The True Good of the Body: A (Very Basic) Theology of the Body Primer
The human person is both body and soul. There is sometimes a tendency to locate one’s real “self” in the soul, but the human person is the unity of body and soul. We live now in times that are confusing about the body. There is an awful lot of “body positivity” floating around the internet and a rejection of “body shaming,” but what actually is so good about the body? Most body positivity campaigns out there seem focused on accepting the body as it is, without desiring to change or modify it, and while that’s all well and good they do not seem to affirm the “what-it-is-ness” of the body that makes it so very good: it is part of God’s creation. Not only is it part of God’s creation, but the creation of man and woman was the last, the most exalted part of the creation of the world we find in Genesis 1. Man’s body is distinct from the rest of physical creation because it was created in unity with man’s soul. Man is not like the other creatures. He is not like the angels because the angels do not have bodies, and he is not like the other creatures because he has a rational soul. Everything in creation reveals something about God, but if man was the last and best thing made in the creation of the physical world, what is it that man reveals about God?
Made in His Image and Likeness
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion….’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
The human person is made in God’s image and likeness, and this largely means the human soul. We have been given a rational soul with intellect and will. In this we are like to God. But our bodies also reveal the Creator. As a the Catechism tells us, “The human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit” (CCC 364). The soul is the animating principle of the body, what gives it life and movement. It is telling though that God says “let us make man in our image” – He uses the plural and then He fashions man in the plural: man and woman. We know now as Christians that God is a Trinity of Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Man and woman image God in their bodies and in their distinctiveness.
Communion of Persons
The fact that it is mankind in man and woman that images God is significant. Together, they make a communion of persons. In the second creation account in Genesis 2, God makes Adam first, but then makes Eve because “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Man is made for communion. He is not a solitary creature, but a social one. The very communion we find in one another images the relationships of the three Persons of the Trinity, who are an eternal exchange of love. We are made to love, serve, and help one another. It is not enough for Adam to have the companionship of animals. He needs one who is like him, but not exactly like him. Eve is distinct in her femininity and is, therefore, his complement. “Man and woman were ‘made for each other’ – not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be ‘helpmate’ to the other, for they are equal as persons and complementary as masculine and feminine” (CCC 372). Obviously, we are not only made for communion with the opposite sex. There are many different, beautiful relationships the human person participates in, but the relationship between man and woman is the most fundamental other than the relationship between mother and child. It is the complementary relationship between man and woman that God institutes first, before any other kind of human relationship. In their different and complementary bodies, man and woman reveal even more about God.
“In their ‘being-man’ and ‘being-woman,’ they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness” (CCC 369). Equal in dignity, men and women are different. The differences have been widely canvassed in popular media and reduced to (often silly) stereotypes. The truth is that the most fundamental differences between men and women are found in the differences in their bodies. Without this becoming a biology paper let the differences be summarized as this: man is primarily external and giving while woman is primarily internal and receptive. Though the complementarity of men and women goes far beyond the physical, what is expressed in their bodies is the foundation of other levels of complementarity. In the marital act, both man and woman are called to give totally of themselves to the other. They are meant to make a sincere gift of self. Through this total gift of self, it is possible for man and woman to fulfill the very first commandment of God to “be fruitful and multiply.” In this, man and woman image the Trinity so far as to allow their love for one another bring forth a third – a child. God has allowed that man and woman can mysteriously and beautifully participate in creation through life-giving love. Through their complementary bodies, man and woman image the life giving love of God the Father.
So God designed us originally to be body and soul, and it was good. God designed man and woman to participate in creation through the marital act and that was meant to be good. But what about after the Fall when Adam and Eve disobeyed God? Now we experience a disharmony between body and soul. The body wants things immoderately. The body ought to be compliant and obedient to the rational governance of the soul, but it no longer is. Man is too often driven by his desires and passions rather than by virtue and reason. Men and women look on their bodies with scorn and shame. We treat our bodies with disdain and indifference. The Fall has undoubtedly disrupted the good order between body and soul, but hope has not been lost for God himself took on our nature.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father” (John 1:14). The second Person of the Trinity became man to reveal the truth about the Father to us, but he also came to reveal the truth about the human person. He chose to take on our human nature to redeem it and exalt it. He was the perfect man who took on the weight of sin without sinning himself. His body and soul were in perfect unity: his soul was perfectly obedient to the Father, and his body was perfectly obedient to his soul. In word and in deed, he revealed how we ought to live. His life is a witness to how to conform our selves to the will of the Father body and soul.
Resurrection of the Body
Jesus Christ willingly died to redeem us from our sins. He did not merely pay back a debt mankind could not pay on his own, but even more than this: his Paschal Mystery – suffering, death, and resurrection – reveals a glimpse of what he has done for us. He has not only reconciled us to the Father, but he has also made it possible for us to rise to new life. He has revealed man’s destiny: perfection and glorification. We are called to follow wherever he leads, and he is the first born of a new creation. Christ rose from the dead, and when he comes again the dead will rise and a new creation will unfold. We pray as a Church with longing for Christ’s return and for what is called the “General Resurrection” – when all men and women will be raised with immortal bodies to live life everlasting.
Temple of the Spirit
It is incumbent on us to remember that the body that the Lord has entrusted us with is good. It does not have to measure against a worldly standard of beauty or attractiveness to be good. It is good because it is part of who we are. It is good because it reveals something about God. There is nothing that can take away the inherent dignity or goodness about the human body. That being said, we still have a responsibility to care for our bodies and to treat them with respect. The body is not something I can cast off or disregard. It is me. I am my body. I am, most precisely, the unity of my body and my soul. As I need to nourish my soul with intellectual stimulus and prayer, I need to take care of my body as well. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” He speaks in the larger context of the passage about not engaging in sexual immorality, but the foundational principle remains that we are called to glorify God in our bodies. The baptized are temples of the Holy Spirit with the animating life of the Holy Trinity in them. How marvelous and wonderful! Not only do our bodies reveal something about God, but our bodies have been made capable of bearing the life of God within them through baptism and in our reception of Holy Communion. How beautiful and mysterious! The good God has given you your body with all its peculiarities and particularities. Cherish it. Live with it virtuously. Praise God with it. Remember that it is you. May you live worthily and well that you may be raised to glory on the last day.