The body’s goodness (and beyond)
Oliver O’Donovan on what the erotic body is for
“It is commonly said — though the generalisation has nothing to recommend it other than the charm of naiveté — that Christianity traditionally despised and ignored the body. The opposite is the truth. Belief in the Incarnation made any such attitude impossible. Even in the eighteenth century, when the temptation for enlightened souls to take wing was, perhaps, at its height, Christians would sing:
“Soul! Take no offence at this,
That the Light of spirits’ bliss,
True likeness of God’s radiance,
Makes disguise of servile stance.
“Christianity has, in fact, harped upon the body. It has harped upon the conditions of the body’s mortal existence, and it has harped upon the body’s share in the hope of the Kingdom of God. ‘No one hates his own body,’ says St Paul, ‘but nourishes and cherishes it.’ (Ephesians 5:29) And if Christianity has earned little credit for its harping, that is because its late-modern critics have their own ideas of what should be said about the body, which often begins and ends with the body's erotic powers. Talk of the body’s sickness or death is all too easily dismissed as talking the body down. Gute Nacht, o Wesen! Christians sing to their dying bodies with all due respect and seriousness. But that is not a song the late-modern eroticist wants to join in!
“To ‘cherish’ the body is to care for very much about the body besides its erotic powers. It is to care for its internal organs and their functions, for the extraordinary capacities of its hands and feet, for its processes of growth. It is to take care of its weight, its rhythms of sleeping and waking, its powers of hearing and seeing. Even if we make a sharp distinction between the created and the fallen body, so bracketing out illness and death, we can hardly attend to the body and cherish it if we fail to notice its temporality, its exposure to physical risk, or its processes of aging. Jean-Yves Lacoste has reminded us recently that the phenomenon of fatigue cannot be assimilated to illness and suffering. Yet sickness and death should not, in fact, be excluded from our view, for Christians have historically seen mortality not as an accident befalling human bodies, but as a created possibility of bodily life that never need have become an actuality. But above all these things, we have to cherish the body’s role in interpersonal communications, its essential sociality. It is through the face that one human being is known to another, and all types of relation are built up through the body's strategies of nearness and distance: its attraction and repulsion, its power to dominate and threaten and its power to charm and endear. And this entails the learning of disciplines that surround the body’s bearing of itself. We can none of us endure everybody else’s bodies intruding constantly on our own; society is enabled by sustaining spaces around bodies, by holding the body back as well as bringing it forward, by turning the eyes away from it as well as fixing our gaze upon it. Gesture, clothing, styles and patterns of movement: all contribute to form the software by which the body loads its repertoire of social arts and achievements.
“The erotic body, in fact, stands out as the exceptional moment in the repertoire. Here the body conveys a hint of eternity that beckons and calls us from beyond it; here it reaches out to point beyond itself. It was surely an irrevocable insight on Plato's part (whatever reservations we may have about the rest of his theory of love) to see in eros an implicitly philosophical reaction to the human body. It is possible, of course, to use the word ‘erotic’, as a great many of our contemporaries do, simply as a synonym for sexual desire. But that is to miss almost everything of interest that has been thought about the erotic. Eros is precisely not sexual impulse; it is an aspect of the spiritual life of mankind, though inevitably engendering bodily experiences to accompany it since we are psychosomatic beings whose every moment is a mediation of the spiritual through the bodily. Reflecting on the body, it responds with yearning for its lurking hint of beauty and truth. It responds to something beckoning through it from beyond it. Precisely that moment of reflection is the temptation, as Plato, again, understood. The familiar body, the body that we live in, object of wonder though it is, is too essentially present to us, too intimate, too enclosing — let us say, too heavy to beckon us beyond itself. But the body of the spiritual imagination is light and elusive. If we fail to carry the act of reflection through to its conclusion, if we fail to enquire what the erotic body is a medium for, then we end up investing our perfectly ordinary experiences of sexual attraction with an ontological weight that is, in fact, a borrowed transference, and in our confusion we fail to understand either ourselves or our bodies. We cannot and should not take that moment of rapture in the presence of the beautiful body quite at its face value — though we cannot and should not ignore it, either. We must interrogate it for its meaning. So Plato taught, and much Christian philosophy after him; for Christianity mostly (though not universally) found this aspect of Plato’s thought suggestive and helpful. His warning has been echoed in most Christian thought about the erotic . . . . An unwelcome warning, perhaps, to an ethical intuitionism that puts its trust in the immediacy of feeling; and since Plato, by and large, is more spoken of than read, Christianity has had to shoulder the blame for the reserve — though it never was a reserve at the body, but a reserve at the erotic image of the body. Ever since St Paul it has been the phronêma sarkos, ‘the mind caught on the flesh’, not the flesh itself, that has caused alarm.”—from Oliver O’Donovan, “Creation, Redemption, and Nature”
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