Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Body and the Self

The Spirituality of Smell, Part 8

This ongoing series of posts on the spirituality of smell has morphed into a series of broader observations about the body in general. In my earlier article ‘Body Odor and Personal Identity’ I discussed the way modern life can often foster an anti-material impulse in which the realities and processes of the physical body are looked upon in a negative light. This is the topic of a fascinating book I am currently reading Lilian Calles Barger titled Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body. Despite the book’s subtitle, it isn’t just about woman’s issues, but about a theology of the body that men, as well as women, would do well to heed.

In the first chapter, Barger explains why a proper understanding of the physical body is important for how we relate to God, to one another, and to ourselves. Our body continually reminds us of the needs that come with our physical embeddedness.
The body informs not only our communal life, our dialogue with the world, but also our spiritual life, our dialogue with God. In truth, the body and soul are so completely intertwined that it is often impossible to make a distinction between spiritual needs and bodily needs….

To understand the body as a moral space that can inform our lives, we may look at how desire presents itself. The sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing awaken our awareness of need and instigate desire. When need and desire are rightly informed, they will direct us to the things that correspond to human flourishing. We become aware of our needs and desires when we ask ourselves, What will make me happy? What will bring me pleasure? But the idea of neediness awakens visions of dependency, of lost autonomy. Need makes us humble. It can make us grovel—and we hate that. Our culture has defined the highest good as freedom from need. We do not want to need anyone or anything, because that is how we have defined freedom. We just want to be able to walk away from people and do our own thing. Painfully aware of our need for things outside ourselves, we are seeking a radical freedom and a form of gratuitous desire that answers to no one but ourselves, free floating, uninformed by any exterior responsibility. Always answering to the body’s reminders of our need, we can never have this absolute freedom.”
As soon as absolute freedom is our goal, the body becomes our enemy. The body is then seen as a prison standing in the way of complete personal fulfillment. To address this perceived need to escape the limitations of the body, our modern world tells us in hundreds of different ways that we need not be constrained by the fixities of our physical bodies. If our body is tired, there are energy drinks that can fix that; if the body is aging, there are products to fix that; if we do not like the gender that our body happens to be, there are ways to get around that as well.

The underlying idea is that the body must be cast aside in order for the true self to be free. As Susan Bordo stated in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, “What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self…and as undermining the best efforts of the self.”

Further Reading

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