In medieval philosophy, “realism” is the idea that external realities defy the manipulations of our mind. In light of this limit, the will of the individual is often enjoined to harmonise itself with these external realities. The body is one such reality whose limits ought to be respected by the will, even if at the same time there was an unavoidably social dimension to that body that gave it a profound symbolic meaning.
Something changed in the postmodern period, however, as the French social theorist Herve Juvin noted in his The Coming of the Body. Rapid advances in technology have changed the relationship between the relationship between the will and the body, and actually distanced the will from the body. The limits of the body are now not seen as natural realities to which the will must harmonise itself. Instead, the expanded abilities and increased dominion brought about by rapid technological advances, especially in the medical sciences, have led to the limits of external realities of the body to be treated as a barrier over which the will must exert its supremacy.
No surprise then, that even as medical science has brought about real goods in situations where maladies of the body are repaired, it has also spawned industries that allow the modification of the body in accordance with the will of the consumer, even if no repair to a damaged body is needed. Witness for instance, the minor celebrity and self-professed “professional freak”, Erik “the Lizardman” Sprague, who through surgical modification was able to make his body assume the form of his choosing, namely a lizard.
The body in postmodernity, notes Juvin, is one that can be given any meaning the will imposes. On the other hand, what Juvin seems to miss is that as the body becomes the plaything of the will, it is simultaneously stripped of any inherent symbolic meaning. And as the body becomes more subject to the whims of the individual will, it is also stricken from the communities that give it meaning. Paradoxically, the more we try to make the body’s meaning subject to our individual imaginations, the more meaningless and alone the body becomes.
As was highlighted in a course on Moral and Sexual Integrity at Campion College this week, the fission of the body and will in postmodernity is as much a theological as well as a cultural problem. For, to paraphrase the book of Genesis, it is not good for the body to be alone (Gen 2:18). In addition, the ability of the body to act as an image (Gen 1:28) becomes lost the more the body is treated as a mere lump of clay in the hands of a purely human potter. Redeeming a body that has become essentially a commercialised plaything, as was mentioned in a podcast on the Sydney radio station Cradio, would require a reinsertion of that body back into a communal setting, with its template set by the body’s coabiding in the Body of Christ (John 15:4). As the moral teachings of the Body of Christ (that is the church) make clear, the coabiding with Christ will sets limits on the will. Such limits form the “narrow gate” by which harmony can be restored between the will and the body.