Crucifying the Body

Karl Rahner SJ

We have learnt from Martin Heidegger that human history is marked by forgetting.  Heidegger charged Western Philosophy with the forgetting of the meaning of Being.  Derrida appeared to accuse that Western thinking, both philosophical and theological has forgotten that it operates from the privileged location of presence. Post- Atheist, Jean-Luc Nancy thinks the Western thinking has forgotten the body and appeared to bring to us echoes of Karl Rahner’s charge that Christian theology has forgotten the sacramentality of materiality. Nancy thinks that the West has forgotten the bare body that struggles to survive and occasionally enjoys.   Our reason is thought in disincarnated terms. The logic of forgetting the body according to Nancy is rooted in the doctrine of incarnation which Nancy interprets as the coming of the Spirit to liberate the body. He points out that such a logic forgets to consider bodies irrespective of their signification but only thinks of them being affected by the Spirit.  

Jean-Luc Nancy

He points out that with globalisation that sees everything under the rubric of capitalism, the disincarnated reason is dead and what remains is the sense of an embodied experience.  This means our reliance on meaning/ signification from another world has gone out of the window. We are becoming more and more this-worldly. Therefore, for him old disincarnated thinking self of Descartes is dead. The otherworldly ethos and sense of Christianity exist in a condition of abandonment or suspension.  All this according to him is a result of forgetting the real bodies and substituting them with the spiritual life of a sign.  Thinking and living this way enabled Christianity to be in the world without the being of the world.  This being in the world and without the being of the world is described as angelic logic by Nancy. This twist in the logic of incarnation seems to be proving costly as humans are being animalized by the logic of sense animated by globalisation. 

 This logic interprets that bodies as such do have their own sense/ meaning/ goodness. They get meaning/ sense/goodness from the Spirit. To me this is erroneous. The mystery of incarnations does not cancel or negate the body.  It transfigures the sense/ meaning/goodness of bodies. But there is no doubt theology has emptied the body of signification/meaning/goodness and taught that the mystery of incarnation has inserted all meaning and signification into bodies empty of any meaning. These erroneous semiotics based on the angelic logic that has roots in Platonism and its offshoot Neo-Platonism treats the body as an empty sign that is annulled of any previous meaning or at the most body is treated as sinful and insignificant by itself. Having cancelled the anticipatory meaning of the body, the body then becomes an empty, hollowed-out dis-embodied sign that can acquire new meanings brought from the other world. This conversion of the body into a black slate is a fallacy of theologies that think from the privileged position of the other world.  These theologies of the body, therefore, were also responsible for the excesses of capitalism where the bodies as empty signs acquire another meaning of being bare labour bodies. Bodies, thus become commoditized and their wants become presented as needs and we stepped into the world of consumerism on the horizon of such theologies. This is why emptying the body of the original meaning/ goodness and rendering it into an empty sign that receives signification is at the roots of several problems that we face today. 

 This forgetting of the original signification or rendering of the body into an empty sign/ signifier that then receives signification/ meaning from outside has to be revisited. The mystery of incarnation as well as the resurrection of the body does not de-semiotize/ totally empty the body. It does not render the body into a tabula rasa. We have to restore the theology of the body from the taints of Docetism.  Such docetic theologies can lead us to the temptation of reducing our Eucharist to fulfilment of the tempting desire to live by bread alone. Paradoxically, the costs of disembodying the body are very high. It establishes an ethos of disembodiment and bodies can acquire new significations that may deaden our conscience as we can see human bodies under new meanings as bodies of communities that are criminalized or demonized. Hence we have to get out of this pathological emptying of the body to be filled by the divine, commoditized, communalized and even criminalised meanings. Perhaps, we have the challenge to understand the words of Christ that say, ‘this is my body’( Lk.29:19) in the crucified people in our world. 

We cannot allow the holy words of Jesus: ‘This is my body’  be haunted by his own words to Mary Magdalene, ‘don’t touch my me /body’(Jh.20:17).  The docetic theologies have led to the crucification of the innocent bodies of our people and we need to bring these crucified bodies down from the cross.  To do this we will have to get out of our fixations to the docetic cancellation/ negation of the theology of the body.  But we cannot do a Russeauism of Christian theology.  Rousseau taught that civilization is depravation of humanity and wanted to return to the pre-civilized state of nature. This is why he famously said ‘Man is born free ( state of nature) but is found in chains everywhere ( state of civilization)’. Hence Russeausim of Christianity is not possible. What we can do is transcend the monarchic monologic that empties the body of any original meaning/ goodness and embrace nondual thinking that thinks grace and matter, body and spirit together. The mystery of the incarnation is not a Spirit that arrives to save a sinful body. It is  God in Jesus Christ that acquires flesh because God accepts the goodness and frailty of the human body in order to enhance it through the resurrection so that we can all live his life as his free Children forever. There are several theologians who are already engaged in this noble task of ennobling the embodied nature of humanity. Karl Rahner has been a pioneer in this project. This effort will initiate a Copernican revolution in our theologizing and would recast the world and the body as the sacrament of God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao