Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Neoreactionary Theology of the Body.

Atheist warning. This is a religious post.

One of the positive developments with regard to Neoreaction has been the reassertion of the role of biology with regard to human nature. This reassertion has far deeper sociological significance than may be initially appreciated and poses as direct challenge to one of the main tenets of Liberalism, namely, the  "blank slate" theory of man. This theory is one of the pillars of Liberalism since it posits man as a being of endless potential. All it takes to shape man into whatever a social engineer wants him to be is to have control over what is written onto the slate in order to form a man of his choosing. 

The assertion of the role of biology is a direct challenge to this view and places strict limits on the ability of social engineers, hence, both the danger and potentiality of Neoreaction.  Thus wherever Liberalism's aims are thwarted by biological reality, the liberal approach will be the attack the validity of the underlying reality or deny it. So it's no surprise that when presented with mountains of evidence asserting the importance of biology, the liberal Cathedral does all that it can to discredit those who assert it. (Intelligent readers can already see the foundational tension between liberalism and science.)

It's important to understand how "blank-slatism" was able to gain widespread acceptance. Though the notion had been debated since ancient times, it was never taken seriously given the obviously manifest natural inequalities present in men to those who can see. It only gained serious traction in the West once John Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. From that point on we see it gaining gradual widespread acceptance, until now, where the concept of unlimited human potentiality is nearly universal. How did it happen?

The space offered in this blog is insufficient to do the subject full justice, but the increasing literacy of the population,  the advancement of science and the rise in democratic sentiment all were influential. However, ideas are like seeds, and in order to flourish they need a fertile "culture". It's my contention that it is Christian culture, particularly its more ascetic factions, which provided the "superfood" in which the idea could grow. Sure, history does show that Christianity fought like a tiger against the more radical ideas of the Enlightenment, but eventually it lost the battle because, unknowing to itself,  it was providing the enemy with ammunition. One of the more diabolical features of the radical enlightenment is was able co-opt various strains Christian thought to further its cause.

To understand the problem we need to visit the subject of Hylomorphism. Hylomorphism is the Aristotelian idea, further developed by Aquinas, that humans being are unified entity comprised  of matter(body) and form (soul) [Ed:this is highly simplified] and it needs to be understood that hylomorphism regards body and soul as one thing. The Catholic Church and other strains of Christianity have always advocated the idea of the unity of the soul and the flesh. Now, amongst the intellectually disciplined the unity of the body/form concept is recognised, but amongst the intellectually sloppy, which comprise the bulk of humanity, it's easy to see how the idea of body and soul could be seen as two separate entities.

It didn't help things, that despite upholding the doctrine of hylomorphism, the Church in practice worked against it. Its continual emphasis of the importance of the spirit and the denigration of the flesh meant that when it came to the average man's conception of the human being, two notions were associated in his mind. Spirit=Good, Flesh=Bad. Thus, not only was a duality was formed but so was a polarity.

Overlaid upon this were several other notions of Christianity:

1) Firstly, the idea that man was completely able to be "renewed in Christ":
2) No man was unforgivable, and thus everyman was capable of being reborn.
3) An emphasis on the flesh being a source of evil.
4) Christianity's emphasis on "getting souls to heaven" and a  "who cares" approach to the demands of the flesh.

The balanced mind could see the context and limitation of these notions, but to the average-bulk-of-humanity man, who's thought processes are more an amalgam of associations and impressions, these notions could be corrupted into ideas that the human spirit is infinitely malleable and good. The flesh on the other hand, was an impediment toward spiritual perfection. Thus ascetic Christianity, despite its intentions, drove a wedge between body and soul. Furthermore, it was traditionally thought that the mind resided in the soul so its quite easy to see how people could conflate the soul's infinite transformative potentiality in Christ with the mind's infinite transformative potentiality. Once you've reached this point its only a small step away from liberalism.   It's not very difficult to see the analogy with Liberalism's blank slate and  the soul's unlimited potentiality. And the more the Church doubled down with religious asceticism against Liberalism, the more support it gave to its enemy.

Once you can get people thinking that spirit/mind good, flesh bad, then all sorts of interesting things become possible. Biology becomes disassociated from person-hood and its seen as something that can be overcome. It's very easy to see the analogy between some desert ascetic trying to break away from the desires of flesh to become a more fully "authentic" Christian and some homosexual male wanting to become a woman but  who is "trapped by their flesh". Both men are trying to escape the realities of their biology.

