Feminism, Commercialism and the War Against the Female Body

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

A number of writers have recently been alerting evangelicals to ways in which their thinking has become captive to Gnostic-type ideas about the body. Instead of treating the body as something good, which is in the process of being redeemed (Rom 8:23), it is easy for Christians to slip into the trap of talking about the body as if it is a prison from which we must ultimately escape. (See the ongoing series we have been doing on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.)

But it is not only in religious communities that we find these types of pessimistic approaches to embodiment. A theme that keeps reemerging in the wider secular culture of the West is an underlying angst concerning the body. Indeed, if current trends in transhumanism, technohumanism and postgenderism continue, Christians who understand about the goodness of creation may soon represent the last hold-out in affirming the goodness of the body.

Troubled By Embodiment

In her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

Barger illustrated this in a fascinating section of her book where she describes a conversation she had at a Midwest feminist conference, Barger attended some fascinating panel discussions about gender, sexuality and feminine identity. Afterwards, Barger had the opportunity to have coffee with a young lesbian, who had ‘come out’ at fourteen. Barger reflects,

“It was a pretty heavy conversation, I must admit. But the simplest question was the one that seemed to confound us the most. What I asked, and am still asking, was ‘Do our physical actually existing bodies matter in all this?’

…in our search for meaning and a more authentic identity, our bodies have become obstacles to be overcome. But as we seek transcendence, can we radically sever who we are from the body? It appeared that in the panel discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation, sex itself was wholly disembodied. No references to the body were made except as an appendage to the discussion. There was no questioning whether our sexed bodies provide any information regarding the nature of our sexual identity.

I asked the young lesbian whether she had ever considered her body as informing her identity. I wondered whether it said anything about her and how she was to live. She was ready to affirm that her race was important in informing her identity, but she hadn’t thought about her sexed body in quite the same way. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.

Like most people, I have trouble thinking about the body without thinking about the mess of it. It is a complex set of needs, yearnings, and assumptions, overlapping in physical and cultural space, that continually limit our possibilities. In our attempts to transcend our social situation, we do not want our body to define the content of our life whether by race, age, sex, or disability. But to talk about sexual orientation and desire without talking about the bodily field in which they are expressed is to engage in dualistic thinking that will forever keep us from having a coherent understanding of ourselves. As unfashionable as it may be, the reality is the my body informs me every day not only about my place in the world but about what is needful for my life to flourish. How we view the body and our own body ends up directly affecting what type of spirituality we will embrace and how we see our relationship to the Divine. The current formulation of how the body, specifically a woman’s body, is related to spirituality has set us up for disembodied spirituality.

In fairness, the type of feminism described above is only one type, yet it is gaining traction and is a powerful influence on young women. At best, it teaches them that the body is irrelevant to personal identity; at worst, it teaches that the body is an enemy to true fulfilment that must be overcome.

 A Body, a tomb

In hundreds of different ways, women today are pressured to see their bodies as a barrier to the liberation of their true self. Echoing Plato’s statement from the Gorgias (“soma sema” – “a body, a tomb”), they have come to look upon the material body as a prison house from which we must escape. This finds expression in feminists who see biological realities like pregnancy as the last frontier for feminism to conquer.

Even in more subtle forms, however, feminism has left women feeling like strangers to themselves. This state of affairs was articulated by Susan Bordo in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo writes that “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.”

Commercialism and the War against Women

Feminism isn’t the only culprit to blame. Commercialism has also played an enormous role. Commercialism dehumanizes us through industries and technologies that democratize our concept of beauty. In the process, beauty becomes unattainable to the vast majority of women; if it were attainable, all women would be squeezed into a homogeneous mold since there is an increasingly limited range of options we are told can count as true beauty. In this way, the idolatrous claims of commercialism turn out to be a cheat: while promising to release our individuality and fulfil our self, these idolatries actually do just the opposite, removing our individuality and homogenizing us.

In Geoffrey Jones’ book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones shows that the emergence of the beauty industry led to unprecedented homogenization of beauty ideals throughout the world. The industry thrives on sudden shifts in fashion and fads, which create new markets by disrupting incumbent positions on what is and is not beautiful. Entrepreneurs build brands and markets which define the aesthetic and ethnic boundaries of human beauty. These boundaries are reinforced by Hollywood.

The type of commercialist ethic that Jones describes in his book has led to the commoditization of the body. This commoditization implicates a subtle dualism in which the body is separated from the self. This Gnostic-type dualism turns my body into my natural enemy.

The crypto-Gnosticism of our age has done enormous harm to women, for it comes with a false, yet appealing, narrative of fall and redemption. If our ‘fall’ is represented by those aspects of our body with which we would rather change, then redemption is found in our release from the body’s limitations through products and services that promise to transcend our limitations.

