To you all,
Inevitably I suppose, we’re beginning to ask: what will we learn from the coronavirus pandemic? We’ll hear, I’m sure, answers advocating for medical research, for funding healthcare provision, for political, social and economic adjustments, and so on. But for me, the most important lesson of the pandemic will be to do with our bodies.
Of course the pandemic has revealed how vulnerable we are to a submicroscopic molecule. How susceptible we are to disease. But that’s not my point.
What the pandemic has revealed, it seems to me, is not just how vulnerable our bodies are, but how precious they are. And I don’t mean that my body is precious to me, or that yours is to you. But that your body is precious to me, and vice versa. We crave the physical presence around us of other people. We miss each other’s bodies.
Christianity is often criticised for perpetuating negative attitudes to the body. Its views on sex, sexuality, birth and so on are often considered representative of superannuated, body-hating opinions. But these criticisms (while far from completely groundless) often rest on questionable assumptions, and are sometimes expressed from standpoints that themselves have dubious histories in respect of attitudes to the body.
Contemporary suspicions about the body are just as likely to be grounded in Enlightenment thinking as in any Judaeo-Christian inheritance. So, Descartes (1596-1650) famously argued that mind and body are two distinct and separable substances, concluding that he is ‘a thinking thing’ to which a material body is closely conjoined. This body remains independent of him, and usable by him for as long as he lives. Body as more or less compliant helpmeet for the heroic (male) mind.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), on the other hand, whose Summa Theologiae amounts to a meticulously reasoned compendium of Christian doctrine, thinks of the human being as a soul-body unity. Our bodies are not joined to us, they form part of us. When I go for my morning walk to the top of the hill behind my house, it’s not a case of one substance (my soul) moving another substance (my body); no, it’s a case of Colin moving Colin, one substance moving itself (quite slowly and laboriously) up the hill.
For Descartes, and those who followed him, the body is an instrument of the soul or mind. For Aquinas, and those in the Christian tradition, the body is an integral part of who I am. In this respect, as so often (but not always!), Nietzsche nails it:
The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd… There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I said earlier that Covid-19 has revealed how vulnerable we are to a tiny subcellular organism. Fairly banal point. But check the language. I didn’t say, ‘how vulnerable our bodies are to the organism.’ The difference in one sense is trivial, but it’s also telling. We are bodies, and we are known and loved as bodies:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;Psalm 139: 13-15
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
Christian attitudes to the body have often, I suggest, been more clear-eyed, honest and accepting than the thinking of some of its prudish, (always male), Enlightenment-inspired, Darwinian detractors.
Finding our bodies to be a source of shame and embarrassment is, scripturally speaking, a symptom of sinfulness and disobedience. And to hate the body is heresy. The walls and ceilngs of some our most beautiful holy places are covered with images of ourselves as the image of God. Look at Adam above:
Adam said “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. He said, “Who told you that you were naked?”Genesis 3:10-11
God’s point: you have to be told you’re naked. It’s not something you are.
Someone I know – vehemently opposed to the Church and all it represents – recently expressed the view that coronavirus in care homes and amongst the physically weak is a good thing. It’s a case, this person went on, of nature taking its course and carrying off those who shouldn’t really be alive anyway. These are the ugly, eugenicist views that have their shallow roots in instrumentalist, Enlightenment dogma and pseudo-science, that see the body as a machine and life its mechanical functioning. If you need an example of body-hating language, here it is.
For Christians, on the other hand, there aren’t bodies in the beds of our care homes and hospitals, there are people.
It is through having a body at the centre of our faith, a suffering, broken body, that we recognise ultimately what a person is. And what God is.
The Song of Solomon sits right at the centre of the Old Testament. And it is – in essence – an erotic love poem of the very highest order, an incredibly moving hymn to physical love. It’s (partly) about bodies. And there is, in my view, nowhere in literature that the human body has been more sensitively and imaginatively described.
The video below takes you to an eccentric, haunting obscurity. Clive’s Original Band (or C.O.B.) were from Cornwall. In 1972, they recorded this track, Solomon’s Song, which sets to music part of the Song of Solomon. I love it. You might not. C.O.B. are, I admit, an acquired taste…
Loving Father of a beloved Son,
in the mystical union of our bodies and souls,
help us see a living image of your love for Him
who took our flesh,
shared our life,
and gave his body to be broken on a cross.
May we, like Him, and by your grace,
live and die in love for you
and one another.