On Being Corporeal in the Modern World

9 06 2008

…Or: The Luxury of Monday morning theological quaterbacking

When I was a teenager, one of the Mexican religious icons I began to notice was that of the poor beggar Lazarus from the Gospels who is represented with open soars and with dogs licking those soars. This is part of the earthiness of Spanish Catholicism that I have described before: the use of images of the fallen world to ascend beyond the world of appearances towards the absolute. Indeed, I have read in some places (they escape me now and my readers can thus confirm is this is true) that some Spanish kings would be buried with open caskets to show their decay to their subjects: even their mortal kings, when you got down to it, were but rot, dust, and ashes.

This is what I was thinking when I read a post by the Internet Monk. In an interesting tangent, he wrote:

Word to all readers: Augustine was screwed up on the subject of sex and so were lots of other revered early church writers. MAJORLY SCREWED UP. Being great pastors and theologians doesn’t help straighten out the view that Joseph wouldn’t have wanted to defile the holy womb with regular marital sexual relations. Read Paul’s writings on marital sex and ask yourself if Augustine and Jerome were paying attention.

Of course, this has more to do directly with sex. but at its heart is the suspicion that the Fathers of the Church, the medieval theologians, and our own fathers were closet Gnostics when it came to the idea of embodiment. We are puzzled when we read the Fathers of the Church and Fathers of the Desert lament the enslavement of man to his passions, generation, and death. Somehow, they just didn’t get the “glories” of the body, of sex, and of carnal union.

Then it occured to me, in my rather nice accommodations on the coast of Monterey this weekend, that we are probably the LEAST corporeal people in the history of the world when it comes down to it. The reason that I am a Platonist and Christian Aristotelian bullying about the dangers of transcendent Ideas doesn’t intimidate me is because of the chamber pot. Let’s just say that I have lived in rather close quarters in houses where a lot of people had to share one bathroom, so the chamber pot was an institiution alive and well in my childhood. When you are associated with those things and farm animals from an early age, it is no wonder you dream of things floating above base matter that embody a beauty not dependent on these feeble mortal forms.

When Plato was writing of the shadows on the walls of a cave, Plotinus was teaching on our participation in a higher life, St. Gregory of Nyssa was speaking of the pain of losing the beloved in the tragedy of early death, and Marsilio Ficino was singing of the serene heights of the music of the spheres, the world was a different place than it is now. Indoor plumbing was a dream not yet dreamt, and sewage flowed openly through the streets. Maggots and carrion were not things they saw in horror movies, but rather things they saw while walking home, if not in their home. An announcement of pregnancy could easily translate into a death sentence for both mother and child; the Mesoamerican Indians believed Heaven was only for three types of people: people who were sacrificed, men who died in war, and women who died in childbirth. People roamed the streets full of open soars, like my compadre San Lazaro, and they lived only to the age of thirty in  nasty, brutish, and short lives.

So when people talk about the “Fathers getting it wrong”, I can only shrug my shoulders again at such historical ignorance. Our society is the anomaly, not the rule. So we would best keep our judgments and our post fact  theologizing to ourselves. Sic transit gloria mundi.


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7 responses

22 07 2008
El aire basura « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] I said in a previous post, for all the talk of modern society’s liberation and new appreciation of the body, ours is […]

10 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Um, nobody here is disputing the goodness of sex within marriage. However, if tradition is the democracy of the dead, we should at least respect the voices of those who come before and temper our criticisms with such respect. A lot of your points are moot since all I want is for us to put these “pro-corporeal” criticisms in context, taking into account that we have our own prejudices and we shouldn’t absolutize them.

You have made for yourself a strawman yet again, my dear anonymous friend.

10 06 2008
Ashkelon

When did Arturo’s latin temper light up? I would of liked to see it.

I think that theoretically (and philosophically) that sex as viewed officially by the Catholic Church based on philosophical principles of:
1. That Creation is good and God created it;

2. That Creation is redeemed through the Incarnation;

3. That God becoming Man in Jesus sancitified Creation, thus the Incarnation reflects a sanctification of human existence.

