After the Body

Today’s battles over sex present, Douglas Farrow observes, “a curious sight.” Since Descartes and Rousseau, moderns have split body and soul, but that dualism has often underwritten a politics of mechanistic materialism. Now, though, the body has lost public relevance. Instead, “the body is private and the soul, or what the soul asserts about the body, is public.”

The body has been “aborted,” and the logic drives toward an erasure of distinctions between “the given and the desires, between the objective and the subjective, between facts and falsehoods, between truth and error.” In the end, if the logic is permitted, “the public sphere itself will disappear, or at all events become defenseless against manipulation through blatant fictions and enforced lies.”

An earlier generation assaulted sexual restraint and modesty, but what “began with a defense of ‘free’ love and rapidly progressed to a celebration of homosexuality, has come round to a denial of the goodness and even importance of the body.” After initially licensing all sexual desires, the sexual revolution has begun to eliminate “the very idea of sex,” and, since human beings are “sexually dimorphic,” the sexual revolution has begun to eliminate human beings as such.

Biblically, today’s gender orthodoxy “is a repudiation of the narrative of creation,” which teaches that God created man male and female. “No, he did not!” We’re told. “There is no such God and there is no such creature.”

Yet, we cannot do without distinctions, and so the created binary of male and female has given way to the behavioral binary of heterosexual and homosexual, which in turn generates “another binary that does not bother itself with biology or even behavior, namely, cisgender and transgender,” defined solely by feeling: The former is “comfortable” with zir body, the latter is characterized by discomfort.

By today’s standards, the first member of each binary is defective. The binaries must be inverted, destabilized, and deconstructed, so that we may be free from the domination of males, heteros, and cisgenders.

As Christopher Dawson discerned in the USSR of the 1930s, the attempt to reconstruct sex is an attempt to reconstruct social norms in general. In this dissolution, rationalism collaborates with romanticism: “The former strips sex of its spiritual dimension; the latter tries to restore it as pure emotivism.” This undoes marriage and family as traditionally understood, and, as marriage and family are near the heart of civilization, it undoes civilization itself.

The sundering of body and soul, and the triumph of unfettered will and desire, ultimately renders public life impossible. Instead of believing, as Augustine taught, that the will of God is the inner essence of all things, we have concluded that “one’s own will is the essence of the self and of all that concerns the self.”

That cannot sustain public institutions, or public space. Public institutions bind us because we’re bodily beings, because bodies carry meaning. Lose the body, leave every individual will lord of itself, and we lose social interaction as such. If the body has no purchase, I cannot know how to classify or address the bearded or breasted human in front of me. I cannot know if today’s classification or address will hold good tomorrow.

Farrow argues that the deletion of the body has massive import for law and justice. We’re already seeing cases where “physical evidence, public evidence - the evidence of bodies and times and places - was rejected in favor of mere assertion, uncorroborated assertion, which was said subjectively to have ‘the ring of truth.’” The burden of proof has shifted from the accuser to the accused, and no material evidence can stand up to the authenticity of one’s “lived truth.”

There are deep intellectual and cultural roots to all this, but Farrow places considerable blame on Christians. By accepting non-procreative sex as normative, Christians agreed to separate the “unitive and procreative potential of the sexual act,” and thus cooperated in the “great divorce of soul and body.”

I don't agree with Catholic strictures against artificial birth control. But Farrow is right that Christians have adopted the cultural bias against procreation.

Once sex is detached from procreation, strictures against homosexuality seem arbitrary. Once we adopt a contraceptive mentality, what’s the difference between the state sanctioning opposite-sex romances and same-sex romances? We joined the sexual revolution in reducing sex to pleasure and private passion, giving up on the social goods of sex – marriage and family.

Christians must dissent. Much is at stake in that dissent: “The salvation of public reason – already so badly corrupted that debate is conducted almost exclusively in emotive rather than rational terms – rests on dissent. The freedoms we have hitherto enjoyed rest now on dissent. A new and viable social contract rests on dissent.” The very possibility of politics, of law, of social order depends on dissent.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.