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Dignity of human embodiment

Kalem is the Social Support Coordinator at Green Collect, a happy and grateful husband, and completing a Masters degree at Stirling Theological College.

A conversation with Žižek, Scruton, Eagleton and Hegel in articulating a problem; a conversation with John in articulating its resolution

Our bodies seem to be inadequate to the demands of human dignity and flourishing. This does not imply the necessity of escaping from or supplementing corporeal existence, or aligning ourselves with non-embodiment in a parallel virtual existence. Christology speaks into this scene of human frustration. (With reference to Žižek)

The problem: The perennial desire to be somebody all too often diminishes the importance of our being some-body. In striving to acquire and secure veritable human identity, humanity has discovered a multitude of ways to delegitimize the human body as the necessary apparatus for human existence and interaction. Through both inadvertent devaluing and explicit rejection, humanity’s endeavors to verify the self have often relegated the body to an irritable hindrance, an inadequate vessel, or an unnecessary appendage for accurate and complete human expression. And when the only means for freely living out our humanity becomes a hindrance to that humanity, striving to overcome this can only compound the devastating captivity it seeks to rectify.

Throughout history there have been various iterations of the belief that the body is not merely insignificant to human existence but is the ultimate hindrance to human freedom and dignity. The resistances caused by our bodies are seen here in opposition to freedom. But these bodily resistances underpin human creativity and therefore the freedom to express our own humanity with integrity, that is, humanity embodied within tangible experience. Without the various resistances our bodies offer, there could be no sustainable human expression. Just as a dove could not fly in a vacuum (Kant), human freedom could not be discovered in disembodied speculation, identity or ideality.

Enlightened reasoning sought as a means to human freedom that does not affirm the necessity of the body to express this freedom—can only undercut itself and negate its own validity (Eagleton). Any elevation of human identity that seeks to leave the body behind will sever humanity’s only platform to express the freedom it seeks (Hegel). In the end, such claims to genuine enlightenment and emancipation in reality leave the individual in a windowless room, existing only as a disembodied self and nothing else (Žižek). Ironically, any pursuit of freedom that abandons or wishes away the stubborn materiality of the human body, will only compound the captivities humanity so desperately wishes to escape.

While Gnosticism and Dualism make explicit claims condemning human materiality, there are many other contemporary expressions that more subtly diminish the integrity of the body within human existence. Within a virtual world one can seek to exist without the body. And while not making explicit claims condemning human materiality in practice, this technophilic dream inadvertently declares that the body is redundant within a pursuit of freedom and veritable identity (Žižek).

Subtler still is the imaginary world that advertising offers. While giving the appearance of being grounded in the real and affirming the materiality of humanity—selling what we supposedly need, in a refreshing drink, a cosy house, life insurance, etc.—advertising creates a frustration between the real and the advertised ideal (Scruton), a gap that only a supplement or prosthetic (such as a latest smartphone) can seemingly remedy. Again, while this does not explicitly condemn human materiality it declares it insufficient and inadequate for human freedom and dignity, and as such implicitly diminishes the integrity of the human body.

The prologue of John affirms human materiality most emphatically in the claim that the word became flesh; the human body is cast as the sufficient and necessary arena for human freedom and identity. Christian affirmation of this originary word must, however, be careful not to elevate the human body beyond the good that it is. The answer to the problem is not merely an affirmation of our bodies in binary opposition to the misguided pursuits of the world. The prologue just as emphatically affirms within our human materiality—sufficient and necessary as it may be—that we still need this word as a word otherwise that enlightens everyone.

Our bodies are inadequate to live out righteousness but this does not mean we need to consciously escape them, deliberately supplement them, or subconsciously transpose our realities to a world within the virtual. The frustration humanity feels within the anxiety-fueled striving to acquire and secure veritable human identity is one into which God through Christ is desperate to speak (Žižek).

Rather than transcending, supplementing or relegating the human body, we are encouraged to have ears to hear a word that enlightens and enlivens our bodies, a word that affirms human capacity to flourish within our given materiality—the fundamental platform from which our human dignity is lived out. God, in grace and truth, makes God’s-self known in both an affirmation of our materiality as well as an invitation to trust in a word otherwise that emancipates and empowers us to live in righteousness through the fragility of our bodies. We are somebody only by means of a body that is neither a redundant hindrance nor in need of prosthetic redemption but rather, wonderfully inadequate as gift, driven to trust in something outside of ourselves, made abundantly and excessively sufficient by continued trust in Christ.

The inadequacy of our bodies is not a hindrance to Christian proclamation. We must resist the desire to instinctive imperatives for supplements and escape. Rather, we should see the opportunity to affirm the fundamental human need for a word otherwise that, in affirmation of human materiality in all its fragility, meets and generously exceeds our need for more than we are.

This article has been peer reviewed in line with editorial policies. 

Sources

Eagleton, Terry. Culture and The Death of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.32-33.
Hegel, Georg W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.  § 556.
Scruton, Roger. On Human Nature. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017. 90-91.
Žižek, Slavoj. God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. 34-35.

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