4. That sex is good (in proper context of marital, permanent, heterosexual, monogamous and loving and for the purpose of procreation)

5. We are not (or not supposed to be):
a) Gnostics
b) Bogomils
c) Cathars
d) Albigensians
e) Janesenists
Thus having children is good. Procreative sex is good. Reality as we know it is good.
nor are we
f) dualists

6. The Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II is good (the criticisms of Pope John Paul II by some traditionalists notwithstanding nor the criticism of alleged pansexualism by the Ochlophobist not withstanding)
Taken from the GOSPEL (which still should be preiminent.

7. Many of the Early Church Fathers were speaking from a monastic perspective or even their own struggles with human sexuality and desire and not necessarily as universal admonitions.

8. The time and place and language used at the time, sometimes poetic, metaphorical, and even polemical can be applied and finally

9. There could of been errors (as with Origen or others) although I am not alleging errors.

I DON’T think the previous post by Arturo about the husband who would not touch his wife (because he had not mastered lust) is a good example of good philosophical nor practical Catholicism (Eastern nor Latin). I think that husbands should touch their wives (I think that there is even an admonition to never refuse your spouse but I can’t cite line and verse and am not sure if I am taking it in the proper context)
CERTAINLY, Jesus dealt with women directly (Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary etc) and certainly Jesus did NOT preach universal celibacy nor monasticism.
The Old Testament has the Song of Songs (of Solomon) which I know some people say is allegorical, but even if it is allegorical and not about erotic love or women–at least the allegory is present as appropriate (to appreciate kissing and breasts etc) in the approved canon of the Bible (by I think all sects)

I think that monastic reflections on the flesh are not always approriate for married people or single people who are not called to celibacy.
I think there can be room for criticism (informed, educated, analytical, even prayerful) of the Early Church Fathers (for example St. John Chrystostom on anti-semitism–I am not an expert but do not think those qoutes would be appropriate today even pre-Vatican II thinking of charity, respect, accuracy etc let alone being elder brothers (or is it cousins) and being spiritual semites) but that some of these words are polemics, reflect a time and place and be taken in a context and may be wrong and not infallible. Universalists (and not recent ones like allegedly Hans Urs von Balthasar) like St. Jerome, Origen, maybe St. Justin Martyr may not be right about salvation but they certainly are valued writers.

Some of the attitudes on sex deal more with a dualist and gnostic (and the successors) rather than good philosophical, logical and continous underlying belief.

9 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Matt K,

I think I apologized sufficently for the flare up of my Latin temper. One must remember that prior to St. Ignatius Loyola’s being a saint, he almost ran a Muslim through with his sword for blaspheming against the Mother of God’s perpetual virginity (which the author of the post insinuated against here). Latin men can be very zealous when it concerns the honor of the women they love. All the same, I accept your admonition and thank you for it.

9 06 2008
Matthew N. Petersen

Just a question:

Where can you find decent music and decent Marian piety (like in the poem you quoted on the previous page) anymore? Or what would you recommend to someone who actually wants Marian piety, and thinks the ridiculous stripping of her from the Church next to denying the faith?

9 06 2008
Matt K

I agree with your admonition (in the comments of that thread) of those who are lukewarm at best in their attitude toward Our Lady, but please, show some charity!

9 06 2008
Leah

The material circumstances in which the act had to take place also must have influenced how the Church Fathers viewed sex. For most couples, privacy would have been at a minimum, the bed (if there was one) was probably infested with rats or bugs, the air would have been smoky from fireplaces, maybe even a farm animal or two in the room as a passive onlooker, etc. Not exactly the sanitized, clinical, carnal experience that the modern Sexual Revolution has promised us. Given this scenario, acts of concupesence really do seem more base or animal-like than our current situation of “reproductive health” and “adult entertainment.”

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