Powerful commercial forces have an economic incentive to continue and perpetuate these false redemption motifs and the ongoing ‘cold war’ against the body that naturally results. The assumption behind these products is that if the body can be released from the constraints of creaturely embodiment, then the true self within can be saved. True individuality is thus seen as the ability to construct our identity for ourselves, to be completely autonomous, unconstrained by the fixities of outside reality, including the reality of the body.

Just think about it: if a girl doesn’t like the color of her hair, there are products that can fix that; if a girl doesn’t like the size of her breasts, there are processes that can change that; if a girl doesn’t like the size that she naturally is with a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are products that promise to fix that and make her unnaturally thin; if a girl doesn’t like her face, there are products and processes that can change that; if an elderly woman doesn’t like her age, there are products that promise to make her look young again. In short, the body becomes infinitely malleable under the dominion of raw will. The net result is that women are predispose to find their embodiment in time, space and flesh a hindrance rather than a gift.

Mass Produced Beauty

The problem with the commercialist ethic is not simply that it holds out unattainable goal posts regarding the quantity of beauty it is possible for real people to exhibit; it also offers a wrong qualitative understanding of beauty. Much of what falls under the stereotype of ‘the beautiful woman’ is a decontextualized, mass-produced idea of beauty that is disengaged from other aspects of personhood that have historically always been understood to play a part in contributing to a woman’s beauty.

Feminism and commercialism are not the only factors at blame in encouraging women to see their body as the enemy. All too often men have behaved in ways that implicitly linked physical appearance to moral worth. When this is combined with unrealistic ideals of female beauty, women are left deeply troubled about accepting the goodness of their own bodies. In the modern world this is finding expression in a growing number of women who do not even want their husbands to see them without any clothes on.

The Goodness of Creation

This state of affairs is lamentable, but it provides an exciting opportunity for the church. Building on passages such as Genesis 1:31 and Romans 8:23, Christians are able to whole-heartedly affirm the goodness of creation. And that includes our bodies. Indeed, the body and all that it involves—hands, eyes, legs, brains, bottoms and breasts—is genuinely good.

Christ could have been resurrected as a ghost, but he wasn’t (Luke 24:37-39). Christ’s physical body was renewed and transformed. Those of us who are united to Christ can expect that our physical body will also be renewed and transformed, not something to be cast off as a hindrance to true liberation.

 

Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”


Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

A Very Big View of Redemption

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

When we talk about redemption, a lot of the time we focus entirely on what we are redeemed from, which is sin and death. If this is our main emphasis, then our focus is often on not sinning and we may even tend to think that anything that isn’t a sin is an open playing field.

However, we should also give attention to what we have been redeemed for.  But that involves taking an expansive view of redemption. Our view of redemption should stretch as far as the curse is found, which is to all of creation. That means that redemption and New Creation do not just cover our moral lives, as if the goal of Christianity were simply not sinning; rather, New Creation needs to be allowed to stretch into all the little nooks and crannies of existence, to change literally everything.

Abraham Kuyper appreciated this. In his Stone Lectures, Kuyper pointed to the example of John Calvin whose expansive view of redemption led him to introduce hygienic measures in Geneva during the plague.

During the plague, which in the 16th century tormented Geneva, Calvin acted better and more wisely [than Cardinal Borromeo], for he not only cared incessantly for the spiritual needs of the sick, but at the same time introduced hitherto unsurpassed hygienic measures whereby the ravages of the plague were arrested.

Calvin knew nothing of the spurious distinction between the sacred and the secular, nor did he erroneously imagine that any area that isn’t a sin is automatically an open playing field. Commenting on this in his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga wrote as follows:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too. If the management/labor structure contains built-in antagonism, then it needs to be redeemed. If the health care delivery system reaches only the well-to-do-, then it needs to be reformed. The same goes for hostile relationships of race, gender, or class. The same goes for proud and scornful attitudes among heterosexuals towards homosexuals. Landlord and tenant, student and teacher, husband and wife—these and countless other roles and relationships may develop warped expectations and unfair practices. The same goes for certain forms of popular entertainment, with their tendency to violate taboos in order to gain an edge, draw a crowd, and make a buck.

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans. The whole natural world, in all its glory and pain, needs the redemption that will bring shalom. The world isn’t divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed—every last person, place organization, and program; all “rocks and trees and skies and seas”; in fact, “every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper said.

If redemption is really this big, then we should seek to find ways to bring redemption to bear on every area of life: art, economics, education, architecture, music, and even food. Thus, Plantinga continues:

“But God’s creation extends beyond the biophysical sphere to include a vast array of cultural possibilities that God folded into human nature. Thus, in the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1:28, God charges humankind to be ‘fruitful and multiply,’ to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ According to a widespread interpretation of this mandate (or is it a blessing?), God’s good creation includes not only earth and its creatures, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government. The fall into sin has corrupted these gifts but hasn’t unlicensed them. The same goes for the cultural initiatives we discover in Genesis 4, that is, urban development, ten-making, musicianship, and metal-working. All of these unfold the built-in potential of God’s creation. All reflect the ingenuity of God’s human creatures – itself a superb example of likeness to God.”