Sex and gender, likewise become disassociated: the sex being the biology and the gender being the spirit. The feminist approach to sexuality, largely opposed by traditional Christianity, is nevertheless supported by by Christianity's "real world" approach to the human person. Radical feminism is enabled by a Carnal-Lite human anthropology. Being true to biology doesn't matter if you think the flesh is bad.

Finally, given the infinite potential of the human spirit. Human person-hood can be constructed in such a way that is totally divorced from reality. Masculinity and femininity no longer become identity's intimately entangled with their biology, rather, they are identities superimposed onto it by whatever is the prevailing philosophical system. The congruence with biology being incidental or haphazard.  "Authentic" sexuality thus becomes a series of competing philosophical claims with scant reference to underlying physical reality. Manhood (or womanhood) then becomes whatever you want it to be.

One of the interesting phenomenon of history is the rise of Gnosticism, a phenomenon which was relatively unknown till the rise of Christianity and which shares many of the features of liberalism. It too, emphasised  the goodness of the spirit and the badness of the flesh but took the notions to extremes. Scholars have approached the subject of Gnosticism from philosophical perspective but I think they have erred. It's my view the Gnosticism is a product of the product of the cognitive limitations of the average human, particularly his preference for  System I thought.  System I thought is "thinking" by association rather than thinking by logic and evidence. The coincidence of Gnosticism with Christian culture is easily understood as arising from a Christian culture which though, theoretically committed to the concept of hyelomorphism was practically biased against the flesh and very pro-spirit.

Gnosticism, in its various forms, will be inadvertently enabled by Christianity as long as it keeps regarding the flesh as an inferior to the spirit. In my opinion, any push back against the modern understanding of the person will only come about when the Church starts reasserting not only the goodness of the flesh but of the obligation of the spirit to conform to it insofar as it is compatible with Caritas. Biology matters.

I have a feeling that JPII sensed this. His own Theology of the Body was, in my opinion, a botched attempt at reasserting the flesh's goodness. But it was a noble effort. It falls upon a new generation of men to build a new Theology of the Body. Christian thinkers need not only to reaffirm the hylomorphic concept but to proclaim anew the goodness of the flesh.

16 comments:

The Inculcator said...

I've been lurking here for quite a while. This post brings me out!

In my Lutheran church, and perhaps a number of other denominations, there has been a rediscovery of what is now being termed "Resurrection Theology." This is basically a focus on resurrection on the Last Day as the final goal of the Christian life, rather than heaven.

As I understand it from my young pastor, this is being promoted heavily at his seminary. I was already on board with idea having read Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. In a few days, this book cleared away numerous of Gnostic thoughts and interpretations of scripture that I had accumulated over the years, mostly inculcated by the various churches I had attended. It was odd that despite having recited the Nicene Creed weekly, the phrase "I believe in the resurrection of the dead" had never really sunk in.

While I don't think that Resurrection Theology solves all of the problems you address in this post, it is certainly a powerful aspect of "reasserting the flesh's goodness." Or, to put it another way, Resurrection Theology affirms that our flesh is part of God's design.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't adopting a Tripartite view of man over the the Bipartite view be a way of correcting these Liberal corruptions?

Man = Body + Soul + Spirit. The soul being man's intellect, will, and emotions, either rational or irrational, and the spirit being that in man which is of 'The Spirit', the part of man made in God's image, which is able to know the Divine.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Inculcator

Resurrection Theology affirms that our flesh is part of God's design.

Interesting, Even with my Catholic understanding of the resurrection, I've often thought the same thing. BTW, I'm glad that people from other denominations are putting their two cents in. It's humbling to know that others might find something of interest here.

@Anon

Wouldn't adopting a Tripartite view of man over the the Bipartite view be a way of correcting these Liberal corruptions

Respectfully disagree. By dividing by three we further risk misunderstanding of the the hylomorphic concept. We need to emphasise that soul and body are one.

David Foster said...

Recommended reading: The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by John Coates, is about the embodiment of mind.

The Social Pathologist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. Funny though, it's a bit of a coincidence. Over the last few weeks I've been mulling over the interaction between human cognition and the financial markets. I was actually thinking of doing a post on it when time allows. I've formed the opinion that human "stenosophism" may be one possible explanations for the business cycle. Namely, price is "is here and now" whilst "capital structure" is "abstract and distant." People base their economic decisions upon price and rarely on capital structure. Bubbles arise when capital is allocated purely on price without any regard to the underlying capital structure which eventually becomes unstable.

