Thursday, July 25, 2013

Religion and the Body: The Contrast between Sin and Heavenly Flesh

A drawing of a maiden by Martin Schongauer
"The Fourth Wise Virgin" by Martin Schongauer

When we look at how much attention we give and spend on our body, it becomes evident that we are obsessed with it, both ours and that of others. Whether we are worried about weight or muscles, about looks or appearance, we generally see the body as our possession; we distance ourselves from it by saying that we are not our body, but that we simply have and own a body.

Yet in most people's view, the type of body you have reflects upon your personality. If someone does not take good care of their body, we assume the person to be careless overall, that is in all areas of life. All this time, we are being bombarded by all those images of supermodels and muscular bodies that are exposed and superimposed on magazines and screens, and we feel powerless, guilty and even ashamed of what our own body looks like and how it pales in comparison.

So why such a focus and obsession on the body? In fact, our body is what others see, the contact surface with the outside world, the skin that touches the air and others. A lot of nonverbal messages are transmitted with our physical appearance. In our mind, a well-dressed person symbolizes success; a person in rags and tatters the lack of such.

In fact, our main idea of attractiveness is based, focused and rooted on the body. We have in our mind's eye an impression of attractiveness, and when we mentally scan the person in front of us, we compare the two, the ideal with the actual, and we see how much they overlap, hence labeling a person as more or less good-looking. At this time, the personality factor remains hidden and hardly affects our judgement.

Yet the body is not only about judgements on attractiveness or success; our obsession and fascination with it goes much deeper. These views on the body have been shaped by various centuries of focus and emphasis on it via religion. The Judeo-Christian legacy on the body is actually two-fold ranging from predominantly seeing and defining the body as a vessel and instrument of sin versus the immaculate bodies of the Virgin and of Jesus Christ himself.

In the first part, which is heavily influenced by Platonic ideas, the body is seen as an entrapment of the soul. The soul, the pure and lasting part of the human is imprisoned by its shell, the body. At the same time, the body is considered the place where all sins are brooding and expanding. The sins of the flesh, i.e. sex and sexual feelings are dirtying or smudging the purity of the soul. These beliefs have been proposed and expounded by religious authorities, such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, and somewhat more radically by St. Jerome.

This mistrust of the body or the weakness of the flesh has led to various ways of “rectifying” this problem. One can hide the body, especially prevalent with the female form in the Islamic tradition, or one can purify and free oneself from the burden of the flesh through a number of punitive measures, for instance, asceticism and self-flagellation or flogging, practices that reached their peak during the Middle Ages.

In other words, the body is not only considered the possession of the soul but it is also seen as ballast, as a burden that may impeach our way to spiritual heaven. As a result, monks and priests have decided to turn away from the physical world to practice meditation and to develop an inner focus of one's spiritual qualities. More importantly, they embraced, and in many cases still do, a celibate life.

There is also the second contrasting belief about the body as God-made flesh. In Christian tradition the physical existence of Jesus has sanctified the body, its symbolic representation being the host, the sacred and sacramental bread. All of this has given the human body a significance that it never had before. Some of these implications I have discussed earlier regarding Hegel's concept of God becoming flesh. These ideas are also evident in analogies of the body as a temple, a thing that is sanctified and deserving of worship due to divine contact.

Furthermore, religion has underscored the importance of sanctifying the body by keeping it pure from any harmful substances. This is why most religions do not condone the use of (street) drugs as well as the indulgent use of alcohol. Both of them are all seen as culprits that make the body impure and create a loss of control over bodily impulses. It would seem that we are not only disrespecting the body but also feeding its darker impulses, all of which comes at the expense of our soul, according to religious tradition.

Such ideas have reached their extreme with some religious groups denying any use of medication or surgery, but those are thankfully rare. Yet it has also had influences with how we treat our body. Since originally we are created in the image of God according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it means that the body must be kept in its original form. This may include many people's aversion to tattoos or a somewhat general reluctance toward dyed hair or wigs since all of these represent an alteration of the body.

This is apart from any other cultural or social connotations. But it is deplorable and unfortunate in some cases, especially when it comes to how we treat the disabled. Since they may be seen as “imperfect” representations of the body, we may have mixed feelings about them, consciously or subconsciously. In part, they mirror our own fear of an imperfect body, but more shockingly, we may blame them for their shortcoming as a form of divine punishment, often expressed through a misunderstood and misrepresented definition of karma.

All in all, we have an ambivalent relationship with our body due to some extent to our religious understanding and immersion. Regardless of whether a person is a believer or not, religion has left us a historical and cultural legacy that we are facing in daily life. By better understanding the underlying implications, we may change our perception of ourselves, our body and our existence as a whole within the social fabric. And hopefully, we may accept our body and ourselves the way we are instead of falling for what and how others believe we (and our body) should be like.