Gay Christian Geek blogs against gender essentialism in the context of body essentialism, both of which he rejects:
The physical reality of the human body is a limitation on human experience. True human experience is in the consciousness, the mind, the Me that does the thinking and feeling.
As a fellow theology student and science fiction fan, I will challenge his argument on both theological and science(-fictional) grounds. 🙂
GCG rejects gender essentialism as a form of dualism, but the above quote precisely illustrates an early and pervasive type of dualism: the body/spirit dualism of Greek philosophy and gnosticism.
The two great mysteries of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection, are profoundly centered on the human body. The second clause of the Nicene Creed illustrates this:
For us humans, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human.
Jesus was born, he suffered, he died, he was buried: he was human. He had the human, embodied, experience of existence. In doing so, he transgressed the only fundamental binary in Christianity: that between Creator and creature. As the RC liturgical prayer has it,
By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
On the third day, he rose again. Not as a spirit: the gospels go to some pains to point this out. The risen Lord asks for food, and eats a piece of fish in front of them. He invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and side, to show that he is really, physically, present. His risen body is not identical with the body he had before he died (he can appear and disappear, which humans generally can’t do), but it is clearly continuous with it and shares a form of physical existence. The Apostle’s Creed testifies: We believe in … the resurrection of the body.
On scientific grounds, too, I would challenge the notion that the “real Me” has nothing to do with the body. Our minds, consciousnesses, identities, personalities, are all profoundly influenced by what’s going on in our bodies. You can’t localize it to the brain, even, because the brain is swimming in, and influenced by, fluids produced elsewhere in the body, and the brain extends into the rest of the body via the spinal cord and the rest of the neural system. “Thinking” and “feeling” are produced by physiological mechanisms.
Rob Sawyer has played with this notion in The Terminal Experiment, where he carefully distinguishes between uploaded personalities that simulate elements of physical and bodily existence, and those that don’t.
There’s no reason to confine humanness to the human body. With the growing expansion of biotechnology, the human body itself need not be what it once was. With the extension of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, the human consciousness need not be confined to even an altered human body. If a human consciousness could be downloaded into a different physical receptacle, would it somehow no longer be human?
That is a fine question for theological anthropology to engage with, but I don’t think the answer is obvious. What elements of embodied human existence are constitutive of humanity? Certainly the element of finitude: the experience of being limited in space and in time. Mortality is also constitutive. Anything else, I’d have to think about.
This is related to the question of the scope of Christ’s redemption: if there are intelligent non-human creatures elsewhere in the universe, did Christ save them? Should we interpret the Creed as emphasizing “and he became creature”, instead of human? Or did those aliens get their own Redeemer? Did the breaking-through of God on our little planet around a G2 star in the suburbs of a galaxy in an unremarkable part of the universe effect God’s breaking-through everywhere? Or does each planet, or each solar system, or each galaxy, get its own Redeemer? Christian orthodoxy would assert that the Christ event is unique, and did redeem all of creation (which was all in need of redemption), but there’s been some good science fiction exploring questions like these.
Our experience of the universe is mediated and therefore conditioned by our physical bodies, even more than it is mediated and conditioned by the socio-cultural matrix in which we live. Although Christianity still struggles with the influence of body/spirit dualism, our faith tradition teaches that humans do not have bodies — humans are bodies.
The theological response to a future in which human bodies are significantly modified, extended, or replaced by non-biological “bodies”, is an interesting question with no obvious answer.