Novaseeker said...

As with all things, balance is required.

Asceticism without taking into account the joys of the body which are not sinful is one-sided and negative. Similarly, taking part in the joys of the body while not practicing asceticism is also one-sided and can lead easily to hedonism and spiritual decay. I suspect that the church approached this through the ascetic lens in the first instance because, ahem, people seemed to be well advanced along the path of enjoying their bodies. It's possible that this flipped at some stage during the course of Christian history, however, making that emphasis no longer appropriate.

What strikes me, however, is that the church has not only ignored the non-sinful, life-giving participation in the body as being legitimate, but in the West at least has also downplayed asceticism as well. How many Christians in the West really practice much religion-driven asceticism these days? Not many. As a result, there has been an excessive spiritualization of religion -- on both sides, not just on the pleasure side but also on the ascetical one as well.

I'd think that a true theology of the body would need to take into account both elements. There are teachings from the Christian East that could be helpful, in this context, because the fast/feast cycle in the East has been much more fully maintained than in the West, at least so far. The body is good -- it is redeemed, after all, and it was taken by Christ in his eternally incarnate form -- but the body needs to be trained and made subject to the spirit/soul (what Eastern spiritual writers refer to as the "nous"). In the context of married persons, this involves sex and abstinence from sex in a balance, but the key is that it always sees the body as a locus of grace -- both in the pleasure aspects (feast) and in the taming aspects (fast). It is never irrelevant (apart from rule following in terms of avoiding sin), as it has become seemingly for many in the Western churches. The body is indeed intertwined with the soul/nous, and is a primary locus of grace -- that's the kind of thinking that needs to be revived, I think.

The Inculcator said...

Beyond Resurrection Theology, as I survey the Church, I see a general upswing the understanding that the flesh is somehow important. Perhaps a nascent reaction to 2000 years of effective Gnosticism on the part of the church.

* The Christian manospherian discussions of Game, etc.

* A focus in some lines of thought of the fact that we are created beings, created in flesh.

* The liberal churches who glorify sexual relations (usually phrased "love")

* The churches which focus on "social issues" (including the current pope's increased focus on the poor).

I'm not saying that all of these expressions are equally theologically responsible or motivated by the Spirit, but they can all be viewed as a reaction to the ascetic, spirit-good-flesh-bad, teachings of the church over the past 2000 years (ascetic in received message, if not always actual intent).

Questions I've been asking are, "Has anything like this happened before?" and "Why now? What is different now that the Church is, arguably, beginning to accept the flesh as 'okay'?" Since I tend to believe Solomon's statement "there is nothing new under the sun," I'm puzzled by this. Any thoughts?

The Social Pathologist said...

Sorry Guys, I've been busy the last few days.

@Nova

As with all things, balance is required.

Agreed. Though I suppose you and I would differ as to what constitutes balance.

It may be hard to believe but I do think that West suffers from far too much "spirituality" rather than its opposite. Or pehaps I should phrase it along the lines that the West is far too stuck in Cartesian Dualism. With the thinkers being spiritualists and the masses being "physicalists".

@Inc

"Why now? What is different now that the Church is, arguably, beginning to accept the flesh as 'okay'?"

Lots of things. The weight of scientific evidence, the legitimization of common opinion, the fact that sex can be discussed are all factors.

For me, I feel that the big issue here is the operation of God. I know you're not Catholic, so bear with me over this, but the more I think about it, the more I think Vatican 2 was an attempt at relgious renewal. Too bad it was hijacked by both the Liberals and the Trads.

The Inculcator said...

@SP


"Lots of things. The weight of scientific evidence [1], the legitimization of common opinion [2], the fact that sex can be discussed are all factors [3]."


[1] Despite being a STEMy sort of person, I'm not sure I see the relevance of this. Surely you don't mean scientific evidence against dualism?

[2] This makes a lot of sense to me. While at other times the common people have certainly had their opinions, it hasn't been until the past century or two that they have had the means and power to promulgate them. And for the better part of the past 2000 years, those who had the means and the power were (or were supposed to be) celibate.

[3] This may be true by comparison to Victorian times, but I don't think it holds up by comparison to, say, late Roman times, or parts of the middle ages. (Chaucer, for example, is quite ribald.)

