Published September 21, 2023
Given the chaotic and volatile nature of our culture, what should the church focus on in her teaching? This is one of the pressing questions of our day. The answer, of course, is “the whole counsel of God.” That is true but also somewhat glib. Do peculiar times not call for specific emphases in our teaching? As the fourth century wrestled with the doctrine of God, the fifth with Christology and the nature of God’s grace, and the Reformation era with sacraments and salvation, so our age wrestles with the question of anthropology. What does it mean to be human? More specifically, what does it mean to be an embodied human? For we now find ourselves not so much in a battle for the Bible but in a battle for the body.
The status of the body as it relates to us as human persons seems to be the issue that lies, often unseen, behind many of the other more prominent debates of our age. Take the most controversial question of recent years: What is a woman? This is remarkably simple to answer if bodies have importance, but it is now staggeringly difficult to answer because our culture denies the authority of the body in this matter. Contra Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, one cannot punt the question of what is a woman to the biologists because biology doesn’t count.
Confusion over this is in large part the result of the immense power that technology has delivered into our hands. Take, for example, medicine. This was once understood to be restorative. Its purpose was to repair that which had broken and to replace that which should be there but for some reason was not. It assumed a normative notion of what it meant to be human, a normative notion closely connected to a normative concept of what a body should be and how it should function. Once society lost its normative understanding of this, however, the goal of restoration was replaced by that of transformation. And the loss of this normative understanding is inextricably bound up with technology. Technology opens up previously unimagined possibilities—changing from male to female, fusing our bodies with machines, downloading ourselves into a giant computer, developing means of living forever. In each case, technology tilts us toward thinking of bodies not as having integrity of their own but, to borrow Mary Harrington’s memorable phrase, as so much “Meat Lego.” And, as Harrington also points out, the increasingly frictionless and disembodied manner in which we engage online only further reinforces this view of our bodies: at best, raw material, to be remade as we see fit; at worst, a problematic limitation to be overcome at any cost. Dismiss the intrinsic importance of bodies and everything, from medical ethics to the definition of woman, becomes confusing.
This war against the body lies at the heart of so much of our modern politics. It connects to the sexual politics that deny that human genitals are to be used in some ways and not in others. It connects to gender politics that see the significance traditionally ascribed to sexed bodies as an oppressive social construct. It connects to debates about abortion and the status of the bodies of both mother and the child in utero. And it connects to the politics of parenting that replace the significance of biology with notions of functional parenthood. In each area, the authority of the body is utterly denied. What C. S. Lewis described as the abolition of man now manifests itself most pointedly as the abolition of the body.
How should the church respond? The easy answer is that the church must teach anthropology. So far, so predictable. But war against the body means we must do this with a clear emphasis upon the theological importance of the body. This will not be news to some. Pope John Paul II’s rich legacy on the theology of the body is meat and drink to thoughtful Catholics, yet it is not something that Protestantism has expended much energy on until recently. The centrality of embodiment to what it means to be human is something that all Christians need to be taught.
Covid was both unhelpful and helpful here. On the unhelpful side, it taught us to think of other people’s bodies as sources of danger and even of death. The presence of another body was something fraught with risk. But that was for most of us a temporary intuition. On the positive side, few if any enjoyed lockdown and isolation. Covid reminded us that we need the presence of other bodies because we crave the presence of other people. And real personal presence is always embodied personal presence because real persons are bodies. In my experience, telling students that the real classroom is better than the virtual simulacrum is unnecessary. They know it already. And while colleges think students pay for tuition, the students think they pay in order to be with real friends on real campuses in real space and time. That became very clear when learning went online but fees remained the same.
Of course, the theology of Catholicism gives it an imaginative tilt that helps in this regard: The Mass involves physical engagement and bodily eating. Many Protestant denominations are at a disadvantage here. The preached word, so central to its understanding of God’s saving presence, is not tangible in quite the same way as the Mass, especially in an era when sermons can be downloaded and entirely detached from the physical presence of other bodies. Protestant churches need to think harder than their Catholic counterparts about how to assert the practical importance of the body in Christian worship. We might start by not livestreaming services, or perhaps password-protecting them so that only the legitimately absent and not the merely lazy can have access. Physical presence in worship is important. We should also make sure that the sacraments are given a central place in public church services. If the battle for the status of the body is as much a battle for the imagination as it is for doctrine, then those physical dimensions of worship—the water, the bread, the wine—need to have their proper place.
It is eighty years since Lewis gave the lectures that formed The Abolition of Man. That abolition continues apace. And the human body is now its clear target.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.