The Last Defender of Reason and the Human Body

G.K. Chesterton said, at the end of his fine biography The Dumb Ox, that Thomas Aquinas ought to be called “Saint Thomas of the Creation.” That is because Thomas defended the integrity, the beauty, the intelligibility, and the real and not notional existence of things, good old created things, fire and flood, flowers and grass, birds and cattle and every creeping thing upon the face of the earth. Not for him the gnostic temptation to see creation as the work of a lesser or malignant god, or the more ethereal Platonic temptation to see in it but a shadow of the real, a shadow to be dismissed. Thus was Thomas’s powerful mind at one with the spirit of God’s juggler Saint Francis, also the subject of a biography by Chesterton. For the Church had drawn the venom out of the pagan encounter with nature, that saw divinities twinkling in every stream. So Francis could revel with Christian innocence in the beauty of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and even preach to the birds, so docile and attentive by comparison with head-strong and brain-weak man.

Thomas the Dominican was also at one with Saint Paul. This unity of thought and feeling struck me with great force while I was preparing to teach Paul’s letters to a class full of genuinely Catholic students at Thomas More College. For I re-read Romans and 1 Corinthians in the Greek, which slowed me down considerably, slow enough for thought, as if I’d had to puzzle out the words from a clay tablet, engraved with capital letters and no spaces between them. Because our main experience with Paul comes in small pieces at Mass, out of context, we incline to believe that he thought in highly abstract terms, as if he were writing to theology students at Gottingen. It is not so. I have never before been so struck by the strong physicality of his teachings. This warrants special attention in our time of carnal disembodiment.

I’ve heard it said that Paul was an early Puritan, in his severe condemnation of sexual immorality—which I’ll call porneia for the rest of this article, because the Greek word brings us into the heat and discomfort of what Paul intends. The charge is worse than baseless. The man with a fine sense of beauty is most disgusted when a lunatic or a clod scribbles over a precious manuscript, or sprays paint upon a Rembrandt. And he who has heard and taken to heart the words of Jesus, that a man and woman in marriage become “one flesh,” and has heard and taken to heart the essence of what John will say, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” and has seen the Lord and has preached not a resurrected soul—a vagary which would not have raised an eyebrow on the Areopagus, where he preached the resurrection of Christ to the learned and jaded Athenian philosophes—but the body, the risen body of Christ, is not going to assume that the body is of no consequence.

When Caravaggio painted “Doubting Thomas,” he had the infinitely patient Jesus, with a look of weariness, if glory can be weary of slow and tentative man, guide the hapless apostle’s fingers to probe the rift in his side, and we can see the fingertip of Thomas bulging with frank physicality from beneath the flesh of the Son of God. Caravaggio might have been painting Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when he has to remind those sophisticated Greeks that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of God, in fact did rise from the dead in the glorified flesh. Otherwise our faith is empty, and we are of all men most miserable.

 

But our bodies, such as they are, are of no avail to us, circumcised or no. Paul insists upon it. Against those who say with Socrates that evil is but the result of ignorance, he alerts us to the internecine war within our members. “For the good I want to do,” he says to the Romans, “I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do, that I do.” Such is unredeemed man. It is an inversion of Genesis. For in the beginning God made man “in his image,” and “male and female he created them.” But man, not acknowledging the Creator, nor deigning to learn about him from the things that are made, tarnishes that image, and falls from the pinnacle of creation, reducing the immortal God to the idol of a mortal man, then to birds, then to four-footed things (tetrapodon), and finally to things that have no feet at all, but creep upon the earth (herpeton). Hence we turn to that factory of idols, the heart of man, which God in disappointment declares “evil from his youth.” We fall into shameful lusts, unnatural just as our idolatry is impious and blind. Man so abandoned bears about with him, even if he should be instructed in the law as Paul was, a “body of death,” whence he is powerless to deliver himself.

Here the heretic makes a wrong but predictable move. He dismisses the body. His contempt bears twins in evil. We have either a Manichean loathing of the body as source and sink of wickedness, made by an evil sub-deity; or a gnostic antinomianism, lending us free rein to pant after bodily pleasures of all kinds. The unredeemed Augustine was acquainted with both of those twins. But no Christian can make that move and remain Christian. No Christian may assume that the body is nothing, so that we may do with it as we please, so long as we remain “spiritual.” For we are not our own, says Paul, but have been ransomed at a high price. Besides, Satan is spiritual, and it was no spirit that appeared to the apostles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, broiling a fish over a charcoal fire.

No, “we preach Christ and Him crucified.” What is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption, or, as Jesus says, must fall into the ground and die before it bears fruit. What we need is not to shrug the body away, but to be transformed in the body: to be re-embodied into Christ. Hence, says Jesus, unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will not have life within us, for his flesh is true meat, and his blood is true drink. He is the vine and we are the branches, so that without him, without incorporation in him, we can do nothing.

Jesus is not merely speaking metaphorically. Let us burn that truth into our minds. “This is my Body,” he says. “Come, put your finger into my hands,” he says. Likewise, “for this reason a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves unto his wife, and they two become one flesh.” So also Paul. The Body of Christ is not a notion. It is a reality, more real than this “body of death” we bear.

