What concept of embodiment —of the bodily becoming of life itself and of any life-form—emerges in the interstices of religion and science? All religions minister to the vulnerabilities and passions of the body, lending meaning to mortality through practices of ritual, discipline, and narrative. Such interpretive practices nestle the human body into its cosmic environment of fellow creatures, even as they distinguish it in its humanity. The biblical creation narratives, for example, stress the goodness of all species in their interdependence. Christianity offered a dramatic symbolization of God-becoming-flesh, heightening the importance of the body, whose resurrection as part of the "Body of Christ" defined salvation itself. Presumably this radicalization of embodiment, against the background of the unqualified goodness of nature itself, helps to explain why it is on Christian soil that natural science in its full modern sense arose. Yet paradoxically the same Christian paradigm effected some of humanity's most dualistic discourses, inhibiting fullbodied appreciation of the material world and perhaps explaining why the rise of science took the form of a polarizing struggle. It may also conversely shed light upon why Christianity has failed to inhibit the more devastating effects of scientific technology upon the planetary ecology.
This paradox, pulsing with ambivalence toward the body, lies at the heart of Western history. As the early Christian movement first struggled to translate its gospel into the terms of Greco-Roman culture (for which science and philosophy were inseparable), there was no greater stumbling block than "the body." The body, in its ceaseless metamorphosis from birth to death, signified for classical thought the realm of change. By the same logic, God would be incapable of change. Thus it is the source of truth, of the unchanging ideas—or forms—that organize the changing world of nature (physis ). The categorical distinction between the eternal "One" and the mortal "Many" accounts for the compatibility between philosophical Hellenism and the Jewish monotheism of the Christians. But the Greek dichotomy between changeless "Being" and the changing world of bodies, between Aristotle's (384–322 b.c.e.) unmoved "Mover" and the moving world, did not fit the Christian proclamation of an incarnation of the divine. The orthodox Christian solution finally made it fit: In the form of the "two natures" of Christ, the divine Word inhabited the human body, but remained in itself free of change, feeling, or flesh. The paradox was institutionalized.
It took nearly a thousand years for Christianity to develop genuine interest in the mortal human body. A seemingly subtle shift in the classical sources effected a dramatic change: Appropriated from Muslim scholars during the crusades, Aristotle's texts—and a different, scientific reading of Aristotle—came to the fore of Christian thought. Unlike Plato (428–347 b.c.e.) , true knowledge, according to Aristotle, can only arise out of sense experience. Such embodied experience requires the illumination of reason and then, in its Christian reception, the completion by faith. Although the fundamental Greek ontological binary of unchanging reason and bodily phenomena remained intact, the epistemology changed radically. In the new Western universities of the thirteenth century, that shift gave rise to a certain autonomy of the discipline of "philosophy" (which included what is meant today by the sciences) from theology. The Dominican Albertus Magnus (c. 1193–1280) and his pupil Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) developed systematically the implications of this new interest in the integrity of the embodied senses and the world of bodies. Aquinas read the human rational soul as the form, or actualization, of its own body. The body is the potentiality, enmeshed in a prima matter or pure potentiality comprised of contiguous bodies of varying densities.
The Platonic dualism however soon reconquered theology on the whole. When in the Renaissance a more favorable attitude toward the body became again apparent, it took a Platonic form, propelled largely by the idealized body-forms of art. Within the milieu of a Renaissance neo-Platonic mysticism, driven by a powerful mathematics in which the multiple infinities of the embodied universe were articulated, Cardinal Nicholas da Cusa (d. 1464) and his martyred disciple Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) initiated a fresh, proto-scientific theological discourse, in which God and world fold in and out of each other. The Protestant Reformation, by contrast, reacted against the paganism of these new arts, as well as against the sensuality of the sacramental system. It was, to twist the above paradox further, the extreme form of Platonic dualism of René Descartes (1596–1650), boiled down to "mental substance" and "extended substance," that provided the initial framework for modern science. The mechanistic rather than the mystical approach to the spirit/world, mind/body relation prevailed in science and theology, even as the gap widened between the disciplines. The body as a machine, as a closed system to which spirit, mind, and God, if they exist, were posited as external agents, dominated the western imagination until the twentieth century.
The dynamic unfolding of the organism through chance in evolution, the relativity of the physical universe, and the indeterminacy of the quanta begin to reopen the system. The mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) first conceptualized the philosophical and theological potentialities of this shake-up of the old modern reductionisms. His conversion of something like the Aristotelian passive prime matter into the activity of a primal "Creativity," from which God and world unfurl freely and in immanent relation, has had tremendous influence on the formation of the field of religion and science. Process theology can thus present God as embodied—not as a sum of bodies à la pantheism, but as the spirit of the universe, partly and differently incarnate in all creatures. This panentheism thus redistributes the incarnation throughout reality: All actualization is embodiment, including the divine self-actualization in the world; the unique incarnation of God in the symbolism of the Christ no longer represents an exception that proves the rule of spirit/body dualism. Feminist and ecological theologies have been evolving in close proximity to this sense of inclusive embodiment, emphasizing the implications for social and environmental justice of a new profoundly spiritual attention to interdependent, vulnerable human bodies, within their systemic contexts of socio-material interchange.
New developments in genetics, for example, offer stunning contributions to the human sense of embodiment. The recipe that links heredity to the metabolism of human life is "a code, an abstract message that can be embodied in a chemical, physical or even immaterial form" (Ridley, p. 15). The secret of this code lies in its ability to replicate itself in the form of proteins: and so to produce bodies from an ancient alphabet of infinitesimal filaments. "In the beginning was the word," avers a science writer with no specific interest in religion. "The word proselytized the sea with its message, copying itself unceasingly and forever. The word discovered how to rearrange chemicals so as to capture little eddies in the stream of entropy and make them live. The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise. The word eventually blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain that could discover and be aware of the word itself" (Ridley, p. 11). This gospel of genetics may be put to reductionist or commercial use. But it articulates awe in the face of the alphabetic code of the four bases (A, C, G, and T ) that in its four million year simplicity writes the recipes for the endless complexity emerging with startling order out of the chaotic potential of the world. Nowhere has the interconnectivity and common source of all living creatures been more clearly demonstrated as in this emergent genetics, outside of religious narratives of genesis.
As science begins to outgrow its modern model of bodies as closed systems, as increasingly bodies are inscribed in cosmological and ecological contexts of such irreducible complexity as to solicit awe rather than certainty, religion may find the resources for healing the split between its words of spirit and its bodies of shared flesh.
See also Aristotle; Christology; Descartes, RenÉ; Ecotheology; Feminist Theology; Genetics; God; Human Nature, Physical Aspects; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Incarnation; Islam; Panentheism; Physics, Quantum; Plato; Soul; Thomas Aquinas; Whitehead, Alfred North
ashley, benedict. theologies of the body: humanist and christian. braintree, mass.: national catholic bioethics center, 1985.
mcfague, sallie. the body of god: an ecological theology. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993.
prigogine, ilya, and stengers, isabelle. order out of chaos. new york: bantam, 1984.
ridley, matt. genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. new york: harper collins, 1999.
whitehead, alfred north. science and the modern world. new york: free press, 1967.
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