Are bodies optional?

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. πŸ™‚


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.

GCG asks:

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.

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8 Responses to Are bodies optional?

  1. Rainicorn says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful response. I know the things I wrote are heterodox and controversial – I brought some of it up in a theology class, and pretty much nobody agreed with me – and I’m still figuring out the implications, especially with regard to the incarnation and resurrection. In the coming week, I’ll try to write a follow-up post that explores some of the questions and challenges you’ve raised.

    Thanks again!

    • Hey, if we can’t bring up heterodox and controversial ideas in our theology classes, where can we bring them up, right? πŸ˜‰

      I worry about theologies (and spiritualities) that perpetuate the mind/body split because I think the negative and suspicious attitudes towards the body (and therefore towards sex and towards women) derive from it. It’s pretty weird, really, when you think about it, that a religion centered around the Incarnation should be so negative about the body…!

      I look forward to your followup!

  2. Andrew says:

    I’m reminded of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, which takes place after humanity has divided into three broad groups – “fleshers” who are hominids of one form or another (there’s a lot of genetic engineering going on – some fleshers understand (say) weather as intuitively as a standard human understands that an object growing larger in view is actually coming closer, others are pretty close to humans of today and some are simply very very intelligent apes (without language)), “citizens” who are entirely software, living in an environment almost entirely under their control, and most interestingly, “Gleisner robots” who have software minds, but choose to experience life as (robot) bodies (and thus get grief from both fleshers and citizens) running at basically the same speed as normal humans.

    You might also be interested in one group of fleshers, who maintain connections among the diverse clade of hominids on Earth, by modifying themselves into “bridges” between the different sub-species, who can translate the experiences of the fleshers who (say) focus on following the migration of herds of buffalo across the plains into terms that the fleshers who focus on creating vast artworks through as many intermediate steps as necessary.

    • Interesting, Andy. Does Egan include much backstory in this (or other) novels, to explain how this division came about? And are there any flesher, citizen, or Gliesner ethicists commenting on inter-clade relations? πŸ™‚

  3. Andrew says:

    Not that I recall, but amusingly, the fleshers, the Gleisner robots, and the primary group of ‘citizens’ we encounter all take pride in their devotion to the real world, the fleshers in contrast with the robots and the citizens, the robots in contrast with the citizens, and the group of citizens we see the most of (who rigorously insist on virtual realities with only three dimensions) in contrast with the other citizens who are artsy and abstract.

  4. Jesus says there’s no marriage and no gender in heaven, and there’s a tendency to take that to mean that because it doesn’t exist there, it’s not significant here. I think that’s fundamentally fuzzy thinking. There’s no death in Heaven either, but obviously it’s a big deal for us. Likewise, presumably it doesn’t rain there, but here, well…

    Beyond all this, though I think the duality of (hu)man(ity) is a fundamental and essential part of our existence, I don’t think consciousness could exist without it. From a strictly scientific point of view, males and females evolved to fulfill different roles in the continuation of their species. It’s functional, obviously it works or we wouldn’t have survived for three million years. I don’t understand the relatively recent rejection of ‘Gender’ as a limiting concept.

    • Well, scientifically, even leaving aside the social construction of gender as opposed to sex (there are no universal gender norms, they’re culturally determined), duality is a scientifically inadequate description of sex. Biological sex is not a simple anatomically-determined characteristic with a binary outcome. It depends on, at least, genetics, hormones, and anatomy. Scientists estimate that about 1% of the human population have bodies that do not strictly match either the male or female norm.

      And theologically, it’s interesting you should pick death as an example of something that doesn’t matter in heaven but matters a lot on earth, because death is not supposed to be a big deal for Christians! Christ has conquered sin and death. In baptism we die with Christ so we may share in his resurrection. We have already died to this world, and we are supposed to live as if death is about as significant as rain: a temporary inconvenience. (I don’t know many Christians who actually do this, but that’s a failing in us, not in the argument.)

      • >>there are no universal gender norms, they’re culturally determined<<

        Predispositions, then. Men are, on the whole, incapable of getting pregnant. Women are, on the whole, incapable of impregnating other women. Men are generally better at depth perception than women, which isn't to say women can't learn it, or get good at it, just that men have an inherent advantage (Which I take to be a case of our evolution not having caught up with our brains: For three million years, throwing rocks at animals was a way to get food or ward off things that wanted you as food. Being generally larger and stronger, and hence with generally better pitching arms, evolution naturally favored men in that regard. When the bow-and-arrow was invented, strength was no longer an issue, but we're still wired for pre-tool-use, hence the advantage) But, yes, apart from that the question of whether or not cooking is womens' work or mens' work, or whether or not it's acceptable to wear a pretty hat is entirely cultural.

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