The implications are clear. Neither Thomas nor Francis would miss them. When you unite yourself with porneia, when you play the whore and whoremonger, you become that “one flesh,” not compatible with being a member of the Body of Christ. Of course we sinners need to be forgiven every day of our lives. Much must be conceded to ignorance and the frail flesh, but the fact remains. That is why Paul begs us to be on guard. Pheuge porneia, he says with urgency: FLEE porneia—run away from it with all your might.

When I said so to my students, a young man who works in the company of people ignorant of Christian morality regarding the body and the marriage of male and female said that they would never understand the message. I agreed. When I said that Catholics should understand it, even if they fell afoul of the command, because Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the resurrection of the flesh, and the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, he replied that they do not understand those things either, or really believe in them.

The doctrines stand or fall together. If porneia is no big deal, if even forms of porneia that violate the creation of the human person male and female are no big deal, then all sense of the goodness of the body and the salvation of the body must also fade. And so we now stumble along the brink of the “virtual” person: not the elevation of matter and its new instauration in Christ, but our own reduction to the mechanical and evanescent. So we leap sidelong and headlong from what is natural but wrong, to the unnatural, to the sub-natural.

We do so while crying up our being “allies” and “inclusive” and “social,” but that is all cant, all empty. The premise of the Sexual Revolution is antisocial, and its effects are socially destructive, as every pope since Leo XIII has shown, including Francis. We Christians need not wait for the social sciences to limp along fifty years too late to prove it. Every human community is a shadow of the true community, the Body of Christ. That follows from our being made in the image of God, which is to say the image of Christ, “through whom all things were made,” Our Lord who is “the image of the invisible God.” How many false communities in our time has man conjured up, prolific in evil, from one end of the political darkness to the other?

We see why Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians by decrying their “divisions,” some saying they belong to Apollos, some to Peter, and some to Paul. The word “division” is too abstract to convey Paul’s horror. Dismembering might be better. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. It was not Paul or Apollos or Peter who hung upon the bitter cross, or who broke the seal of the tomb. More, there is a family resemblance between schism and false union, as we see when we consider the scandalous sin that the otherwise fractious Corinthians have been content to tolerate. A man is living with the wife of his father. Paul’s recommendation sounds harsh: he is to be cut off from the Body. Recall the words of Jesus, that if your eye causes you to sin, put it out and toss it away.

The incestuous man is not like a part of a machine. Those work by contiguity and efficient causation. They do not model or express the whole; they do not share the life of the whole. To tolerate such evil in the body is like tolerating gangrene: it spreads. “Do you not know,” says Paul, echoing the words of Jesus that condemn the “leaven of the Pharisees,” “that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” We are to purge that old leaven, for “Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us.” Imagine eating leavened bread with the Passover lamb, loosely dressed or undressed, your feet propped on the table, forgetting how God saved your fathers and led them dry-shod through the Red Sea. It would be like making an assignation for porneia in a church.

We shudder: we’d never tolerate porneia in a church. After Mass, before Mass, in the privacy of the bedroom, sure, but not inside a church. Saint Paul will not leave us that way out. “Do you not know,” he asks, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” The pagan temples housed an image of a false god; the Jewish Temple preserved the ark of the covenant behind the veil, within the Holy of Holies. But our High Priest, Jesus, has torn the veil of that temple in two, and entered into the Holy of Holies once and for all, interceding for us before the Father. He has placed his Spirit within us to dwell, again not notionally, not in a pretty metaphor, but really: our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. To join that body to porneia is to commit sacrilege against a hallowed place. This is true regardless of our feelings. Paul does not ask about the feelings of the incestuous man and his bedmate, or the feelings of fornicators, or the feelings of men who desire other men. You do not make the sacrilege good by enjoying yourself.

We amputate a diseased limb for the body. But in Christ—and only in Christ—can that limb be restored. For we ourselves have been re-embodied in him. We were all dead limbs, bodies of death. So when that man is cast out, it is not as trash, but as a sick man in dire need of drastic measures; he is to be handed over “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” his carnality, so that his spirit may be saved “in the day of the Lord Jesus,” the day of judgment and of the resurrection of the flesh.

All are for the Body, and the Body is for all and each, “for the body is not one member, but many.” Hence there must be order in the Body, because “God is not the author of confusion but of peace.” We are either in the corruptible and disordered body called Adam, wherein we all die, or in the body that is Christ’s, the body filled with life by the Spirit, so that “when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.” Again, no metaphor. No metaphor bled upon the Cross. As our works avail us nothing without Christ, even if they are works of the law scored upon our bodily members, so our feelings about our works avail us nothing. We sin, and beg for forgiveness. But we do not build a booth for sin in the shadow of the Cross. We beg to have our sins drowned in baptism, nailed with Jesus to that tree, and buried forever. They must rise no more.

All other “inclusion” is a ticket to a world of dissension and dismemberment. It is a sentimental hope in “a better world,” not our hope in the risen Lord. It is a cookie, not the Eucharist. It is a reduction of Jesus to a wise teacher, which he was, and a nice and comfortable fellow, which he was not. It is, in the name of the body, a rejection of the body.

The Church, we have seen, is the last institution in the world to defend reason from scientific constriction and demagogic dismissal. She will also be the last institution in the world to defend the body. Those defenses go together. Thomas Aquinas could have foretold it, centuries ago.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Pietà” painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) in 1876. 

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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