Re-post from 2013
For all the good the Theology of the Body movement has achieved, there’s always more to be done. Recently, I was prompted to re-think what that might mean.
A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist and a woman of faith was sharing with me some of her research on the relationship between mental health and the body. More specifically, she’s fascinated by the interrelationship between biochemistry, neurology and emotional health. She said she’s always disliked the overly cognitive term “mental illness.” She said,
It makes people think that the problem is really just psychological, mental, that ‘it’s all in your head.’ But it’s very much a somatic problem, in your blood and your brain. The mind is a soupy web of bio-chemical and neurological tissues. That’s the stuff that hosts the soul. For me as a Catholic, when I examine the mind-blowing intricacy of all this I can see the human brain and body are really God’s masterpiece… Mental illness or wellness is inextricably rooted in biology … I’ve always hoped to see a more helpful coming together of brain science with the Catholic spiritual and moral traditions. Imagine if discussions of acquiring virtue interlaced with, for example, the research on neurochemicals. It would help scientifically minded people take more seriously church teaching, I think. Don’t you?
She shared with me some of her research into studies done on human emotion, and the various modes of treatment that can be used to help treat mood disorders or addictions. We talked more about how all this relates to the body-soul relationship and, after we spoke, I thought that any theology of the body that deals with sexuality must be open to understanding the meaning of sexuality not only theologically, employing sacramental-symbolic nuptial language, but also embrace its meaning as an organic mix of divinely fashioned fleshy-sinewy-hormonal complexity. To see divine artistry in our messy, oozing and fluid-secreting bodies is to see creation aright. God is the maker and lover of what we might call “clinical” or “gross.” I can’t help but think here of the words of Aidan Kavanaugh:
Human evolution began not in a neat suburbia, but in terrestrial swamps from which crawled not housewives in slacks and husbands in baseball caps but newts clothed in nothing but warts and slime…We began, Genesis says, not in the antisepsis of a laboratory but as a mud pie shaped by the same Force which either called or pushed the first newt out of a swamp…
Conversations about moral integration and chastity must be as attentive to the Book of Nature as to the Book of Scripture — to neuro-psychology as to the divine mysteries revealed in Genesis’ theologically charged creation narrative. Being made in the divine image, according to Genesis, includes the union of spirit and slime.
What evocative and engaging topics would arise from this exchange! The hypothalamus and chaste living. The medulla oblongata and the virtue of temperance. The frontal lobe and the redemption of erotic love. Clinical depression and the beatitudes. The hormonal dimensions of concupiscence. This talk of bio-virtue allows science, philosophy and theology to demonstrate the rich unity of truth. Imagine being empowered to connect the complex medical diagnostic jargon your doctor throws at you with St. Paul’s command to offer your body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).
Mrs. Jones, you’ve had a syncopal episode without any evidence of arrhythmia. I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.
That’s the grit of what God wants you to offer to Him.
I’ve long thought we could capture this more “messy-soupy” and science-friendly approach to the Theology of the Body via the more graphic biblical word: flesh (basar-sarx). To me, this biblically rich word seems to evince human fragility in its concrete reality better than “body.” A Theology of the Flesh. This would complement the more abstract and idealized tendencies of much Theology of the Body literature.
Catholics celebrate the truth that human biology, divinized and transfigured in Christ, is forever glorified in the heart of the Trinity. In Christ, God assumed to Himself blood and nerves, tendons and bone marrow, hair and spit. In Luke 24:36-43 the risen Christ argues as much:
As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
But there’s an even greater mystery here. God-made-flesh invites us not just to eat with Him, but to feed on His Flesh and Blood in the Most Holy Sacrament. And if the scientific tests on the Eucharistic miracles have any contribution to make to this topic, this great Sacrament reveals the glory of heart tissue. If you have 8 minutes, watch here: