This wayward view has become the rallying assertion of the New Age movement with its implicit refusal of the body’s dignity, and its unguided emphasis on the human spirit.

 The Gnostic Attempt to Escape through Materialism

 The second expression of gnosticism rejected the existence of the soul and wallowed in the base materiality of the human body, centring solely on empty self-pleasure and raw power. It denied the body’s value through hedonism, seeking only self-centred, fleshy enjoyment and advancement. Bodily dignity and purpose were seen as essential to the person.

 This was the view of the proto-capitalists. Adam Smith wrote: “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.” He continued, “He will more likely prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of him”.[5] One can see this approach to the human body in the Greco-Roman religious custom of the Baccanalia, and in modern materialism. Karl Marx, the father of materialistic communism, satirically asked: “Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions – in one word, man’s consciousness – changes with every change in the conditionsof his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life?”[6]

 This disbelief in the value of the human body was epitomised by Thomas Hobbes, who wrote: “Man is in the condition of mere nature, which is a condition of war, as private appetite is the measure of good and evil”.[7] Following this view, the sexual revolution, as well as the demands of Wall Street, dangerously dismissed the body’s significance and continually overemphasised self-centred pleasure and unrestrained power.

 Current Approaches to the Body

 Contemporary thinking continues this denial of the body, and refuses to give it any substantial place in a meaningful human personhood. Wrongly, current thinkers see the human body as just an instrument or a mere tool for some function. The humane and Christian view, however, sees the human person as including a spirit which needs a body as a complement and mediator to fulfil his destiny as a traveller to God, the Ultimate Good, through the goodness of the material cosmos.[8] It must be realised, therefore, that the question of the human body does not deal only with biology and chemistry, politics and economics, but also with meaning and value.

 The Christian Belief and Response

 Understanding the gnostic violence to the human body, what can be made of the numerous ascetics of the Christian Church? Is their approach to the body consistent with those of the gnostic belief? Or are their practices in unison with the Christian and integrally humane belief concerning the body’s dignity? Is there anything to learn about the body from the Christian saints and their practices?

 Of those Christian ascetics, what can be said of the desert fathers, such as Abba Daniel who fought not to sleep in order to keep vigil through the night in prayer, or Abba Macarius and his resolution of silence and strict solitude, or Abba Benjamin’s radical fasting?[9] What explanation is possible of Benedict’s horarium, Francis of Assisi’s poverty, or Ignatius of Loyola’s indifference? Does John of the Cross summarise the authentic Christian view when he wrote that the human person is to deprive himself of the “gratification of the appetite in all things,” giving up all the desires for the delight of hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting, touching, with the result of finding oneself in a “darkness and void”?[10]

 The appropriate explanation of Christian asceticism begins with the dignity of the complete human person, not only his soul but also his body. This dignity calls the person to excellence, to actualise the image of Divinity within him. Due to the Fall, the person is marked by an attraction to lesser and disordered goods. This attraction and the surrender to it makes the person a slave to self-gratification, to gnostic self-hatred, whims and fancies, as well as social trends and opinions. The person is lost within this pool, unless he labours to find something beyond them. By himself, he cannot do this work. He must look to the One who has come and provided the way and example out of this self-enclosed and promoting trap. The work of redemption does not remove the distractions oflesser goods, but does give the grace to restore them to their proper place and purpose.

 The Human Person as an Ascetic and Aesthetic Being

 In this effort for redemption, the person’s dignity, extended to both body and soul, gives him the singular power among the contingent world to be an ascetic being, with the ability to say no, to protest, or to break away.[11] He is not a creature of uncontrollable instinct. Additionally, while the human person shares many areas of life with the living sub-personal creation of the plants and animals, he is called to personalise his acts, to seek the “sublimation of the common-place”.[12] For example, the human person eats for nourishment like the animals, but he personalises the act by giving thanks and by establishing rules of civility and protocol. Furthermore, the humanperson can recognise Truth and Beauty. He is also an aesthetic being, destined to actualise Truth and Beauty through his actions in the material world, making his life and the culture around him reflect these realities.

