Embodiment is a problem for us. The dominant orthodoxy among the enlightened is that gender identity – the “real me” – has nothing to do with the biological sex of our bodies. To offer any reasoned dissent from this bizarre claim, even on rigorously ethical or scientific grounds, is to invite ferocious vilification and ruthless cancellation as “transphobic”. We are not free unless we are free to remake our bodies, or the bodies of our children, by any means possible, including drugs, hormones, and surgery, in the image of an imagined self. Those suffering from gender dysphoria – or from miseries diagnosed as dysphoria – deserve our compassion; but this is not the way to help them. Bodies are being irreversibly damaged by reckless medical interventions, and not just bodies: so is the possibility of free rational debate and discussion of these issues, and precisely among the professional elites where it is most needed. (Oddly enough, this unscientific dogmatism about “gender-affirming care” is most pronounced in the USA; the medical bodies in European countries have raised alarms about it and have urged restraint and further study.)
Embodiment is a problem for us: and in this problem, we glimpse the depth of our alienation, which is an alienation from our own nature, from which we hope to be rescued by medical technology. Though we are in fact gendered all the way down, even to the level of the chromosomes, we imagine that we can escape from our physicality through wishful thinking or surgical intervention. At the core of this present problem is a dualistic understanding of soul and body that is far from new. It was raised by the ancient sectarians usually called Gnostics or Manicheans, who “solved” the problem of evil in the world, and of suffering in the body, by ascribing the origin of the world and the body to an evil god. Evil and suffering are thus inherent in nature itself. Embodiment is itself the cause of evil. The problem with this solution, is that it makes the world and the body itself an evil that cannot be redeemed, and an enemy from which we seek to escape and whose destruction we long for. Thus, we become the enemy of the world, of all embodied nature, and of our own
Over against such Gnostic or Manichean dualism, the Christian church affirmed the essential goodness of the material creation, including the human body. Evil, though real and devastating, exists only in the deficiency, absence, or corruption of the good. Thus the world and the body needs deliverance and healing from evil, not destruction. And that deliverance and healing comes, precisely through embodiment. The fullness of the Godhead has dwelt bodily among us (Colossians 2:9) in the Son of God, who took upon himself embodied and ensouled humanity in the womb of the Virgin, and in that same embodied humanity suffered for our salvation, rose again the third day, and was exalted to the Father’s right hand. In him our humanity both body and soul has already been delivered from the powers of evil, from sin and death, and in him we too may experience the same deliverance of our embodied selves from bondage to
corruption. “In him” means as members of his mystical body, the Church, “which is the blessed company of all faithful people”. Moreover we are
incorporated into his body, by the Spirit who works through our bodily senses, who makes the Word of grace audible to our ears, and visible and tangible to our eyes, hands, and mouths, in the elements of water, bread, and wine. By means of the sacrament, in a real participation in his body and blood, we are sustained in the fellowship of the mystical body, as heirs through hope of the resurrection of the body.
Strangely, however, many Christians seem to suffer from a kind of theological dysphoria, and are dismissive of embodiment. It’s a problem that the fullness of Godhead was embodied in humanity born of Mary; and so they convert him into a “good man”, a moral exemplar and teacher but no Savior. It’s a problem that Christ died bodily on the cross and rose bodily from death; and so they convert him into a mythic metaphor for injustice and hope. It’s a problem that the grace of Christ is made audible and visible to our bodily senses by outward signs; and so they look for the Spirit in revivalistic enthusiasm. It’s a problem that the Spirit calls us into membership in Christ’s body, the Church; and so they “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” in public worship for individualistic spirituality. But there is no life in the Spirit apart from membership in the Body of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord; may we therefore offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto the Lord.
This essay was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on April 23, 2023. Image: Pixabay.