Friday, March 6, 2015

TOB: What is original unity?

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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 looks of human beings were as a whole round, with back and sides in a circle. And each had four arms and legs equal in number to his arms, and two faces alike in all respects . . . but there was one head for both faces—they were set in opposite directions” (Symposium, 189e).

This is the account of human beings the Greek playwright Aristophanes gives in Plato’s Symposium. In that dialogue, each member of the dinner party gives an account of love—where it comes from, whether it is a god, how it affects humans. Aristophanes proposes that we all used to be double ourselves—two persons, as it were, in a doubled body; this version of humanity was too strong and threatened the gods, so Zeus decides he will split humans in half. When Zeus did so, however, the splitted-humans could not function and wandered around aimlessly on the earth looking for their other half; this situation was also unacceptable, because the gods needed humans to offer sacrifices. So Zeus gives humanity physical love so that the splitted-humans would be satisfied and could then “attend to the rest of their livelihood” (191b). Thus, the two sexes and love were born at the same time.

Though Aristophanes was a comic playwright, his creation myth is rather compelling, which is one of the many reasons it acts as an appropriate foil to John Paul II’s account of the experience of original unity in his TOB. There does at times seem to be a lack in us that leads us to another person. But are gender and sex simply the result of some original wound inflicted upon us, either by ourselves or some force outside of us? Is my limitedness and need—made evident by the fact that I cannot be both male and female—evidence of some deep wound, as Aristophanes articulates?

No! John Paul II helps us see this in light of the Genesis account, by explicating the original experiences of solitude, unity, and nakedness. Original solitude is the experience of the human (Adam) coming to terms with what it means to be a creature, and specifically, a human being, one who is in the material world, but not entirely of it.

Original unity is the next experience John Paul II reflects on in the TOB, and this experience arises out of and also helps us to understand original solitude. Though Adam is a full human creature who has a relationship to both God and the world (securing, ultimately, that no human person must be with the opposite sex in order to be whole), the Lord sees him in his solitude and says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). Why this need for an-other?
"Holding hands" is licensed under C.C. by 2.0

In my last post, I pointed out that God gives the  Adam three directives—till the garden, the commandment about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and name the animals—and that those directives helped Adam to understand his place in the world vis-à-vis God and the rest of creation. Still, though, Adam’s knowledge of himself is not entirely clear.

God puts Adam into a deep sleep, and forms the woman from his rib, and then she is presented to the man. John Paul II emphasizes that before this, we have only seen the general word for humanity (in Hebrew: ‘adam) to describe Adam, whereas now we see the words male (‘is) and female (‘issah), signaling that in woman’s creation, man comes to be in a certain way for the first time as well. One does not make sense without the other.

Adam responds with the joyful exclamation we all know so well: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23). Remarkably, this is first time we hear man speak in the creation accounts. It is only in front of an-other like himself that Adam can say “my”—that is to say, we cannot know ourselves in isolation, but fully come into the knowledge of what it means to be human (and specifically, the human that is me), without the flesh of another. But notice! This original unity is not two humans stuck together, who were originally meant to have “the same” body—rather, this true original unity comes from looking at another, seeing that she is actually other, and knowing that she is also “mine.” The image of a mother and a child is also very apt here: the child learns, through his mother’s embrace and her smile, who he is.

Original unity, then, helps us see more explicitly that to be human means to be for another. Thus, John Paul II writes, “In the biblical account, solitude is the way that leads to the unity that we can define, following Vatican II, as communio personarum” (9th Catechesis). Humanity as communio personarum, or communion of persons, made explicit for the first time in the presence of Eve, helps us better understand man’s capacity for gift: man is a gift himself (Eve is entirely unexpected and gratuitous), and has the inner structure appropriate to receiving a gift (Adam receives Eve in wonder, awe, and gratitude). The communio personarum, then, is simply another way to express what the late pope emphasizes in his work time and again: that our creation is a gift and that we are made to give a gift of ourselves. The late pope’s reflections on original unity help shine a new light on this reality that has existed from the “beginning.”

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