Friday, January 30, 2015

TOB: What does “Language of the Body” mean?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

The phrase “language of the body” doesn’t appear systematically until the third part of St. John Paul II’s TOB, but when it does, it carries a good deal of significance. In fact, the late pope built the first two parts of TOB—dedicated to theological anthropology and sacramentality—such that he could introduce this phrase intelligibly. “Language of the body,” then, could be understood as a key to help open up all of TOB’s meaning a bit more for us.

We are almost all, I think, familiar with the term “body language,” as well as the corresponding factoids about something like 60% of human communication coming through that rather than our words. Clearly, if I say “everything is fine” with a sharp tone, my arms akimbo and a dark look on my face, everything may not, in fact, be fine. Most people understand this on an intuitive level.

We might say, as well, that the body has another kind of language, in the realm of medicine or health. Aches and pains plus a fever probably indicate the flu, while this throbbing below my eye may have something to do with my propensity for sinus headaches. Indeed, the body seems at times to exert its own authority over ourselves in the form of pain: you think you can run a mile in the time it took when you were 18? Well, your left knee, your heart, and your lungs beg to differ. No running for you today. Or any other day.

So let’s start by acknowledging that the body is communicative “of its own accord,” so to speak. It’s not always the mind reading an intelligibility onto the lifeless matter of our body. Rather, this intelligibility is built right in, as it were. The body is not dumb stuff we have to pick apart in order to learn anything about it; it talks to us on its own. Basic principle, then: the body is intelligible, and therefore, communicative.

John Paul II (AFP Photo/Alberto Pizolli)
Is this then what St. John Paul II means when he introduces the phrase “language of the body” into TOB? I’d say this stuff—body language, symptoms, etc.—is included within the larger sphere of language of the body, but does not exhaust its meaning. St. John Paul II is referring to something a bit broader here, which is that the body is a subject and not simply an object. A subject can communicate truths about itself and its particular situation (e.g., ow! That hurts!), but also general truths—truths, for example, about what it is to be human, or a bit more specifically, what it is to be a woman or a man. The very structure of the body helps us understand our being, what it means to exist as we do.
This is not actually a new idea. St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man uses the form of man’s body compared to everything else in the created world, as a sign that man is meant for reason, or vice versa:
1.     But man's form is upright, and extends aloft towards heaven, and looks upwards: and these are marks of sovereignty which show his royal dignity. For the fact that man alone among existing things is such as this, while all others bow their bodies downwards, clearly points to the difference of dignity between those which stoop beneath his sway and that power which rises above them: for all the rest have the foremost limbs of their bodies in the form of feet, because that which stoops needs something to support it: but in the formation of man these limbs were made hands, for the upright body found one base, supporting its position securely on two feet, sufficient for its needs.

2.     Especially do these ministering hands adapt themselves to the requirements of the reason: indeed if one were to say that the ministration of hands is a special property of the rational nature, he would not be entirely wrong; and that not only because his thought turns to the common and obvious fact that we signify our reasoning by means of the natural employment of our hands in written characters. It is true that this fact, that we speak by writing, and, in a certain way, converse by the aid of our hands, preserving sounds by the forms of the alphabet, is not unconnected with the endowment of reason . . . (from Book VIII)
In this Cappadocian Father’s understanding, our bodies indicate our supremacy over the rest of creation in and through our intellectual soul; even our hands are reasonable by this account. This is obviously still the case, and certainly not something St. John Paul II takes for granted, but it is also not his emphasis.

What St. John Paul II emphasizes in looking at the structure of the body as its own language is the body’s inherent relationality. Yes, the intellectual soul defines man (what is man? “A rational animal,” answers Plato), but if we don’t look at the whole of what that intellect means, we’re missing a big part of the picture; part of it, the late pope helps us to see, is this relational structure.

My body didn’t pop out of nowhere, fully formed as an adult. Rather, I came from someone, in fact, grew in someone before I was ever in born. I come from another, am related to another, from the first moment of my existence; there is then, a certain neediness or vulnerability built in to being human. I need other people, and other things outside of myself in order to survive. Even as a fully formed adult, this remains true; hunger and thirst are not simply biological mechanisms, rather if we take the unity of body and soul seriously, they also help communicate something about what it means to be human: to need things, to be needy, and therefore to have to relate to others.

This inbuilt vulnerability and relationality is not in the idealized version of man with which we are commonly presented today. That man would probably look something like a powerful man who needs nothing and no one—he gets to choose how he relates to anything or anyone, if he chooses to have a relationship at all. Maybe some idealized version of a cowboy? You get the picture.

If that’s true though, this cowboy doesn’t have a belly button. By that I mean, again, that our own bodily structure points us to the relationships that both constitute us and precede our choosing them. The relation we have to our parents is pretty clear—it’s natural, and it truly must precede us and truly does constitute us—but if we trace these relationships back through the generations, we may start to understand that something or someone preceded all of them at the beginning: our Creator.

The body’s inherent vulnerability then, is not something about which we must be ashamed, but rather the first place we can start to contemplate what it means to have a relationship with our Creator, in a word, what it means to be a creature. This is what St. John Paul II helps to reminds us of in the Wednesday Catecheses: that rationality doesn’t just define us, it is also first and foremost a gift from the Creator; a gift that is inscribed into our very flesh. And if that is true, then surely the body has a language of its own.

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