"For me, I feel that the big issue here is the operation of God. I know you're not Catholic, so bear with me over this, but the more I think about it, the more I think Vatican 2 was an attempt at relgious renewal."

Interesting interpretation of Vatican 2. I'll have take a fresh look at it. And, no, I'm not Catholic. But I'm the most Catholic Protestant that I know!

The Social Pathologist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Social Pathologist said...

@Inc

Surely you don't mean scientific evidence against dualism?

No. I mean scientific knowledge has changed our understanding of the human condition; reproduction, for instance, and therefore the traditional practices may become irrelevant with new knowledge. Another relevant example is Usury, which was condemned outright for centuries, till a deeper understanding of the nature of money was achieved, at which point "interest taking" was seen as permissible in certain instances.

2) People power is a vexed issue, because most of the people, though good natured, are stupid. My take on it is that the widespread rebellion against certain Church positions is not just a rebellion, but a symptom of some underlying theological problem. You've really got to wonder about a "natural law" which seems so difficult for people to keep.

3) With regard to the middle ages, I agree that there was a lot more ribaldry, but then again, I feel that the Church was probably less reactionary then. To illustrate what I mean I'll go back to the Usury issue. With today's "tradition" focus of the Church, I can't imagine the subject ever getting off the ground. The Church seemed to be far more intellectually flexible, at least in some aspects, then.

Interesting interpretation of Vatican 2.

Ratzinger. (who was a conservative to everyone but the Trads) never,ever repudiated V2. He did repudiate many aspects of its implementation but not V2 itself.

Here is a very good article about the intellectual movement that strongly influenced V2.

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/54/Ressourcement_Theology__Aggiornamento_and_the_Hermeneutics_of_Tradition.html

The problem with with V2 was that French explanations of renewal were far too "opaque" for the average theologian, and so they understood renewal as novelty, as opposed to distilling the essence of tradition and applying it to contemporary circumstances in light of contemporary knowledge. They were just "too deep" for the average bishop and priest and therefore they implemented V2 incorrectly.

Kristor said...

The key distinction that must I think be borne in mind if Christian asceticism is not to devolve into Gnostic hatred of flesh per se is the difference between the Body of Death and the Body of Life. The two sorts of Bodies call for radically different theologies, but if it isn't clear which one you are talking about, confusion will prevail.

It seems to me that J2P2 was after a Theology of the Body of Life, whereas the Christian Gnostics and the Platonists focused all their attention on a Theology of the Body of Death.

My thoughts on the Theology of the Body of Life are not at all formed. It's a big hunch, that begins and ends with the conviction that there has to be such a thing - right, right?

We are all inculcated from childhood in the Theology of the Body of Death, we get almost nothing on the Theology of the Body of Life. I'm not even sure how to begin thinking about it.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Kristor

It seems to me that J2P2 was after a Theology of the Body of Life, whereas the Christian Gnostics and the Platonists focused all their attention on a Theology of the Body of Death.

Disagree. I think JP2 wasn't thinking along those lines, rather, I think he saw that the traditional treatment of the body was somehow lacking and sought to reaffirm the goodness of it. However, his method is sort of gnostic in its approach (at least to me) since the goodness of the body seems justified insofar it is a reflection of the divine. For example,his ideas on sexuality seem to justify it by analogy with the Trinity. Even he can't justify the flesh's goodness without a link to something spiritual. i.e. Its goodness is only good insofar its nature is a reflection of the "spiritual". Being "flesh" on its own is simple not good enough.

My take on the "flesh" is that it is good in itself, simply by virtue of it being the design of God. The flesh's goodness needs no other justification. Viewing the flesh in terms of life and death simply introduces an unnecessary dichotomy.

The Inculcator said...

@SP, Kristor

My take on the "flesh" is that it is good in itself, simply by virtue of it being the design of God. The flesh's goodness needs no other justification. Viewing the flesh in terms of life and death simply introduces an unnecessary dichotomy.

I agree with SP, insofar as the flesh was created to be good ("very good," in fact), and will be (or perhaps is being) redeemed from its present corruption. For better or worse, that does leave some room for argument about the actual state and importance of our current, fallen flesh. However, that is a far cry from "flesh is bad, always."

My view is that the idea of a separate way of thinking (theology) about our current bodies vs. the resurrected bodies doesn't quite make sense. It's not a strong dichotomy, but, in a crude way, more like the difference between your car when it was new, and your car after someone removed 3 of the spark plugs and introduced some water into the fuel line.

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