 The Real and Restless Battle for Integration

 Influenced by gnosticism, many conceptions of the human person, his body and soul, of personal acts, and the flourishing of Goodness and Beauty in personal and communal life, are either too pessimistic or optimistic. They fail to see the human person as a united being, and make no concession for the real and restless battle within him. Christian asceticism is unique because, while it acknowledges the body and soul as good, it realises that they must be disciplined and put at the service of one another, in order that the full person will be made capable of elevation to glory. The discipline and penances of the body and soul are born out of an awareness of the evil which exists in the person’s attachment to the fallen world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit.They are meant to assist in the purification of these fallen attachments within the human person. In contrast to gnosticism, the acts of Christian penance, however simple or extreme, are not ends in themselves, but rather acts directed towards both positive growth and edification of the person, and acts of love towards the One who is carefully redeeming them. As John of the Cross wrote: “To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not enjoy. To reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know. To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where you have nothing”. He continues, summarising the purpose of Christian asceticism:

 Hence, we call this nakedness a night for the soul. For we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul, if it craves for all these objects. We are dealing with the denudation of the soul’s appetites and gratifications; this is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them... Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that causes the damage.[13]

 The goal, therefore, of Christian asceticism is not to reject, manipulate, or suppress the natural instincts of the body and soul, but merely to control and spiritualise them.[14] As Bonaventure explained: “The mirror presented by the external world is of little or no value unless the mirror of our soul has been cleaned and polished”.[15] The focus is not a renunciation from an evil, but an ordination of the goodness of the body, spirit, and passions of the human person towards the One, and the fullness of life he offers. It is an integration of the various dimensions of the person into a well-balanced being; made in God’s image, so that each dimension can be what it was created to beand assist the person in living an abundant life. As John Henry Newman wrote:

 We may indeed love things created with great intenseness, but such affection, when disjoined from the love of the Creator, is like a stream running in a narrow channel, impetuous, vehement, turbid. The heart runs out, as it were, only at one door; it is not an expanding of the whole man. Created natures cannot open us, or elicit the ten thousand mental senses which belong to us, and through which we really live.[16]


 Seeing the lives and examples of the Christian saints; along with understanding the dignity of the human person and the intentions underlying its practices, Christian asceticism provides a clearer and more holistic view of the human person. The person’s reality as an embodied spirit and the dynamic drama, which occurs within his own existence, is demonstrated as the human being labours to “become” the person he already “is”. The integrated, fully-alive person is the glory of God, and united with his Creator and Redeemer, breathing as a bridge which harmoniously unites matter and spirit, he can intone the song of existential gratitude and fulfilment: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my being rejoices in God my saviour”.[17]

[1] Baptism Homily, January 8, 2006, L’Osservatore Romano, January 11, 2006
(English Edition).
[2] Catechetical Disputations, 6.5, as contained in Jean Danielou, The Angels and Their
Mission, Trans. David Heimann (Westminster: Newman Press, 1957), pgs. 45-48; cf:
Aquinas, Summa, I, q108, a8.
[3] On the Nature of Things, Trans. F. Capley (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1985),
p. 75.
[4] As contained in Marie Beuzeville Byles, Footprints of Gautama the Buddha(London:
Rider and Company, 1957), p. 92.
[5] Wealth of Nations, Trans. Edwin Cannan (New York: The Modern Library, 1937).
[6] Communist Manifesto, Trans. Robert Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952),
II. p. 428.
[7] Leviathan, Trans. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Collier Books, 1968), 15, p. 123-124.
This view is also satirically mocked in Book IV of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
[8] Emmanuel Mournier, Personalism(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1950),
4; cf. Robert Baker, Redemption of Our Bodies(Charleston: Communications Office,
2005), pgs. 3, 8-9.
[9] Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers(New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998),
74; 75-76; 77.
[10] Ascent of Mount Carmel, Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh (Washington, DC: Institute
of Carmelite Studies, 1991), I.3.1-2, pgs. 121-123.
[11] Mournier, Personalism, 47.
[12] Ibid., 46.
[13] Ascent, I.3.4. pg. 123.
[14] Max Scheler, Ressentiment, Trans. Lewis Coser (Milwaukee: Marquette University
Press, 1998), p. 109.
[15] The Soul’s Journey to God, Trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978),
Prologue, 4, pg. 56.
[16] “The Stay of the Soul,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons(New York: Longmans, Green,
and Company, 1897), XXII, p. 318.
[17] Luke 1:46-47; cf Ireneaus, Adversus Haereses, 4,20,7: PG 7/I, 1037, as contained
in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 294.

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